What we celebrate here every Sunday, and what we call worship service today, is based on an ancient liturgy – an order of gathering in the name of Christ, which has its simple beginnings in the 1st century A.D. From fairly early on, the worship service had the following elements: a gathering, in which the worshipers prepared themselves and their hearts for worship, the Word, which was Scripture readings and an interpretation of scripture – a sermon, if you will. Then there would be an Offering, taken for the poor and needy in the community. The Meal, in which believers share Christ’s body and blood among themselves. And then the Sending into the world.
I think you can see how we, in our Lutheran tradition, still follow this liturgy to this day. Elements and style may have changed over the millennia, but in essence we celebrate the same worship service our ancient brothers and sisters in the Middle East did.
As Christianity became a state religion in the Roman Empire in the 4th century under Constantine, Latin became the universal language of the church. And the celebration of worship was hence called a mass. And the word ‚mass‘ actually comes from the last words spoken during the worship: Ite missa est – which literally means, ‚Go, it is sent‘ – by the way, this phrase still startles Latin and church scholars to this day, but one interpretation of this phrase I really like is that, in worship, prayers and supplications are sent to God, God is taking it all from the believers‘ chest, and now the people are ready to go out again, relieved of their sin, strengthened for their lives and service in this world.
In essence, the mass is a launch pad, a starting point for the life of Christians in community – not a means in itself. We celebrate the presence of God – and then we are sent to represent this God whose goodness and mercy we have experienced in the world. This is exactly was we heard in today’s lesson from James, that we have to put our faith to work, for faith without works is dead.
And this was the case 2,000 years ago as it is still the case today. Martin Luther may have taken quite a few exceptions to Roman Catholic faith practices in the 16th century, but the mass was sacred to him. In fact, sacred to the extent that he wanted the believers to understand the ancient words, and translated the mass into German.
The words of the traditional Latin mass in the Roman Catholic tradition, as they are still used to this day in many places, focus on God – God’s glory, God’s sacrifice, and God’s gracious deeds for humanity. In the 19th century, however, a different kind of mass started to become popular, and especially in the Southern regions of Germany and in Austria – yes, I did my research! – the folk mass, or maybe we could call it the simple folks mass. The elements of the folk mass are the same as in ancient times, and God is still addressed as the source of forgiveness and all goodness – but the words change and now focus on the daily sorrows and hardships of the simple people in the context of their faith. In a sense, the folk mass is more ‚volksnah‘, closer to the people and their experiences. And, instead of using Latin, the language of the people is used for these masses, often regional dialect. The most famous example of such a folk mass is Schubert’s ‚Deutsche Messe‘, the ‚German Mass‘.
Needless to say, the church in Rome at first rejected these folksy celebrations of the mass. But these masses were so popular that they could not be prohibited. And, arguably, the people were getting more out of these masses, since they were more personal, and took their hardships and issues in daily life into account.
The mass we have the pleasure of hearing today, the Waldlermesse, the ‚Foresters‘ Mass‘ is one of those folk masses. It reflects the life and hardships of people carving out a living among the meager earth of the forest in parts of Bavaria. And so we hear in the Kyrie, the cry to God for mercy:
Der Herr möge sich seiner Sorgen und Nöte annehmen, denn noch geben ihm die Steine nur schwer sein täglich Brot. Doch es gibt Hoffnung, es wird hell im Wald und das Herz wird frei, (wenn) Du lieber Herrgott mir bei stehst. – The Lord may heed his ( that is, the forester’s) sorrows and hardships, because the stony ground makes it hard for him to earn his daily bread. But there is hope, it becomes light in the forest, and the heart is liberated, when you, dear Lord God, stand by me.
What is so beautiful about these words is that, in the midst of their lives, in the midst of sorrow and hardship and the things people have to bear, there is trust in God’s presence and God’s provision. And so in the Gloria, the song of praise to God, we hear jubilant words about all of nature in the forest singing praise to God, and the heartfelt thanks of the forester for all the good God provides. And this theme of pouring one’s heart out to God, the hope, the thankfulness, and the trust – in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but then also heavenly Mother, Mary – continues throughout the mass, and we will hear more of it as this service, this mass, continues.
We all go through rough patches in our lives. Our sorrows and hardships may look different from the issues of the foresters reflected in the ‘Waldlermesse’, but I think we all can relate to their plight – because we’ve been there, one way or another, too. And I think we can also relate to the trust and the joy and the thankfulness of the forester – because we all have experienced God’s presence in hard times. And I think it would be interesting if we wrote a post-modern day mass today, taking all our issues to God. Like the issues of the loss of beloved people; the feeling of being lost somehow between our home country and the New World, lost in an ever changing world; those of us with college aged kids may bemoan high tuitions and the concerns for our children’s future.
Or how interesting it would be to write a mass that lifts up the need of others: the widows and orphans, the stranger and the refugee, the oppressed and the poor. What if we wrote a mass lifting up the plight of all those who rather risk drowning in the Mediterranean in hope of safety for their families than remain in their home country, which has become a hell?
Something else we have in common with the foresters is the experience of God’s goodness. We have experienced God’s amazing gifts in nature and the people around us. And we all have experienced God’s abundant grace and mercy. Our hearts are liberated when God stands by us. And nobody can take this from us.
We, like the forester, can trust that God is a God who has the power to turn the bad into good, and death into life; that God is a God who heals the sick, who restores the lame so that they can run and leap again, and who opens the ears of the deaf, the eyes of the blind and the hearts of the disappointed and the bitter ones. That God is a God who changes the world.
And that’s where the idea of the mass is important: as our prayers and supplications are sent to God, and we are freed of all that burdens us, and all the praise and thankfulness we feel for God is off our chests, we are sent out into the world to be open to God’s presence wherever we go, and to see it reflected in the beauty of nature and the people we encounter – and to be God’s presence wherever we go. Here we are strengthened and nourished and comforted – to then go and strengthen and nourish and comfort all those who are dealing with sorrows and hardships. Ite, missa est! It has been sent – so go now, out into the world. You are sent.
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