What is a commemoration and how do we celebrate them?
As a means of recognizing the witness of exemplary Christians throughout church history, Evangelical Lutheran Worship includes many commemorations which may be observed in corporate worship as well as in personal devotions. Such commemorations should never overshadow Sundays or festivals. Suggestions on how to commemorate these witnesses to Christ are given below.
The commemorations are listed on pages 15-17 of Evangelical Lutheran Worship, along with the lesser festivals. (Note that the lesser festivals are printed in all caps.) The lesser festivals are largely devoted to biblical "saints" and have a higher priority than the commemorations. The ELW provides readings and a Prayer of the Day for each of the eight categories of commemorations (see pp. 59-61 in the pew edition).
Several guidelines may be helpful to congregations wishing to observe the commemorations.
- When a commemoration falls on a Sunday, (except during Holy Week), it may be included in the final section of the intercessions (before the presiding minister’s closing prayer), such as:
In remembrance of your servant and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we give thanks for all the saints. Lord, in your mercy,
hear our prayer.
We give thanks today for your servant Johan Sebastian Bach, and for all who make music for the church. Lord, in your mercy,
hear our prayer.
Other wordings, of course, are possible.
There might be a note in the bulletin or during the announcements of the day’s commemoration, giving brief biographical information and explaining briefly why this person is being commemorated. Such information could also be included in the preceding parish newsletter.
Likewise, there might be mention in the sermon. Use your creative thoughts. On a Sunday which commemorates Bach, Schütz, and Handel (July 28), for one example, their music could be used, along with some of the following ideas. If the great hymn translators, Catherine Winkworth and John Mason Neale, (July 1) are observed, use some of their hymns.
- When there are two or more commemorations on a given day, the parish worship planning group may decide which one to observe. Or, both may be observed if they are the same type of commemoration, e.g., the outstanding artists Albrecht Dürer and Michelangelo Buonarroti, are both commemorated on April 6.
- There are eight categories of commemorations: martyrs, theologians, artists and scientists, pastors and bishops, missionaries, renewers of the Church, renewers of society, and saints. A person may fit into two categories (for example, Dietrich Bonhoeffer may be celebrated as a theologian or as a martyr). One may decide which role should be emphasized, or give attention to both.
- There are biographies, readings, prayers, and other thoughts about each commemoration in the Festivals and Commemorations by Philip Pfatteicher (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1980). These resources may be used during a weekday service devoted to the commemoration, but most of them should not be used on a Sunday. This book is good for a parish library or for individual devotional use.
- To encourage the observance of commemorations in home devotions, parishes may list them in the bulletins or newsletters, perhaps including the appointed Prayer of the Day, readings, and brief biographical information. Home observances (or church dinners or receptions after worship) could also be made interesting by providing a recipe from the context of the commemmoree, such as a Swedish recipe celebrating Birgitta (July 23), an Irish recipe commemorating Patrick (March 17), or a German recipe commemoration of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (April 9) or Martin Luther (February 18). Use your imagination!
- Two worship books published by the ELCA include calendars of commemorations specific to their heritage. This Far by Faith is an African-American resource which has a section of "Witnesses to the Faith" which includes four pages (pp. 114-117, plus a page of prayers on page 118 regarding persons who have had particular influence on African Americans. A few of them overlap the ELW list. This Far By Faith includes such persons as Benedict the African, confessor (April 4), Cyprian, bishop of Carthage (third century; September 16), Emma Francis, deaconess (early 20th century), and of course, Martin Luther King, Jr., renewer of society and martyr (January 15, or his actual date of death, April 4).
The ELCA Spanish worship book, Libro de Liturgia y Cantico, has its own list of commemorations on pages 10-12. It includes much of the ELW list, but adds appropriate persons such as Oscar Romero, bishop of El Salvador and martyr in 1980 (March 24).
- Congregations may add commemorations of local persons or others who are meaningful for the parish. Usually, only Christians and only deceased persons are commemorated. Generally, the commemorations are of persons who have been deceased for at least several decades, if not several centuries. It is customary for these commemorations to be on the persons’ death dates ("heavenly birthdays").
- Farmer, David Hugh. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979. Written from the Anglican perspective, but includes most of the LBW commemmorees.
- Pfatteicher, Philip. Festivals and Commemorations: Handbook to the Calendar in Lutheran Book of Worship. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House; Philadelphia: Board of Publication, Lutheran Church in America, 1980. ISBN: 0806617578.
- Saints and Feast Days: Lives of the Saints: With a Calendar and Ways to Celebrate. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1985. Written from a Roman Catholic perspective, but includes many LBW commemorations and interesting ways to celebrate them.