brief answers, Christmas, Clergy Titles, dance in church, Ecumenism, Lutheran identity

Frank Answers Briefly

This blog  is primarily about answering questions sent to me—if I am able and willing to do so. I receive questions anonymously via the blog platform or by email from people I know. Not all questions need an essay-type answer. So I decided to have a post here in which I respond to questions with just a brief answer. The most recent one is on top.  I have also set up a post exclusively dedicated to answering briefly questions about communion practices, some of which previously appeared here.


Dec. 15, 2017

Christmas Lectionary Readings

Why are there three readings for Christmas Day in the lectionary? Are these different readings for Years A, B. and C?

People (= pastors) have been confused about this ever since Lutheran Book of Worship gave three readings marked A, B. C for Christmas Day. Evangelical Lutheran Worship tried to fix this confusion by marking each set A, B, C, indicating that they may all be read every year, and then further specifying (in red!) “I. Particularly appropriate for Christmas Eve, II. Particularly Appropriate for Christmas Day, III. Particularly Appropriate for Christmas Day.” Even this doesn’t give all the information. Set II (Gospel: Luke 2:8-20) should be for an early service on Christmas Day. Set III (Gospel: John 1:1-14) should be for a later service on Christmas Day.

Usually there is only one set of readings per liturgical day. But it was customary for pilgrims to the Holy Land to have a Eucharist at the pilgrimage site with a Gospel and other readings related to the event commemorated at that site, and then return to Jerusalem where there would be another Eucharist (probably the Eucharist for the day). On the Feast of the Epiphany (on which the Nativity of Christ was celebrated) pilgrims walked to Bethlehem and celebrated the Nativity there with a midnight Eucharist, then walked back to Jerusalem for the eucharistic celebration at dawn on the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6).  This was replicated in Rome in the fifth century, but on December 25. A cave-like grotto in the subterranean chapel of the basilica of St. Mary replicated the cave at Bethlehem. The midnight mass was celebrated here followed by a morning mass at the usual hour at St. Peter’s. In the sixth century a third mass was celebrated by the pope on December 25 at the church dedicated to St. Anastasia of Sirmium, a martyr highly venerated in the East, probably out of respect for the Byzantine governor since this was the imperial church. So three sets of readings entered the papal Gregorian Sacramentary, which was exported on requests from Frankish kings and implemented throughout Western Europe and they have been in the Western liturgical books ever since.

We could accommodate all three sets of readings because many of our churches  have an early and later service on Christmas Eve, for which sets I and II would be used. Set III would be used on Christmas Day and observed as the feast of the Incarnation.


Nov. 17, 2017

Advent Hymns and Christmas Carols

Frank, I have been approached by a pack of grandmothers who are disturbed by the fact that their grandchildren do not know standard Christmas hymns. We sing them during the season, of course, but they are not taught in schools these days or apparently in the children’s homes. So, of course, their solution is to get rid of Advent, which most of them dislike despite consistent and loving teaching. I do agree that there is a problem, but disagree on the solution. First, if the kids went caroling with us they would sing those songs 4 or 5 times each. Second, the solution is not to destroy Advent but to help parents teach the culture of the Church at home. I am going to institute some home helps, but I also would not mind extending Christmas into Epiphany a bit. But, what would you do?

Answer: I think you’re on the right course. Advent is an important season at the beginning of the church year and Lutherans have a rich tradition of Advent hymns. We can’t get them all in on four Sundays. Of course, the more eschatological Advent hymns, like “Wake, Awake for Night is Flying” and “The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns” and “Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending”) are also appropriate for the last several Sundays in the church year, which were once a part of the Western European (i.e. Gallican) six-or-seven-week Advent. Christmas carols should be delayed liturgically until Christmas Eve.

To say that Christmas carols and hymns should be used in Christmas liturgies does not mean that they should be banned from parish use altogether. Certainly the choir is practicing Christmas music as they prepare to sing at Christmas services. Many parishes have children’s Christmas pageants which also employ Christmas carols. As you point out, there are caroling opportunities which could/should include children and youth. By the way, some of these opportunities could be planned for during the Twelve Days of Christmas, not only during Advent.  There are the Sundays within those Twelve Days on which to sing Christmas carols.

Extending Christmas Carols into Epiphany is quite appropriate, especially those which have Epiphany-related themes of three kings or wise men or the star (such as “The First Noel,” “We Three Kings,” “He Whom Shepherds Once Came Praising,” and “Bright and Glorious is the Sky”).  But I could see “cradle songs” like “What Child Is This”, “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly,” “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come,” and “Away in a Manger” being sung during Communion.  “Angels We Have Heard on High” could be sung as the Song of Praise (“Gloria in excelsis Deo”). “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” “Oh, Come, All Yet Faithful,” “Angels, from the Realms of Glory,” “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice,” “Let Our Gladness Have no End,” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” could be entrance songs on the Sundays after the Epiphany. And what better sending hymn is there than “Go Tell It on the Mountain”—anytime. Maybe the Festival of the Presentation of our Lord and Purification of Mary on February 2 (forty days after the Nativity) could be one final time for a Christmas carol sing.  By that point maybe even your grandmothers are ready to put away the carols for another year.



Praying to the Saints

Question: Did the Lutheran Reformation throw the baby out with the bathwater when we rejected the cult of saints? The biggest critique I hear from Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox is that asking the saints to pray for you is just like asking one of your living friends to pray for you. Which got me thinking, with our doctrine of the communion of saints that we confess in the creeds, I wonder if we could make an argument of asking the saints to pray for us.

Answer: I refer you to my article, “Frank Answers About Saints in the Lutheran Church.”  Lutherans do not pray to the saints, claiming the sole mediatorship of Christ as the main reason. But the Lutheran Confessions (Apology, Article 21) grant that “the saints pray for us.” So I suppose there isn’t a need to ask them to do so.  However, I wonder: how do we address the dead?  What consciousness (mind) do the dead have?  What is the substance of the soul apart from the body? What is the relationship between the body, the mind, and the soul?  I refer you to my articles, “Frank Answers About What Happens After Death” and “Frank Answers About the Soul.” In what sense can “saints in heaven” hear earthly prayers? Wouldn’t they need to be like God?  I think we need to hear Catholic and Orthodox theologians deal with these kinds of questions.


Why are Lutherans Identified as Evangelical Catholics?

Question:  Aren’t Lutherans Protestant? Why would some theologians like Martin Marty suggest we call ourselves evangelical catholic and reject the terms Protestant or even Lutheran?

Answer: The issue is one of historical and theological identity. The name “Protestant” was first used of those who “protested” the Edict of Speyer (1529), which revoked the Recess of Speyer (1526) that left the determination of religion in each territory and city of the Holy Roman Empire up to the governing authorities until a general council could settle the religious differences in the Empire. So, yes, Lutherans are among the first Protestants.  The problem is that now every denominational group that is not Catholic or Orthodox is regarded as Protestant, not just the Lutheran and Reformed protesters. What do Lutherans have in common, say, with Pentecostals, who might also be identified as Protestants? As for the name “Lutheran,” it was originally a name of derision used by Catholic critics and Luther himself did not approve of it. He said his followers should simply call themselves “Christians.” The term “Evangelical” (gospel-centered) was also applied to Lutherans in Europe, often to distinguish them from the Reformed. But “Die evangelische Kirche in Deutschland” is quite different in character from American Evangelicalism, as are American Lutheran denominations and congregations that have “Evangelical” in their name. Many Lutheran theologians since the 19th century have embraced the term “evangelical catholic” to indicate that Luther’s intention and actual Lutheran practice was to reform the Catholic Church, not to create something new. The Catholic creeds, the canon of Scripture, dogmas of the ancient church (Trinity, Christology, original sin, etc.), historic liturgical forms, and many church practices were retained by Lutherans. Theologians such as Archbishop Nathan Soderbloom, Gustav Aulen, Paul Tillich, Jaroslav Pelikan, Carl Braaten and many others have used moniker “evangelical catholic” as a description of Lutheranism as well as Martin Marty (and yours truly).


Lutherans and Catholics “On the Way”

Question: What do you think of the new Lutheran-Catholic document “Declaration on the Way?” Have Lutherans given away the store?

Answer: This document was adopted by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. It is a summary of the very substantive theological dialogues in the U.S. over the last fifty years. At its heart are 32 “Statements of Agreement” about where Lutherans and Catholics do not have church-dividing differences on topics about church, ministry and the Eucharist based on previous dialogues. More tentatively, the document also explores differences that remain. As to whether it “gives away the store” as far as Lutheran confessional commitments are concerned, I don’t think so. But in a blog article I can’t analyze all 32 individual points of agreement. So I decline to give a full Frank Answer.


Calling pastors “Father”

Question: When and why did Lutherans stop referring to pastors as “father”? I’m particularly confused by this since Luther seems to defend the practice in his explanation of the Fourth Commandment in the Large Catechism and was addressed by many of his colleagues as “reverend father”.

Answer: You are correct that in the explanation to the fourth commandment, “Honor you father and your mother,” Luther commends “spiritual fathers” along with, and even more than, biological fathers, heads of households, and rulers who are “fathers of their nations” (The Large Catechism I, 158). Contrary to “those in the papacy who have had themselves called ‘father,’…the name of spiritual father belongs only to those who govern and guide us by the Word of God. St. Paul boasts that he is such a father in 1 Corinthians 4[:15}, where he says ‘In Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel.'”

Luther and many Lutheran clergy were addressed as “reverend father.”  I do not know when Lutherans generally stopped using this title of address. As to why, my suspicion is that it sounded “too Catholic,” which is the Lutheran default response to anything they don’t like. However, the title “Father” is still used  by some Lutherans today, especially those who regard themselves as evangelical catholics.

The Reverend Father, Doctor Martin Luther, teaching the Catechism

While I’m at it, Lutherans never call their ministers “Reverend.” “Reverend” is a written form of address preceded by “The.” Most Lutherans call their ministers “Pastor,” although properly speaking “Pastor” is the spiritual leader of a congregation or parish: e.g. The Reverend Doctor Johannes Bugenhagen, Pastor of the Wittenberg Stadtkirche. In the English tradition it is quite appropriate to address ministers as “Mister,” “Master,” or “Doctor,” according to their academic degree. I would add that if our ordained male ministers can be called “Father,” ordained female ministers can be called “Mother,” since the fourth commandment refers to honoring fathers and mothers, and “Reverend Mother” has also been a title of honor given to women heads of religious communities.

German Lutheran Pfarrer confirming youth


January 23, 2017

Dance music in church

Sir. Nowadays, in Korea, EDM (Electronic Dance Music) worship has become a hot issue. Many young people like EDM  and some Christian worship leaders want to introduce this music in the worship. I think I should study about this for my denomination.  What do you think about that?

Answer: I think it’s always good for worship scholars to get ahead of a trend and be able to give guidance to pastors. I would have several questions. 1. What kind of dancing is it?  2. Does it engage the whole congregation? 3. What would be the purpose of the dancing? 4. Where in the order of service would dancing be done? At the entrance? In response to the word?  During the offertory? The place of dancing would relate to its purpose. 5. Is the dancing wordless or does it accompany a text?  I think dancing added to Christian worship should be modest, within the capability of most worshipers to participate, serve to glorify God, have a liturgical function, and be related somehow to a text, even one chanted over and over.

19th century Shakers dancing in worship


1 Comment

  1. Eugene A. Koene

    Wonderfully frank answers, Fr. Frank, as always.

    On the question of asking the saints for their prayers, the old Roman Catholic Baltimore Catechism answered, in response to the question of whether or how the saints are able to hear our prayers, that God reveals our needs to the saints. So in a real sense, any invocation addressed to a saint is really addressed to God, as an expression of our belief in the oneness of all God’s faithful in the communion of saints. I’m not sure whether the current Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses this issue. Suffice it to say that divine omniscience is not being attributed to the saints in heaven. On the other hand, since we advance “from glory to glory” and become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), I think it could be left as an open question. I personally do think we have thrown out the baby with the bathwater, and as heirs of the Reformation should reconsider this issue. A devotional practice that includes the saints in the fellowship of prayer is not unique to Rome, but is practiced in some form by all of the ancient Catholic churches (Orthodox & Oriental).

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