Note: Thank you very much to Rev. Mike Grieve of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Golden, IL for this excellent review of a true classic. Anyone wanting to know more about our worship service in the Lutheran Church truly ought to pick this book up. It can be purchased from Emmanuel Press. It was originally compiled and published by the General Council to teach people about the beauty and truth of the Common Service. What a blessing that it is still in print!
“An Explanation of the Common Service”: Fifth Edition Revised and Enlarged; United Lutheran Publication House, Philadelphia, 1908; Reprinted in 2006 by Emmanuel Press, 1916 Ridgewood Ave., SE, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49506
The answer, “that’s the way we’ve always done it,” to the question of, “why do we do what we do in worship?” is not only unhelpful, but it’s also false. We do know “why we do what we do in worship.” Sometimes we just don’t know where to find the answer to the question. An Explanation of the Common Service helps give concrete answers to questions that would otherwise be left in abstract thought and speculation. What would seem to be a daunting number of questions and answers (250) is eased by the reality that the book is just 120 pages in length, which includes a history of Christian hymnody; liturgical colors and their significance; and index and glossary.
The back cover of the book gives an apt description of itself: An Explanation of the Common Service explains the liturgy in such simple terms that it is perfect for teaching new members, catechumens, and youth…First printed a century ago, this Lutheran liturgical handbook uses questions and answers to explain the meaning of three services: the Communion service, Matins, and Vespers…In addition, hymnody, liturgical theology, and history are addressed succinctly. The glossary of liturgical terms is helpful, extensive, and reliable. To say that there is something for new members, catechumens, youth, and pastors, is not an overstatement.
As part of its introduction, the book answers the question of distinguishing between the true and the false worship of God, in this way: True worship of God is only such as conforms in spirit and expression with God’s revelation of Himself. Read John 4:24. All worship is false which seeks communion with God in ways other than those which He has appointed. False worship is either a) The paying of divine honors to false gods, such as idolatry (Hindus), nature-worship (the Greeks), ancestor-worship (the Chinese), or b) The false worship of the true God. Such is the worship of the hypocrite. Read Matt. 15:7-9; Matt. 7:21-23. Such has become all Jewish worship which was abrogated by the Advent of our Lord.[i]
So, what is Christian worship? The book answers: It is the outward expression, by the power of the Holy Ghost, of the communion of man with God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.[ii] It then explains the two elements of Christian worship…1) the sacramental…in which God speaks to us, exhibiting, offering, and conveying His grace…2) the sacrificial…in which we speak to God, offering to God the service which is due Him. The chief sacramental acts are then listed as: The Declaration of Grace; Lessons; Sermon; Distribution of the Holy Supper; Benedictions. The sacrificial acts are: The Confession; Prayers; Hymns and Canticles; Creed; Offerings.[iii]
In using this book in youth catechesis, bringing concrete meaning to what is happening on Sunday morning in the Divine Service was a great way of teaching the meaning of God’s Word in the worship service. It helped make the connection as to what God’s Word means for the worshiping community, and therefore, also for us as Christians. It put meat on the bones, so to speak. For example, in the Kyrie, we cry out to God to have mercy upon us…three times. The book offers this helpful question and answer: What is the office of the Kyrie? The congregation, realizing its infirmity from indwelling sin, calls upon God for that grace which has been announced and offered in the Introit.[iv]
One would do well to remember that when reference is made to the “Common Service,” this is what is found in our Lutheran hymnals (TLH p. 15; LW p. 136; LSB p. 184). The book, in response to the question what is the Common Service? says: It is the typical Lutheran Service of the Sixteenth Century, adapted for the use of English-speaking Churches.[v] The “Common Service,” therefore, is not an innovation. It is, in reality, to use a phrase from the book, the common worship of the pure Christian Church of all ages.[vi] Free from the muddied waters ushered in by the liturgical innovations of the Vatican II Council of the Roman Catholic Church (1962-1965), An Explanation of the Common Service embodies The Common Consent of the Pure Lutheran Liturgies of the Sixteenth Century.[vii]
If one wishes to know how the Christian Church has worshiped throughout her history, and still does in many places, this book is a great teaching tool. Anyone serious about the liturgy being the Word of God in action in worship should read and seriously meditate upon the content on these pages. For those inclined to think that how we worship is about personal preference, the book is a must read. As our Lord makes clear regarding true worship of Him from the earlier reference of John 4:24: God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth. May God grant repentance where it is needed in our worship practices, and keep steadfast those who have retained the liturgy of the Christian Church.
Need to Get Level: I really think this is a 10/10 for pastors. Pastors should know why we retain the common service. I think it is a 7-8/10 for laymen. Having solidly-educated laymen is important, and this book is a great help in that regard.
Soli Deo Gloria,
Rev. Mike Grieve
[i] An Explanation of the Common Service: Reprinted by Emmanuel Press in 2006; p. 9
[ii] An Explanation of the Common Service: Reprinted by Emmanuel Press in 2006; p. 10
[iii] An Explanation of the Common Service: Reprinted by Emmanuel Press in 2006; p. 10
[iv] An Explanation of the Common Service: Reprinted by Emmanuel Press in 2006; p. 27-28
[v] An Explanation of the Common Service: Reprinted by Emmanuel Press in 2006; p. 14
[vi]An Explanation of the Common Service: Reprinted by Emmanuel Press in 2006; p. 14
[vii] An Explanation of the Common Service: Reprinted by Emmanuel Press in 2006; p. 14