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Ever wonder why we Lutherans use the form of worship we do? In this series we examine the depth and meaning of the various elements of our Lutheran worship service.

Some pastors begin their worship services by stating a worship theme for the day along with a short explanation of it. This helps people focus their thoughts on one central idea they can return to throughout the hour. The Scripture readings, sermon, and prayers will then connect in some way to this main theme. The Hymn of the Day, as it is found especially in more recent Lutheran orders of service, serves this same function.

The late Carl Schalk (1929-2021), a noted Lutheran writer on hymns and liturgy, described the Hymn of the Day in his pamphlet The Hymn of the Day and Its Use in Lutheran Worship:

The Hymn of the Day is “the name given to the chief hymn in the service on every Sunday and festival, so called because it fits the specific day and season in the church year. It is the hymn which responds most intimately to the dominant theme of the day, which is usually contained in the Gospel for the day.” As the chief hymn in the service, it reflects the central thrust of the proclamation for the day. . . . The Hymn of the Day is never merely a “sermon hymn” (although it certainly reinforces the message of liturgical preaching). It is never merely a poetic paraphrase of the Gospel reading (although it is certainly related to the Gospel). It is rather a “musical and poetic commentary on all of the lessons and chiefly on the meaning of the theme to be communicated by the service.”

The Hymn of the Day is a relatively modern addition to our worship services. It was introduced by Lutherans in the late 1950’s to replace the sermon hymn and it developed from the gradual (the “connector” between the Epistle and Gospel lessons). In American Lutheranism, the Hymn of the Day first appeared in the Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW) in 1978. The LBW was originally a collaboration between the Lutheran Church in America (LCA), the American Lutheran Church (ALC), and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LC-MS), although the LC-MS withdrew from the work prior to its final publication. The Hymn of the Day is now given a place in most Lutheran hymnals, including Worship Supplement 2000 and the Lutheran Service Book (2006).

Including the Hymn of the Day in the liturgy poses a challenge to those who put hymnals together because it means at least fifty-two of the hymns included must be tied to a specific theme for a Sunday or festival. Hymn of the Day lists are usually published as both one-year and three-year cycles, depending on the selection of readings followed. Many of the hymns are familiar and well-loved. For instance, “Savior of the Nations, Come” (Advent 1), “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” (Christmas Eve), and “Jesus, Priceless Treasure” (Lent 4).

Although the Hymn of the Day is a fairly new idea, it seems worthwhile. In our time of constant distractions and shortened attention spans, something that helps worshipers focus on and remember the Law and Gospel message they hear in church is valuable. The Hymn of the Day serves this purpose. Further, the selections are repeated over the years, giving congregations the opportunity to fully learn and appreciate some of the greatest Christian hymns of all time.

Oh, sing to the Lord a new song!
Sing to the Lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, bless His name;
Proclaim the good news of His salvation from day to day.
Declare His glory among the nations,
His wonders among all peoples. (Psalm 96:1-3)

As the chief hymn in the service, it reflects the central thrust of the proclamation for the day.

David Schaller is a professor at Immanuel Lutheran College in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.