Definitions of Liturgical Terms
Introduction: Frequently you may encounter unfamiliar terms related to worship. The following glossary provides some basic definitions and explanations to key terms that you may encounter.
The familiar blessing that begins, "The Lord bless you and keep you." It is given the name "Aaronic" because it is the blessing God commanded Moses to give to his brother Aaron to speak to the people (Numbers 6:24-26).
Following the confession of sins, the Absolution pronounces God's forgiveness either in a direct form ("I absolve/forgive you") or in a declarative form ("God forgives you all yours sins"). The word comes from the Latin, absolvere, which means "to loosen, set free, or absolve" (John 20:23).
The first season of the church year, Advent serves to prepare us for the coming celebration of Christ's birth. The word comes from the Latin, advenire, which means "to come." Advent themes include not only Christ's coming at Bethlehem but also his coming now in Word and Sacrament and his final coming in glory.
Latin for "Lamb of God," this hymn in the communion liturgy draws on the words of John the Baptist who pointed his disciples to Jesus, the Lamb of God (John 1:29). In the context of the communion liturgy, we are praying to Christ who is there present in his body and blood to have mercy on us and grant us peace.
Hebrew for "praise the Lord" (though in its Greek spelling). It is a word of joy and gladness. An ancient custom is to refrain from using Alleluia during Lent in order to distinguish the penitential nature of this season from the exuberance of the Easter season that follows.
Together with the font and pulpit, the altar is the chief focal point of the church building. Here heaven and earth are united as the body and blood of Jesus are given under the elements of bread and wine for our forgiveness, and the prayers of God's people are offered on behalf of the church and the world.
Of Hebrew origin, "Amen" means that what has preceded is "true and certain." Thus, as the congregation's response to prayers, the Amen is an affirmation that the prayer just prayed is the prayer of the entire assembly, spoken on their behalf. In the Small Catechism, Luther explained Amen with: "Yes, yes, it shall be so."
A refrain-like verse from Scripture that begins and concludes a psalm or canticle. Sometimes it is also interspersed within a psalm.
Though not written by the apostles (a common assumption in the Middle Ages) the Apostles' Creed faithfully summarizes the apostolic teaching of Holy Scripture. Its origins date back to the second century where it developed as a statement of faith in conjunction with Holy Baptism. In most churches it is still used at every baptism.
Observed on the 40th day of Easter, always a Thursday, the Ascension commemorates Jesus' final appearance to his disciples before ascending to the Father (Acts 1:1-11).
This day, which marks the beginning of Lent, is 40 days before Easter (Sundays are not included in the count). The theme of the day is repentance, which in some churches is visually depicted by the placing of ashes on the forehead while the words of Genesis 3:19 are spoken: "From dust you are and to dust you will return."
One of the three ecumenical (universally accepted) creeds, it probably originated around A.D. 500. Though it bears the name of Athanasius (fourth century), it was certainly not written by him. This creed is a grand expression of the Trinitarian faith.
Latin for "blessed." This is the song of thanksgiving sung by Zacharias on the occasion of the birth of his son, John the Baptist (Luke 1:68-79). It is one of the New Testament canticles, traditionally used in the morning service in the order of Matins.
In the original versions of the ecumenical creeds, the word "catholic" is used to describe the entire church or the Christian faith. Literally, the word "catholic" means "universal". The word "catholic" as we use them in these confessions have no connection to the church body now known as the Roman Catholic Church.
The church's calendar, which developed over centuries, provides a yearly rehearsal of the life and teaching of Christ. The first half begins with Advent and continues with Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost. The second half of the year (Sundays after Pentecost/Trinity) focuses on the ministry of Christ, concluding with an emphasis on the End Times.
A concisely written prayer that "collects" the prayers of the people. The Collect of the Day is prayed toward the beginning of the Divine Service, prior to the reading of Holy Scripture. The collect usually follows a pattern of: address to God, basis for the prayer, petition, desired benefit or result, and Trinitarian termination.
A Middle English term derived from the Latin, meaning "fastened to a cross." A crucifix is a cross that bears the image of the crucified Christ, pointing to the reality of the One who came in the flesh to be the Savior of the world.
The name commonly given to the regular weekly service that includes the celebration of the Lord's Supper. Derived from the German Gottesdienst ("God's service"), its meaning is dual in nature. In worship, God serves us with his gifts of forgiveness and life, and we respond in service to him through our sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise.
From the Greek for "words of praise." It is an expression of praise to God, usually in a trinitarian formulation. The Gloria Patri ("Glory be to the Father and to the Son……"), is a common doxology used to conclude psalms and many canticles. Many hymns have a concluding, doxological stanza that praises the Holy Trinity. The most familiar of these stanzas is known as the Common Doxology ("Praise God from whom all blessings flow...")
From the Greek, meaning "to appear." Observed on January 6, Epiphany is the church's celebration of the proclamation of Jesus' birth to the Gentiles; hence, the reading of the story of the visit of the Magi from Matthew 2. Originally, and still in the Orthodox churches, Epiphany served as the celebration of Jesus' birth. It wasn't until the fourth century that Dec. 25 was established in the western church for this celebration.
Greek for "letter." The New Testament contains 22 epistles written by Paul, Peter, John, and others, that were addressed to Christian churches scattered throughout the Roman Empire. The second reading in the Divine Service is usually taken from one of these epistles.
One of the many terms for the Lord's Supper. It comes from the Greek word meaning "thanksgiving." Even as Jesus gave thanks when he instituted the Lord's Supper, so do we give thanks that in this holy meal our Lord gives us his body and blood for forgiveness and life.
Also known as the "greater doxology," this is the hymn of praise sung at the beginning of the Divine Service. It originates from the fourth century and has been in regular use for over a millennium. The canticle begins with the angel's song in Luke 2:14 and then continues with a hymn of praise to the triune God, focusing chiefly on the saving work of Jesus, "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." It is omitted during Advent, in anticipation of the celebration of Jesus' birth at Christmas, and during Lent, a season of penitence.
Latin for "glory to the Father." The complete text is: "Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen." Also known as the "lesser doxology," this ascription of praise is appended to psalms and other liturgical texts.
A selection of psalm verses traditionally sung between the Epistle and Gospel. With the regular use of the Old Testament reading, the Gradual now appears after that reading, before the Epistle. The word Gradual is from the Latin for "step," which refers to the step of the lectern from which the Gradual was traditionally sung.
From Hebrew, its basic meaning is "to save." It functions as a plea to God our king to have mercy on us and save us from our lost condition.
From the Latin, meaning "to enter." Traditionally this was the entrance hymn to the Divine Service, consisting of antiphon, psalm, Gloria Patri, and antiphon repeated. During the Middle Ages it was shortened considerably and lost its function as an entrance hymn.
An antiphon preceding the Venite in Matins/Morning Prayer, this variable introduction concludes with the invitation, "O come, let us worship Him."
From the Latin, "to call upon." Used at the beginning of many, though not all, services. It serves as a reminder of Baptism and may be accompanied by the sign of the cross.
From the Greek, it is a direct address to God, meaning "Lord, have mercy." The ten lepers, blind man Bartimaeus, and others addressed Jesus with these words. The Kyrie appears early in the Divine Service. It is not part of the confession of sins but a cry to God to have mercy on us and all humanity.
The lectern is the reading stand from which the Word of God is read. In some churches it is highly ornamented, though usually less so than the pulpit.
The penitential period of preparation before the celebration of Jesus' resurrection. Its 40-day duration (not counting the Sundays in Lent) begins on Ash Wednesday which can occur as early as Feb. 4 and as late as Mar. 10, depending on the date of Easter. In the early church, Lent developed as a time of intense instruction for those who would be baptized at the Easter Vigil. The name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for "spring" and the Old English word for "lengthen," as in the lengthening of days with the approach of spring (in the northern hemisphere).
In general, a responsory prayer with repeated congregational responses. In the Divine Service, the Kyrie is sometimes cast in the form of a litany, with the congregation responding to each petition with the words, "Lord, have mercy." An expanded form of this litany is found in Evening Prayer. The most comprehensive form of the litany is the medieval version that was revised by Luther and still appears in hymnals today.
In the Lutheran Confessions, liturgy is defined as "public service" in the sense that the proclamation of the Gospel and administration of the sacraments is God's service done on behalf of his people. Sometimes the word is used to denote an order of service, though the more specific terms "order of service" or "ordo" are preferred.
One of the names for the service of Word and Sacrament. The term is used this way in the Lutheran Confessions, though in his later years, Martin Luther used it less frequently. More common terms among Lutherans are Divine Service, the Lord's Supper, and the Sacrament of the Altar.
The first of eight daily prayer services that developed during the Middle Ages for use in the monasteries. At the time of the Reformation, these services were reduced to two: Matins in the morning and Vespers in the evening. Matins is a Middle English word that comes from Latin for "of the morning."
From the Latin word mandatum, which means "command." The reference is to the Gospel appointed for the day from John 13:34, "A new command I give you: Love one another."
Composed in A.D. 325 at a council of bishops (pastors) in Nicaea as a defense against the false teaching that Jesus was not true God. The creed was expanded to its present form at the Council of Constantinople in A.D. 381. It has been used in the Divine Service as a corporate confession of the faith for centuries.
Latin for "now dismiss." These are the words spoken by Simeon as he held the 40-day-old Jesus in his arms (Luke 2:25-35). One of the New Testament canticles, it was traditionally used in the daily service of Compline and as an alternate to the Magnificat in Vespers. In the Lutheran Church it is also appointed for use following the distribution of the Lord's Supper.
Latin for "peace of the Lord." Prior to the distribution of the Lord's body and blood, the pastor blesses the people with the words, "The peace of the Lord be with you always."
From the Greek for "fiftieth day." Pentecost is the liturgical celebration of that 50th day of Easter when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples, marking the birth of the church. Liturgically, Pentecost is not the beginning of a new season, but the culmination of Easter.
A pericope is a section of Holy Scripture that is read in a service. Since the eighth century, pericopes have been gathered together in lectionaries in which readings are appointed for each Sunday or festival. From the Greek, meaning to "cut around."
The opening dialogue between pastor and people that begins the liturgy of Holy Communion. These words, dating from the second century, are likely the most ancient part of the Divine Service.
From the Latin salutatio, meaning "a greeting." A liturgical greeting by which the pastor blesses the people: "The Lord be with you." The traditional response, "and with your spirit," acknowledges that this blessing is spoken by the Lord's servant. The Salutation occurs before the Collect of the Day and at the beginning of the communion liturgy.
A Latin word meaning "holy." The Sanctus is the liturgical song sung at the beginning of the communion liturgy. It is drawn from the song of the angels in Isaiah 6:3. The concluding text, "blessed is He who comes..." is from Psalm 118:26 and Mark 11:9-10.
Latin for "You, God, we praise." The opening words of an ancient hymn of praise most often sung at Matins/Morning Prayer. The author is unknown, though liturgical legend holds that it was composed spontaneously by Ambrose and Augustine as Ambrose baptized Augustine in the late fourth century.
Latin for "oh, come." The title for the song of praise taken from Psalm 95 that is sung at the beginning of Matins/Morning Prayer. The first line reads, "Oh, come, let us sing to the Lord."
A Latin word meaning "evening." Originally one of eight daily offices prayed during the Middle Ages, Vespers was retained at the time of the Reformation as one of two daily services, the other being Matins. Sometimes also referred to as Evening Prayer.
This material was put together by Pastor Paul Naumann in 2003.
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