Aside from Martin Luther, MartinChemnitz (1522-86) is regarded as the most important theologian in the history of the Lutheran Church. Chemnitz combined a penetrating intellect and an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Scripture and the Church Fathers with a genuine love for the Church. When various doctrinal disagreements broke out after Luther’s death in 1546, Chemnitz determined to give himself fully to the restoration of unity in the Lutheran Church. He became the leading spirit and principal author of the 1577 Formula of Concord, which settled the doctrinal disputes on the basis of Scripture and largely succeeded in restoring unity among Lutherans. Chemnitz also authored the four-volume Examination of the Council of Trent (1565-73), in which he rigorously subjected the teachings of this Roman Catholic Council to the judgment of Scripture and the ancient Church Fathers. The Examination became the definitive Lutheran answer to the Council of Trent, as well as a thorough exposition of the faith of the Augsburg Confession. A theologian and a churchman, Chemnitz was truly a gift of God to the Church. (The Treasury of Daily Prayer, CPH)
Every Wednesday, we pray Matins at church. We usually read an Old Testament selection from a daily lectionary. Then I usually comment on the Epistle from Sunday. Today, we commemorated the Lutheran hymnwriters Nicolai, Heermann, and Gerhardt and sang the Queen of Chorales. The other thing we regularly do is pray by name for the members of the congregation.
But every week I look forward most to singing the Te Deum Laudamus. Today, this sight gave me all the more reason to sing, and I think the angels, apostles, prophets, martyrs, and Church throughout the world rejoice at this, too.
God’s own child, I gladly say it: I am baptized into Christ!
He, because I could not pay it, Gave my full redemption price.
Do I need earth’s treasure’s many? I have one worth more than any
That brought me salvation free, Lasting to eternity.
Satan, hear this proclamation: I am baptized into Christ!
Drop your ugly accusation; I am not so soon enticed.
Now that to the font I’ve traveled, All your might has come unraveled,
And, against your tyranny, God, my Lord, unites with me! (CWS 737:3)
I suppose one could say that church bells are a thing of the past. Of course, there are places where churches still have bells, and those bells still ring. They might ring at the beginning or during services (during the Lord’s Prayer, for example). They might even still ring to announce a member’s death or at certain times of the day. But the fact is that most of us live, work, and travel out of earshot of church bells.
I’ve been reading Martin Chemnitz’ 1569 Church Order for Braunsweig-Wolfenbüttel. In it, he has instructions of all kinds for church life in his principality. Today I came across his instructions regarding the ringing of bells, right after a long list of collects (prayers).
Under the papacy, a special ringing of the bell was observed morning, noon, and evening by which the people were admonished to pray to the Virgin Mary. But because the most blessed Virgin Mary does not desire the honor due God alone, and because it is also contrary to God’s Word, the people are to be instructed in this regard. The ringing of the bell in and of itself can be retained, as is also the case in the neighboring Reformation churches, to indicate to the people morning, noon, and evening. Moreover, the people are thereby reminded and exhorted to pray morning, noon, and evening for common peace and good government—in so doing prayer is made at the same time for the authorities and against all enemies of common, Christian peace. For this reason, in the neighboring Reformation churches, it has been very appropriately referred to as ringing the prayer bell or the “peace bell.” And it is Christian, good, and useful for the common people to be accustomed to it, so that they do not forget such necessary prayer. But because prayer is often forgotten, the peal of the bell can remind them to pray such things, whenever they hear the peace bell ringing, whether at home, in the garden, on the road, or in the field. At that time also, the children in the house may be encouraged to sing: Erhalt uns Herr bey deinem Wort, etc.; likewise,Verleihe uns Frieden gnediglich. Such prayer is of very great necessity in these latter and perilous days.
Wouldn’t you say that prayer for the “common peace and good government” is still “of very great necessity”? And I’m pretty sure that forgetting to pray is no less a problem today than in 1569.
But if church bells are out—or perhaps drowned out by our world’s noise—is there anything that could fill the function of church bells to call us to pray? What could remind us, whether we are at home, at work, or in the car? Perhaps something that we carry with us practically everywhere.
Perhaps you could consider setting an alarm on your phone in the morning, at noon, and in the evening. You could even use the sound of bells to remind you to pray.
Chemnitz encourages prayers for peace at these times. I think I might like to modify that just slightly with an area of focus for each hour—in the morning, for peace in the home and family; at noon (the hour of Jesus’ death), for peace in the Church; and in the evening, peace in the government and civil sphere. In another place I saw that some have used the morning hour to meditate on the Resurrection, the noonday to contemplate the Crucifixion, and the evening hour to reflect on the Incarnation.
The hymns Chemnitz suggests are also worth considering. Most Lutherans are familiar with “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word” (CW 203). “Grant Peace, We Pray, in Mercy Lord” (CW 522) is worth knowing better. These two hymns always seem to be paired together. In J.S. Bach’s Cantata on “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast” the closing chorale is “Grant Peace, We Pray.” I love how it concludes:
Grant to our princes and all those in authority
peace and good government
so that we, among them
may lead a calm and peaceful life
in all godliness and honesty.
Praying together is better than praying alone. My favorite hour of prayer is at the close of day, and the prayers of Compline just can’t be beat.
I usually pray these alone. If I’m at church late, I’ll do it in my study. When we have an evening meeting I invite others to join me, but I usually still end up alone.
At home, I will often sing the closing portion to some of the kids before bed, “Guide us waking, O Lord…,” the Nunc Dimittis, and blessing them with “The almighty and merciful Lord—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—bless you and keep you.”
It was an uncommon delight, then, to lead the praying of Compline at this summer’s Return to Wittenberg conference. There is something so mutually consoling about these bedtime prayers of the Church, when some portion of the Church gathers at the end of a day to speak to one another, to listen, to sing, and to pray.
The setting of the beautiful chapel at Wisconsin Lutheran College certainly didn’t hurt! The back and forth responses, the unison, acapella singing. The final night of the conference we also sang Paul Gerhardt’s “Now Rest Beneath Night’s Shadow.”
It was significantly better than praying alone.
And yet, it is true that Christians never pray alone. Because our Jesus teaches us to pray, “Our Father,” even when we pray by ourselves, we are never alone. Christian prayer is always corporate. Our voice always joins with the whole Church in addressing our heavenly Father, trusting that he will hear our voice. Together, even if we pray alone. In addition—even if there were no one on the planet to pray with us, even then we would not pray alone because Jesus himself prays for us and with us.
Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the silent hours of this night, so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this fleeting world may rest in your eternal changelessness; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
The Apostolic Constitutions are a series of 4th century documents that give insight into the early Christian church. In it, Christians were instructed, “In the funerals of the departed, accompany them with singing, if they were faithful in Christ” (6.30.2).
It has become my custom to conclude every funeral sermon by singing a hymn stanza. Often, it has been one of the last stanzas I sang with the person before they died, if we had that opportunity. Other times, it was simply appropriate to the sermon text, theme, or to the life of the person. In either case, it is my way of taking one small gem of our beautiful hymnody and passing it on to the congregation and the gathered family and friends. Our hymnody is so rich that I’ve hardly, if at all, had to use the same stanza more than once.
This week I had two funerals, a wife on Monday and her husband on Friday. On Monday it was “Lord, let at last your angels come” for we had spoken of the angels at Jesus’ tomb who were there to roll the stone away and announce the resurrection. But it is over us that God has given his angels charge, until they carry us to His side. Today, it was “In peace and joy I now depart” in regard to a husband who was ready to depart in peace, not only because he knew his bride was safe in the arms of Jesus, but also and more importantly because he knew that Jesus was his life, and “death is but a slumber.”
I’m pretty sure I’ve done this with all sixteen of the funerals I have conducted since coming here (I counted today). On these days, while I am filled with sympathy for those who mourn, I am also unspeakably grateful to have been able to serve these dear saints with Jesus’ Word and Sacrament, and now to speak the comfort and confidence of the resurrection to those who mourn.