The same is also true of the things of God and the Divine Service. Small things -- ceremony, ritual, and church usages -- these all hold significance greater than their size or weight. A head bowed, a crucifix, hands folded, a knee bent -- these are small things to be sure but they have great symbolic value and bespeak a profound and eternal truth. Hidden in these small things are great truths.
If you look at the paintings of the Reformation era, altar boys are shown holding a houseling cloth as the blessed host is given to the communicant. The cloth was stretched under the chin of the communicant to catch a crumb lest it fall to the ground. Later it was placed over the rail (as it still is in some Roman churches where the Latin Mass is said). In other places it was replaced with a chin paten or communion paten -- a paten with a handle which served the same purpose. It hovered under the chin of the communicant to catch a crumb or the whole host lest it fall to the ground.
It was -- it is -- a small but highly significant thing, the houseling cloth or chin paten. Though you never see it among Lutherans anymore, it is not as if it is not needed. With so many receiving in the hand, dropping the host is more common than I would care to admit. In days gone by this was a small but important thing -- reverence for the host, the body of Christ. It was a small way that testified to the real, true, and substantial presence of Christ in the Holy Sacrament -- even in the smallest crumb of the host! It was also a profound example of the devotion that the faithful held about that blessed communion upon the flesh and blood of Christ and their desire to honor the Lord not only with the devotion of the heart but the outward piety of faith.
I am sad that today such things have become an occasion of controversy. A Lutheran who would offer a hand paten or houseling cloth would very likely be scorned as a Romanist. Even in Rome there are those who turn up their noses at these vestiges of a long forgotten piety. We no longer think like that -- we are neither medieval nor are we superstitious. Such is the way we would cast aside the pious and careful acts of the faithful -- Lutheran as well as Roman Catholic. In other cases it would be dismissed as no longer needed -- as if the most important quality of the Divine Service were utilitarianism! Ah, it is sad, indeed, that we are so smug about the devotion of those who went before us.
But it is about more than this. I am not so sure that we are nearly as convinced as they were of the vibrant and profound presence of Christ in that host and cup. We have drunk freely of the spiritual but not religious koolaid and we are too sophisticated to be caught up in fears of defiling or simply treating casually the things of God.
Luther was not a modernist. He did not think like we tend to think today. The story is told of the mature Luther, 58, who was serving at the altar in Wittenberg, 1542. . .
Luther did not have to but his faith compelled him. So that altar boys of old holding the houseling cloth or the hand paten. But if we do not do it today, is it because we think it no longer needed or because we no longer believe the Real Presence so strongly. I hope and pray it is the former but I fear the very presence of Christ in the Sacrament has eluded us and we have moved, as we like to think, beyond such simplistic thinking. I wish it were not so but I fear it is.... a woman wanted to go to the Lord’s Supper, and then as she was about to kneel on the bench before the altar and drink, she made a misstep and jostled the chalice of the Lord violently with her mouth, so that some of the Blood of Christ was spilled from it onto her lined jacket and coat and onto the rail of the bench on which she was kneeling. So then when the reverend Doctor Luther, who was standing at a bench opposite, saw this, he quickly ran to the altar (as did also the reverend Doctor Bugenhagen), and together with the curate, with all reverence licked up [the Blood of Christ from the rail] and helped wipe off this spilled Blood of Christ from the woman’s coat, and so on, as well as they could. And Doctor Luther took this catastrophe so seriously that he groaned over it and said, “O, God, help!” and his eyes were full of water. (Johann Hachenburg, quoted in Edward Frederick Peters, The Origin and Meaning of the Axiom: “Nothing Has the Character of a Sacrament Outside of the Use” [Fort Wayne, Indiana: Concordia Theological Seminary Press, 1993], p. 191)
The revival of the faith happens not simply with the big things but in the small things that seem of no real importance and yet in them we demonstrate what we really do believe. . .