Divine Service – Was ist das?

Each week in our church’s bulletin/service sheet, our pastor includes a short item headed “What does this mean?”, explaining the meaning behind some aspect of the church’s worship. (For non-Lutheran readers, “What does this mean?” – or, in the original German, “Was ist das?” – is the question repeated throughout Luther’s Small Catechism.)

This morning’s example was particularly good, both in terms of the useful and interesting information it conveyed about the meaning, purpose and nature of the Divine Service, but also as an indication of where our pastor is trying, gradually, to take our church (particularly in terms of frequency of Communion):


The Divine Service is the service of Word and Sacrament, the chief weekly service of the parish.

It was the practice of the early church and Lutherans to celebrate the Lord’s Supper each Sunday. The custom of having the Sunday Service without Communion was a late development which worked its way into the Lutheran Church as a result of Pietism and Reformed theology. These traditions elevate the sermon and devalue the Sacraments.

Divine Service comes from the German Gottesdienst, literally meaning God’s service. Foremost is the idea that it is God serving those whom He has gathered in Word and Sacrament. Secondary is the idea that those who are gathered serve God (worship). Divine Service is therefore a more appropriate term for Lutherans than Worship Service.

For more on this concept of the Divine Service as Gottesdienst, as God’s service to us rather than the other way round, see my late-2004 post, The God “who gives but does not take”, which looks at Luther’s distinction between beneficium and sacrificium in worship (that is, between worship as divine gift, and worship as human work). Key quote, from Luther:

All of worship, and the Mass in particular, must be viewed as a beneficium of God, “who gives but does not take” – who gives freely out of pure mercy for the undeserving, asking only to be confessed and glorified.

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