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Signs, Symbols and Actions: The Basic Vocabulary of Worship

By The Rev. Dr. Brook Thelander

Premises of our study:

1. Christianity is strongly visual. Our faith is most strongly represented not by words, but by images: architecture, windows, ornaments, tapestries, paintings, tombs, symbols, colors.

2. The non-verbal (i.e., Symbol, image, sign, gesture, action) is perhaps the most basic and fundamental vocabulary of Christian worship.

3. Signs and symbols have the power to teach, to remind, to communicate the transcendent into human experience.

4. Christian worship is not an exercise in reading, but an exercise in hearing, watching, and participating. Worship is high drama in which all participate and share. All worshipers have a role to play. In such an environment, colors, actions, gestures and symbols became the primary language of worship. The ability to read need not be a prerequisite in order to participate in worship.


A. As you enter the nave/sanctuary, what do you notice or see?


1. Altar: occupies the holiest spot in the church. It is the church's focal point. At its simplest, the altar is a table of wood or stone from which the Holy Communion is consecrated and celebrated. It is the Lord's Table. In the early Church the commemoration of the Lord's Supper was part of a larger meal, and most churches met in private homes, not in public buildings. So the Eucharist was administered on an ordinary wooden table used in the home. In the fourth century, permanent altars of wood or stone were erected as permanent houses of worship were established. Altars today may be permanent or movable, stand against a wall or be free standing. In general, altars face the congregation, and the priest, whose face was formerly toward the East and whose back was to the nave, now faces the worshipers as well.

2. Altar rails: the railing in front of the alter, separating the chancel from the nave of the church. In many churches, worshipers kneel at the altar rail to receive communion.

3. Reredos: An architectural framework of wood, stone, or marble behind and above the altar.

4. Altar lights: The two candles that sit on the altar. They represent the human and divine natures of Christ. Also called Eucharistic lights, sacramental lights, or Gospel lights.

5. Office lights: Candles placed beside or behind an altar and lighted for the Divine Office or for other services. Also known as Vesper lights.

6. Paschal candle: A large white candle symbolizing the risen Christ. It is lighted at the Great Easter Vigil on Saturday evening. The Paschal candle burns at all services throughout Pentecost. It may also be lighted for baptismal and funeral services (to symbolize resurrection) and may be used as the Christ candle in the center of the Advent wreath.


1. Antependium ("to hang before"): A silk or other finely embroidered cloth hung on the front of the altar, pulpit, and lectern. Also called a frontal. The color may be white, green, red, purple, or black.

2. Fair linen: A hand-hemmed cloth of fine linen which covers the top of the altar and hangs down at each end.

3. Paraments: Hangings in the liturgical colors used on the alter, pulpit, and lectern.

4. Corporal: Square piece of linen about the size of a napkin which is placed on the top of the fair linen on the altar. On this, the sacramental vessels are placed. The corporal symbolizes one of the Lord's grave cloths.

5. pall: A piece of cardboard about eight inches square, covered with white linen and placed over the chalice.

6. Lavabo towel: Used to dry the priest's hands during the preparatory washing of the hands prior to the Eucharist.


1. Chalice (latin, "cup"): a metal or ceramic cup used to administer the wine at Holy Communion. Representative of the cup used at the Last Supper.

2. Ciborium (gk, "cup"): Contains the bread of the Holy Communion.

3. Lavabo (latin, "I will wash"): A small metal bowl containing water for washing the fingers of the celebrant prior to Holy Communion.

4. Paten (latin, "dish"): A small dish of precious metal to hold the bread for the Holy Communion.

The Cross:

1. The Cross is the central furnishing of an altar, symbolizing atonement and humankind's redemption. The Cross has been redeemed from an instrument of destruction into the sign of the glorious King whom we worship and exalt.

The Pulpit:

1. The pulpit is the place from which the Scriptures, the written Word of God, are proclaimed. (Note: What, if anything, does the position of the pulpit tell us about our worship and theology?).

Stained Glass:

1. Visual stories/proclamation of the story of salvation.


1. Visual stories/proclamation of the story of salvation.


1. Black: symbolizes mourning and death. Used on Good Friday and may be used on Ash Wednesday.

2. Blue: The color of hope, recently recognized as an alternative to liturgical purple.

3. Gold: May be used as the liturgical color on Easter (instead of white) to emphasize the most holy day of the Church year. It is also appropriate for the last Sunday of the Church year, Christ the King Sunday.

4. Green: The color of Ordinary time, or Kingdomtide, symbolizing life and growth.

5. Purple: Symbolizes penitence and mourning. Used during the two penitential seasons: Advent and Lent.

6. Red: Symbolizing love and zeal, bringing to mind fire and blood. Used on Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and for celebrations of the Passion. Also appropriate for feasts of apostles, evangelists, and martyrs. Red is also used on the day of Pentecost, commemorating the coming of the Spirit in tongues of fire on the birthday of the Church. Also appropriate for saints days, ordination, and dedications and anniversaries of the congregation.

7. White: Symbolizing purity and joy. Used at Christmas and Easter.

B. The Acts of Entrance at Epworth

1. Processional: Symbolizes and represents the gathering of all the people into God's presence for worship. (In the OT, the people gathered together and then walked in procession to the temple for worship, often singing as they went. Many of the Psalms are songs that were sung in procession to the temple for worship (cf., Psalms 120-134, known as the Songs of Ascent).)

2. The acclamation (with the sign of the Cross): This reveals at least two things: first, that Christian worship is Trinitarian; second, it reveals the purpose for our gathering: to ascribe glory and worth to God, i.e., to bless God.

3. Collect for purity: The collect is a short prayer which "gathers up" the concerns of the people and presents them to God with great brevity and terseness. It has a standard form:

A. Address to God.

B. Relative clause with accompanying attributes of God.

C. The prayer/petition proper.

D. Reason for the request or the benefits it will provide.

E. Trinitarian conclusion.

F. Amen.

4. The Trisagion ("thrice holy"): A fifth century Trinitarian prayer/refrain which is a major component of worship in the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

In these acts of entrance, worshipers are ushered into the presence of a holy God, where they confess that unless God gives grace and cleanses the heart, true worship is impossible. Having been ushered into God's presence and prepared to worship, persons are now ready to hear and respond to God's Word.


1. Mutual invocation of grace: The minister raises his/her hands to embody and extend the grace of God into the lives of God's people, and to signify a mutual dependence between minister and congregation. The people respond bodily as well as verbally, gesturing back to the minister their own affirmation of grace. (Note: This re-affirms that worshipers are participants, not spectators.)

2. The Ten Commandments/Great Commandments.

3. The Kyrie ("Lord, have mercy"): The only portion of Greek in the liturgy.

4. The Scripture Lessons (Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle)

5. The Gloria Patri (Latin, "glory be to the Father"): An expression of praise to the Trinity, sung or said after the Psalm.

6. The Collect (see above).

7. The Gospel procession and lesson: The minister and acolytes process to the center aisle, where the minister reads the Gospel lesson. At least three things are symbolized here: First, this represents the Incarnation, the truth that God became flesh and dwelt among us; Second, it symbolizes the continuing presence of Jesus in the midst of his Church by the power of the Holy Spirit; Third, it makes explicit the connection between Jesus the Incarnate Word and the Scriptures as the Written Word of God. The minister then raises the lectionary book and proclaims, "The Gospel of the Lord." The people respond, "Praise to You, Lord Christ." The significance to this action is not bibliolatry (worshiping a book), but the reminder that God's primary way of speaking to us is through what he has already spoken, especially in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

8. The Sermon: An annoying moral harangue! (Not really!)

9. In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: The sermon officially ends with the Trinitarian pronouncement and the signing of the Cross. This reveals to us a very important truth: The sermon is not a human performance, rhetorical or otherwise. The sermon is a communal act of worship, offered up to God by both preacher and congregation as an act of worship and obedience.

Having been prepared to worship and having heard the Word of God, the people are now prepared to respond in faith and obedience.

III. SERVICE OF THE TABLE (The Great Thanksgiving)

The service of the Table (The Great Thanksgiving) involves our response to the Word of God as encountered in the Service of the Word, but is itself also the proclamation of the Word of God. Whereas the service of the Word may be considered the Word of God proclaimed, the service of the Table may be considered the Word of God enacted. That's why Augustine referred to the sacraments as "visible words."

1. Nicene Creed (Latin, credo, "I believe"): The Christian faith is not merely about being sincere, loving everyone, and doing the best you can. The Christian faith involves substantive theological content, even though that content may be reduced to its core. The Nicene Creed is a major portion of the core content of the Christian faith. We do well to repeat it each week, so that the core of the faith may work its way deep into our conscious and unconscious minds.

2. Offerings: money, food, fruits of the earth (bread and wine), ourselves, prayers for the church and the world.

3. Collect: Summarizes and brings closure to the prayers of the people.

4. Chrysostom prayer: [What is rationale for this?]

5. Preparation for communion: Explains communion as a means of grace, and our Wesleyan theological conviction that the Eucharist is a sacrament of nurture, not a sacrament of attainment. That is, it is for those who grow in humility see themselves in need of grace and who desire to grow in grace, not those who have "spiritually arrived." This attitude is reflected in the prayer of confession, which clearly acknowledges our failure to please God without the help of his cleansing and grace.

6. The Agnus Dei (Latin, "Lamb of God"): The name of the portion of the Communion service sung/said just before the Administration. The words are adapted from John the Baptist when he pointed to Jesus (John 1:29) and said, "behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world."

7. Prayer for absolution: The priest/minister is not the one who grants forgiveness and absolution, but rather speaks forth the biblical promise to the people that all those who humbly confess their sins find forgiveness of the same. This prayer calls on God to fulfill the promises revealed to us in Scripture.

8. The Comforting Words: Scriptural promises indicative of our forgiveness and restoration.

9. The Passing of the Peace: The passing of the peace is not merely a social time (i.e., when people are told, "we're glad you're here."). Rather, it is a theological event. The peace of Christ is literally being given and received. Healing and reconciliation occurs during this profound moment. Cyril of Jerusalem says:

Then the deacon cries aloud, "Receive ye one another; and let us kiss one another." Think not that this kiss ranks with those given in public by common friends. It is not such: This kiss blends souls one with another, and solicits for them entire forgiveness. Therefore this kiss is the sign that our souls are mingled together, and have banished all remembrance of wrongs...The kiss therefore is reconciliation, and for this reason holy; as the blessed Paul has in his epistles urged: "Greet one another with a holy kiss"; and Peter,"with a kiss of charity."

Consider the passing of the peace also in this light: up to this point in the service, we've been reconciled to God through confession, prayer, etc. Now we are reconciled to one another in the passing of the peace. Thus, having been reconciled both to God and one another, we are now fully in a position to receive the Holy Eucharist and be nurtured by its life-transforming grace.

10. Preparation for the Table: Here the minister ceremonially washes his/her hands. There are at least two reasons for this. The first is practical, involving physical cleanliness. The second is theological, involving the desire and petition for the minister to be morally fit to serve the Holy Communion. The minister usually quotes from Psalm 51:1-2 or Psalm 26:10-12.

11. Hymn of entry into the Heavenly worship: Prepares for and inaugurates the Sursum Corda which follows.

12. The Sursum Corda ("lift up your hearts"): This symbolizes the rising up and joining together of God's people around the heavenly throne to worship God. In reality, when we gather together for worship, we do not gather as isolated individuals nor even as a local church. We join with all of God's people - the Church militant and the Church triumphant - around the heavenly throne. This is why the minister says: "therefore, with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify your glorious Name, evermore praising You and saying..."

13. The Sanctus (Latin, "holy"): Taken from Isaiah 6:3, it is the hymn of "sheer and timeless adoration to the holiness and glory of God" (Massey Shepherd). We join with all of heaven in praising God around the heavenly throne. (cf., Rev. 5-6?)

14. Prayer of humble access: Acknowledges our need of grace, and asks that in receiving grace: 1) our relationship with Christ may be nurtured and strengthened; 2) we will be empowered to love and serve others; 3) we will not merely be pardoned and forgiven, but transformed and sanctified.

15. Epiclesis prayer (Latin, "to come upon"): The minister prays for the Holy Spirit to come upon the ordinary gifts of bread and wine, and to sanctify them (i.e., to make what is ordinary holy, and to set it apart for sacred use).

16. The Words of Institution: In these brief paragraphs, the story of Christ's last supper with the disciples is relived and re-enacted. The concept of remembrance is important here. When Christ says, "do this in remembrance of me," he is not instructing the disciples (or us!) to snap a mental photograph. In biblical usage, remembering has to do with bringing the significance of a past event forward into the present through action, sign, and symbol. Remembering, then, has to do with action and obedience. As God's people "remember" via the bread and cup, the grace and power present in that original moment come forward to us in the present moment, by faith! Thanks be to God!

17. The Acclamation: "Therefore, we proclaim the mystery of faith." The people respond: "Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again." In these few words the entire drama of salvation is summarized. (Note: Ultimately our worship, especially the sacramental portion, deals with mystery - and I contend that mystery is apprehended more than comprehended.)

18. The fraction: The minister breaks the bread, symbolizing the breaking of Christ's body and his sacrificial death on the Cross. This one simple, short act commemorates Christ's entire saving act on our behalf.

19. The Holy Communion: As the people receive the bread and cup, the minister/acolyte says, "the body of Christ, the bread of heaven," and "the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation." As the people receive in faith, Christ is truly present by the power of the Holy Spirit, giving them grace to meet them at their various points of need.

20. Prayer of Thanksgiving and Living Sacrifice: This prayer gives thanks for God's wondrous gifts in the Eucharist. It also asks of God that we and all the Church would receive all of the benefits/blessings which Christ's death has made possible. Finally, it helps us to do the only logical and reasonable thing after receiving such grace: to offer our lives as living sacrifices (cf., Rom. 12:1-2) back to God who has redeemed us. In the ancient world, your "liturgy" was a public service you rendered to the state in exchange for the privileges of citizenship. The apostle Paul tells the Romans that in view of Christ's death, our "liturgy" now becomes the offering of our whole life to God.

21. The Gloria: Taken from the angels' song to the Bethlehem shepherds (cf. Lk. 2:13-14). Also called the Greater Doxology.

The Gloria can teach us something extremely important: the power that resides in self-forgetful praise of God the Father and of Christ. Nowhere else in our liturgy does this element of praise emerge so effectively...Our prayer is liberating when, like this sentence in the Gloria, it constantly turns into self-forgetful, loving praise to God. It is as though we had sailed from the stifling air of the harbor into the refreshing breeze of the open sea; as though we climbed from the sultry valleys to the heights and the sharp, strong air that blows there. (Balthasar Fischer)

To this point, we have been gathered together by God in order to hear his Word and to respond in faith and obedience. We have heard and received the proclaimed Word and the Enacted Word. We have been fed by divine grace and our relationship with God has been repaired, nurtured, and strengthened both on the personal and communal level. Now we are ready to depart in peace and to serve the world in Jesus' Name.


1. The Recessional: As in the Processional, the minister and acolytes now recess out, symbolic of God's people going forth into the world to love and serve - led by the power of Jesus who is present among the Church through the power of the Holy Spirit. This also reminds us that liturgy is about life, not just what is done on Sunday morning.

2.The Benediction ("blessing"): Trinitarian in nature, pronouncing peace and blessing on God's people as they enter the world to serve and bear witness to Christ.


Alleluia: (The Anglicized form of "Hallelujah"; Hebrew for "praise ye the Lord," or "praise Jehovah."

Amen: Hebrew, translated by Luther as "yea, yea, it shall be so."

Doxology: Gk, "to speak praise," or "praise to God." Can be sung or said.

Hosanna: Heb., "save now"

Litany: Gk, "intercessory prayer." A form of prayer in which the petitions are uttered by the minister, and the congregation responds with a refrain after each, such as: "Hear us, O Lord," or "Lord, have mercy."

The Lord's Prayer: Used at almost every service, this has become the most beloved Christian prayer in the world. The now-familiar doxology that appears in the Anglican and Protestant traditions was not part of the original prayer as taught by Jesus, but first appeared in the Scottish Book of Common Prayer in 1662. This doxology is not used in the Roman Church. It is sometimes called the "Our Father" of the "Pater Noster" (Latin for "our Father").

Oblations: The gifts presented for use in the liturgy (bread and wine) or, in accordance with ancient custom, for distribution to the poor and sick (food, clothing, etc.)

Invocation: Latin, "to call upon." The announcement at the beginning of the service invoking God's presence "in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

Administration: The giving of elements to the communicants.

Canticle: Latin, "a little song." A sacred song or prayer (other than one of the Psalms) from the Bible used in liturgical worship, particularly the Divine Office.Old Testament canticles include the canticle of Moses (Ex. 15:1-18), the canticle of Habbakkuk (Hab. 3:2-19), and the canticle of Isaiah (Is. 38:10-20). The three major New Testament canticles are the Benedictus, Nunc Dimittus, and Magnificat, all from the Gospel of Luke. The Te Deum Laudamus taken from Psalm 95, is another well known canticle.

Antiphon: A response sung in connection with the antiphonal reading (or singing) of a psalm or canticle.

Liturgical music must be like John the Baptist: always pointing to Christ, never calling attention to itself. (Brother Roger of Taize)

The Divine Office: The daily public prayer of the church for praising God and sanctifying the day. Also known as the Liturgy of the Hours or the Daily Office. Historically celebrated by clergy and religious orders, in recent years the laity has been encouraged to participate. The liturgy is celebrated at fixed hours of the day, also known as canonical hours. The traditional hours are:

Matins: sung or recited about midnight (often called nocturns)

Lauds: sung or recited about 3 a.m.

Prime: sung or recited at sunrise

Terce: sung or recited the third hour, or about 9 a.m.

Sext: sung or recited the sixth hour, about midday.

Nones: sung or receited the ninth hour, about 3 p.m.

Vespers: the liturgical office of the evening

Compline: the last service of the day, about 9 p.m.

In 1549, the Church of England reduced the Daily Office to Morning Prayer (Matins) and Evening Prayer (Evensong) in the new Book of Common Prayer.

Theme Verse

Luke 1:78-79

Scripture Lessons

Aug 25: Isaiah 28:14-22, Psalm 46, Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-29, Luke 13:22-30

Aug 18: Jeremiah 23:23-29, Psalm 82, Hebrews 12:1-14, Luke 12:49-56

Prayer Emphases

Nation: Kazakhstan

Denomination: Evangelical Lutheran Synod

Congregation: Boise Presbyterian Church, new church plant

Ministry: National Right to Life Committee

Parishioners: Those living on York Street

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