Tuesday, May 19, 2020
Communion outside of the Mass. . .
Recently a piece in Forum Letter by the astute Gil Meilaender struck me as not so astute as I have come to expect from him. In it he berates all the emphasis upon the Sacrament of the Altar and equates it with that dreaded word, clericalism. Among other things he says: "By making celebration of the Lord's Supper the sine qua non of the church's life during this time of pandemic, it happens that pastors also magnify their own importance."
Meilaender is not alone. Other Lutherans have also been quick to point to a fairly recent past when the Divine Service was, as I loved to call it, a half-mass or dry mass because it ended at the offertory and skipped everything from the Sursum Corda to the ite missa est. These voices have been quick to tell us to slow down and give up the anxiety about not being together in the Lord's House. They have talked about the sufficiency of the Word (as if that was really what this was about) and the fact that love for neighbor might mean foregoing even the Sacrament and the weekly assembly on the Lord's Day. Again, the implication is that pastors are upset because it might seem that they are not all that necessary. I am not sure whose egos are getting in the way here but after working patiently and indigently for decades to make sure that the Divine Service was Word and Sacrament, it is more than a problem of pastor's self-importance to now suggest that it was never all that big a deal in the first place.
Surprise. Surprise. Rome is having a similar conversation. Some are suggesting that the meal emphasis of the Mass (whatever that means) was not all that helpful and may even obscure the real meaning of the Mass and that for many centuries people communed less frequently without that much of a problem. Further, some are suggesting that communion within the Mass is not or need not be normative and communion outside the Mass is worth restoring again. Some Romans have suggested that for a time reception of Holy Communion outside the Mass will once again be the norm. Maybe so but as a Lutheran I find it odd and curious that there is a problem with people expecting to receive Holy Communion in the Mass and that the only real solution to the pandemic problem and its aftermath is less frequent communion. For some the real center of the Mass is the sacrifice and not the sacramental eating and drinking. Perhaps Rome was tolerating more frequent communions and the expectation of communion within the Mass when the real problem is that communion actually gets in the way of what the Mass really is -- at least for Rome.
By the way, there are Lutherans who are objecting to Lutherans receiving the Sacrament outside of the Mass (Divine Service) because the Sacrament is either not all that necessary, the pastor is not a private chaplain to a few, or private communions betray the very essence of what the Divine Service truly is. A Eucharistic fast, in other words, is preferable to many small services multiplied enough to make sure any and all who wish to attend may attend. My response is that it seems we have some talking to do. . .
Rome will need to figure out where the expectation of communion within the Mass is a bad thing or could be a bad thing or not, whether or not frequent communion obscures the meaning of the Mass. Lutherans will need to figure out whether or not the and in the middle of Word and Sacrament means what we think it means or not. I refuse to suggest that the times in which the Sacrament was offered very occasionally and seldom represents anything but a low point in Lutheran sacramental theology and piety. I am not sure I was ever all that important to anyone but my family but my conscience is clear with respect to finding ways to keep the church doors open during this pandemic and serving those who wish to come the Word preached and the Sacrament administered (as many times as necessary until all who desire to receive both have received both). To those who might think otherwise, finding a way for this to happen is not an exercise in ego any more that declaring a Eucharistic fast is a choice borne of sinful self-importance. But I suspect that such conversations will not happen once things return to enough of the normal that parish life is busy with the usual.