O Come, Let Us Worship Him: Liturgy in Plague Time

I’ve been praying the sacred liturgy for 70-some years, but it never struck me before as it did this morning—the first Sunday since the coronavirus pandemic and its precautions have swept the nation.

Before the service began, our pastor calmly and confidently introduced some changes in our practice to support our neighbors’ physical health in this time of contagion: refraining from handshakes, dropping our offerings into a box rather than the usual collection plate, new hygienic practices at the Lord’s Table. The message was clear: the danger is real, but here in the Lord’s house there is abundant peace and strength for fearful hearts.

Just a few weeks ago on Ash Wednesday, many of us received the sign of the cross traced in ashes with a verbal reminder of our mortality: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But now as pestilence stalks not just foreign lands but our own neighborhoods, the spiritual realities we take for granted most Sundays come crashing into our midst with vivid urgency.

Words of eternal life

Four moments of Christ’s comfort and presence particularly stood out.

When we implore our dear Savior and Friend, Jesus Christ, for help: “Lord, have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.” Who else can we turn to in a time like this?

When we boldly pray the words our Lord commanded us to pray: “Deliver us from evil.” Not even the devil himself can sever us from our Father’s love.

When we hear Jesus’ promise to be present in forgiveness and life in the meal he ordained: “This is my Body … my Blood … for the forgiveness of your sins.” For 50 years I’ve said these words as a minister of the gospel. But these days I’m on the other side of the altar rail, sitting among Christ’s people to receive his gifts. As the years go by I’m finding these gifts more and more essential—but perhaps never so vital as now.

When we walk away from our Lord’s table, singing Simeon’s song: “Lord, now you let your servant go in peace, your word has been fulfilled.” Come what may, we are his and he is ours; it can’t get any better than that! During this time of uncertainty and disruption, these words and others like them in the sacred liturgy bring Christ’s presence and comfort. Ponder them deeply for yourself.

Call on the Lord in the day of trouble

I’ve now attended well over 10,000 services in my 75 years of life, and I can tell you there’s nothing like a national health emergency to bring worship into focus—to underscore the importance of what we sing and say together, what we hear with our ears and receive in our mouths every Lord’s Day.

What we need now in this hour of trial are faithful physicians: those who skillfully diagnose and treat ailments of the body, for sure, and also physicians of souls. Let us pray for the welfare and stamina of all medical professionals on the front lines, containing the contagion and treating the sick. Let us also pray for the strength and peace of those valiant spiritual doctors who are sent by Jesus, the Great Shepherd of his sheep, to treat our sins and failures, our fears and distresses with the medicine of everlasting life.

And while we’re at it, let us pray that we all remain fervent in prayer, patient in tribulation, and constant in love, just as Christ Jesus for the joy that was set before him endured the cross before entering into glory (Heb 12:2).

Whate’er of earthly good this life may grant me,
I’ll risk for Thee; no shame, no cross, shall daunt me.
I shall not fear what foes can do to harm me
Nor death alarm me.

— Johann Heermann, “O Dear Jesus, What Law Hast Thou Broken?”

Leading worship and prayer during a pandemic

In a time of uncertainty and disruption, it’s good to anchor our hearts and order our days with God’s word and prayer. Here are some prayers you can use in your household at various hours of the day.

This guest post was written by Harold L. Senkbeil, author of The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart (Lexham Press, 2019). 

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