“What Do We Do and Why Do We Do It?”
Part 6: Preface through Agnus Dei
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We are on our way to the high point of the Divine Service, for which the rest of the service has been preparing us. Nowhere else in all of creation does our Lord come to us as intimately, as physically, as personally, as when He gives into our mouths His own Body and His own Blood. If the Holy Spirit calls us by the Gospel, if we are baptized into the one Body of Christ for salvation, then it is here, at His altar, that we are renewed and strengthened in the unity of that one Body. Here He gives us forgiveness yet again and in yet another way. As we eat and drink the holy Body and cleansing Blood of Jesus, He makes us one with Him, and so we are one with His Father in the communion of the Holy Spirit. Here, as always, the action of salvation is Trinitarian, the work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together. As we are brought into this close fellowship with our Savior, we are, necessarily, brought into close fellowship with all others whom Christ gathers and feeds. St. Paul sums up our communion in both directions, with Christ and with other people, when He says, “This cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:16-17, ESV). As this Body of Christ, this single and unified Church, we pray the Preface, which is probably the oldest and least-changed part of the liturgy.
We begin, as at the Collect, with the Salutation, in which we ask the Lord’s blessing upon each other. Indeed, in the Sacrament, Jesus has promised to be with us. In joyful thanksgiving we respond to the call to lift up our hearts with the words, “We lift them up unto the Lord.” He has answered the prayer of the Offertory and given us clean hearts. For this we give Him thanks, as it is “meet [good] and right so to do.” The Proper Preface, in some form, is very ancient as well, probably 17- or 1800 years old. In our hymnal, we have Proper Prefaces (proper to the day or season, remember) for the major church seasons like Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost as well as three general ones for the season after Trinity Sunday. All of these end with the words, “therefore, with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify your glorious name, evermore praising you and saying…” At the altar of God, gathered by the Holy Spirit as Jesus serves and feeds us, we are not only joined with those on earth who are baptized and believe, but also with those in heaven who rest with Jesus. Heaven meets earth, God meets man, in the Person of Jesus Christ. If you are joined to Jesus, then you are also joined to all others who are joined to Him, on earth and in heaven. All those who have died in the Faith are not really dead, but living souls waiting, as we are, for the resurrection of our bodies. Your friends, your parents, your grandparents, your children; all who have died in Christ are as close with you at the altar as they were when they physically kneeled next to you. In the one Body of Christ, then, we join with angels, archangels and all the company of heaven in the everlasting Sanctus of the servants of God: “Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Sabaoth; heav’n and earth are full of Thy glory” (Isaiah 6:3; LSB 195; cf. Revelation 4:8).
You may see me bow during this song, recognizing, as Isaiah did, that we are in the presence of a thrice-holy God whose glory shakes temples and makes mere men fear for their lives. Sabaoth is a Hebrew word meaning “hosts” or “armies.” If the God who commands the armies of heaven were to come to us, unhidden and uncovered with the flesh of Jesus, we would rightly say with Isaiah, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, [Yahweh of armies]!” (Isaiah 6:5, ESV). When we come into this House of God, God is no more distant from us than He was from Isaiah. He is really here, and as we come into His presence, our words and actions should be reverent with holy fear as we recognize that. But we do not fear God in the sense that we do not know what He will do. We have His promise that, in Jesus Christ, He will save us. So we sing both the song of the angels and the song of the crowds at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem: “Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He, blessed is He, blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord. Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna in the highest” (Matthew 21:9; Mark 11:9-10; Luke 19:38; John 12:13; Psalm 118:25-26; LSB 195; cf. Zechariah 9:9). Hosha nah, hosanna, means save us, or deliver us, and our Lord promises that He comes to save and not to condemn (John 3:17). Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord! And He does come, as surely as He rode through those gates of Jerusalem. He came in the Name of Yahweh two thousand years ago and now He comes to us, both God and Man, as our Deliverer each time the Sacrament is celebrated. The Sanctus (which means simply “holy”) is our song of praise to the One who has come, who will come again in all His glory, and who comes to us now with His Body and His Blood for our salvation. “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for” (Isaiah 6:7, ESV).
Following the Lord’s Prayer, which we talked about last week, we come to the heart of the Service of the Sacrament, the words of Jesus Himself. They are sometimes called the Verba, which is Latin for “words.” In the Roman church of their time, Luther and the other reformers found these words obscured by the prayers of people. The words of Jesus seemed hidden behind human words. This is perhaps the one point in the liturgy where Luther took a sharp knife to a tradition in which he had grown up. In most other ways, Luther was a very conservative reformer when it came to the liturgy, but here, at the most important part, he could not allow Jesus to be buried under human words. Jesus alone should speak, lest the pure Gospel of the forgiveness of sins be unclearly heard or not heard at all. These words are not my words, they are not the Church’s words; they are Jesus’ words of promise to you. So I bow while I chant these words, because it is really Jesus speaking. It should also be said that the words are not magic, as if by saying them I could control whether Jesus is present or not. No, Jesus uses my mouth to speak His words, and He chooses to be present in mercy and grace, giving to you what He won on the cross. These words, which we sometimes call “The Words of Institution,” are as pure a summary of the Christian Gospel as any in the Scriptures. Jesus says, “This is for you. My Body, crucified on the cross, is for you. My Blood, shed on the cross, is for you.” Eat and drink, and live forever. Pure Gospel. Pure forgiveness. Eternal food. And we simply take Jesus at His word, which is what faith does. He says that the bread is His Body and the wine is His Blood, without making the bread and wine disappear. How He does it, we leave to Him.
For most of the Church’s history, there was very little debate about whether Christ’s Body and Blood were eaten and drunk. But in the past 500 years or so, a teaching has sprung up in the Church that denies that Jesus meant what He said. Sadly, this new teaching divided those other Christians from Lutherans, as much as the teaching on justification divided Rome from us; indeed, the Lord’s Supper is also about our justification. We should always pray for the day when such divisions will cease, on both sides; but we are bound to hold the words of Jesus as they stand. This is His Body; this is His Blood. And His Body and Blood, eaten and drunk, mean forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation, as He says. Because He makes Himself present by His promising word, I speak the words of Thomas who encountered the same crucified, risen Jesus: “My Lord and my God!” Then I bow before Him as He comes in the bread and the wine. If Jesus were not there, it would be the worst kind of idolatry to bow and speak those words. But Jesus’ Word stands fast, and we trust that He is able to come to us in bread and wine because He is God and bread and wine are part of His good creation.
Jesus is here to forgive your sins, and because of that, there is no greater peace that can be given; thus, I chant the words, “The peace of the Lord be with you always,” and you respond, “Amen,” that is: it is so, I believe it. And we sing together the words of John the Baptist, which we call the Agnus Dei, Latin for “Lamb of God: “O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us. O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us. O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, grant us Thy peace. Amen.” Indeed, the Lamb of God has been sacrificed, and He, as both priest and sacrifice, has taken away the sin of the world on the cross. Now He comes to you, risen and alive, to take away your sin. Here He has mercy upon you, poor sinner! Here He grants you His peace! Come, beloved, here are the holy things for the holy people. Come, for the feast has been prepared, a foretaste of the great wedding supper of the Lamb (Matthew 22:4). “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb!” (Revelation 19:9, ESV)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 4:7, ESV).
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 4/22/08