Tuesday, June 17, 2014

It is enough. . . another satis est. . .

Over the years I have watched as Roman Catholics observe the great and the ordinary of church and life with a Mass.  In some cases, it is an extraordinary occasion marked by a great choir, many priests, a full compliment of minor clergy, and all the, well, smells and bells.  In other cases it is a much more ordinary event without the festive elements of the liturgy but with the same Mass.  It is enough.  The Word preached, the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, and the faithful gathered to respond by communing and adding their own joyful voice to the song of faith gone on so long.

I have also watched as Lutherans have observed the great and ordinary fare of our life together and found that we are not content simply with the Mass -- whether festively adorned with choir and plenty of people in albs, cassocks and surplices, etc... or not.  More often than not we try to may the Mass even more special by the use of strange gimmicks and inventive tricks that are certainly testament to the creativity of the planner but seem to distract and detract from the Word and Table of the Lord.  We complain about the multiplicity of Masses from Rome for every occasion or event but our practice reveals a disconcerting lack of confidence in the Mass and a disordered desire to spice it up a bit with things of our own creation.

The sad truth is that on the greatest of occasions in the church's life we Lutherans often exhibit the worst of liturgical practice.  We cut and paste together all sorts of stuff because it is neat or cool or we like it or, worst of all, we want to make things even more special.  When we should show forth the best of liturgical practice because the light is shining on us during those occasions, we put forward our worst, our most trite, banal, and trendy practices.  Christmas, Easter, church anniversaries, church conventions and conferences, pastoral conferences, etc... end up not the places where the Mass is central focus but where we are.

This is strange for a people who confess that the Mass is observed among us more faithfully than among our opponents.  It is strange for a church body that confesses not only the sufficiency of the means of grace but insists that the regular vehicle of the Spirit and His work is not our own additions but the Word and Sacraments.  I am thoroughly sympathetic of this to make things special and have perhaps been a participant in what I complain about.  But I also understand that it proceeds from a problem of piety -- for most Lutherans the Mass is not enough, not nearly enough, and certainly not the source and summit of their own lives in the Spirit.

That is a painful and difficult admission for us Lutherans to make.  We have drifted far enough away from our Confessions that we are not merely content with the means of grace as the sources of, the nourishment for, and the objects of our lives of faith as the baptized people of God.  We find it very hard to resist the temptation to substitute what we think, feel, or do for the Word and Sacraments.  Whether in the area of justification or sanctification, our weakness is to steal away the energy of our lives of faith from the impetus of the Spirit and the means of grace and put in their place our own creative energies.

The whole goal of the liturgical movement (at least among Lutherans) was not about recovery of an early church ideal, the restoration of a pristine form from a bygone era, the vestments worn, the ritual actions of priest or people, or the like.  No, the real focus and goal of the Lutheran liturgical movement was the restoration of the Word and Sacraments as the Sunday norm for "ordinary" occasions and the festive norm for the special events in the life of the Church precisely because it is the core and center of the piety of the people.  The Mass as both source of our piety and lives of faith as well as the summit to which that piety and those lives of faith are focused was part of the cause of the Reformation.  It brought forth the best of human gift and responsive expression (think of Bach and the liturgical life of Leipzig during his lifetime) and it led to the most vibrant and vital shape for Lutheran faith and identity.  We recover what was lost not by reinventing Leipzig or any other place nor by picking one moment from the snapshot of our history.  No, we do so by remembering when the Word and Sacraments of the Lord were enough, were sufficient for us and for our lives of faith and piety as the baptized children of God.

The sad truth is that the ordinary Sundays of the church's life are often the places where we exhibit our most faithful liturgical practice, allowing the Word and Table of the Lord their central place as the focus of our liturgical life.  One thing I have to admit is that Rome believes the Mass is enough.  You can add choirs and legions of minor clergy or it can be simple, spoken, and "plain" but it is always the Mass -- the means of grace through which the Spirit works and the Lord bestows His gifts upon His people.  Once we Lutherans had the hubris to say "even more among us!"  Perhaps we choose not to say those words today or perhaps we know that they are not true among us as they once were.  This is where liturgical renewal begins.  Unless we can recover our faith in the means of grace as sufficient for us, the Word and Table of the Lord will have to compete with our petty and pathetic efforts to make the worship life of God's people more special than God can do Himself through His Word and Sacraments.


Janis Williams said...

So much influence of the Reformed on American Lutherans, I think.

Most non-Reformed bodies still hold to a bare iconoclasm in their "sanctuaries." There is no church calendar other than homecoming picnics once a year (older churches), and movie preaching season (summertime in younger, more 'hip' bodies). Christmas is a single day in which people are admonished to "keep Christ." Americans are poor, blind, and naked (think The Revelation and Laodicea), but try to cover it with pop music, video clips on jumbotrons, and social justice in "a" name.

Anonymous said...

How can we say we keep it "more faithfully" when RC churches offer it multiple times a week (even the smallest, poorist parishes twice), and a majority of our churches on only "first and third" Sundays and resist it more frequently as though instead of being the "bread of life" it was the "bread of difficulty."

Anonymous said...

But, Grace Lutheran offers it multiple times a week. Complete with chanting, genuflecting, kneeling and "the holy catholic church," in its creeds.
Wait, that sounds like the RC church...hmmmmm.