Thursday, June 24, 2021

The faith of a finger. . .

Reading histories of the liturgy and books that inform and instruct on the ceremonial of the liturgy is an odd hobby for some but it fits for me.  I only wish I had more time.  For me the crux of the matter has to do with how we express the faith of the heart as we are gathered at the Lord's call before His altar to hear His Word and receive His Sacrament.  The interest is not curiosity so much as it is marvel how the doctrine of the faithful entered into the practice of the faith in worship.  The rubrics were informed not by taste but by truth and they were followed not by law but by faith.

So for a good long time, when the priest was saying mass (at least according to the Roman rite), there were rubrics (red letter rules) for even how the fingers were held.  The tradition was that the priest would  hold the thumb and forefinger together from the time of the consecration until the ablutions.  Now, to be sure, this is not so much observed today since most masses are Novus Ordo but this rule is still observed in Latin Mass.  This practice comes from the doctrine of the Real Presence and expresses in action what the Church believes about Christ's presence in the Sacrament of the Altar.  It may seem rather trivial but it was not meant as something trivial but profound.

Once the consecration takes place and the Word of the Lord is addressed to the elements of bread and wine, then our Lord is really present -- really and truly and substantially present -- in the bread and cup.  This is not some vague presence deposited in the faith of the presider or of the communicant or some spiritual presence that has nothing to do with the bread and wine.  It means that every crumb of bread and every drop of wine is His body given and shed for the forgiveness of our sins.  The crucified and risen Lord is presence among us, on the altar, to be adored, received, and honored with thanksgiving and praise.  

As the Rev. Dr. Arthur Carl Piepkorn once put it:  And so in the transcendent miracle of the Holy Sacrament we stand in the presence of Calvary's sacrifice, the body that was given for our transgressions and the infinitely precious blood shed for our sins, and plead Christ's mercit for that which we most need and desire.  The Rev. Berthold von Schenk put it this way:  The handbook of the Church is St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, but we have misunderstood his arguments. ‘Discerning the Body of Christ,’ our exegetes taught concerning 1 Corinthians 11, means ‘believing that the bread is actually the Body of Christ and the wine actually the Blood of Christ.’ This is how they defined the Real Presence. “At Communion we are actually on the mount called Calvary.” Consequently, von Schenk teaches: “In Communion, as nowhere else, the believer is caught up in this
great continual act, this timeless offering of the one sacrifice on the Cross.”

If we believe this and confess it, then how we handle the things of God is not adiaphora or something indifferent.  The ancient practice of the priest not casually handling other things after handling the very body of Christ is the practice of the belief in the Real Presence.  So when the priest kept those two fingers together except when distributing communion, he was being mindful of that Real Presence and keeping the hands devoted to the one task of distributing the body and blood of Christ until at the end he washed them and the vessels in the ablutions. The simple practice of holding the fingers together was a constant reminder to priest and people of the awesome mystery held in his hand.

We quickly sniff at the superstition of such a practice as if we are above all of that kind of stuff but could it be that the problem is that we no longer believe what the priest's fingers handle is the very body of Christ?  Could it be that the lackadaisical way our people treat being in Church on the Lord's Day and preparing for Communion and the way the reliquae (what remains after the Eucharist is complete) are handled are symptoms of a much deeper problem than rubricitis?  Could it be that we simply no longer believe that it is the body of Christ and His blood or else we don't believe it matters all that much one way or another?  

Practices do not generate belief nor do they, in and of themselves, guarantee orthodoxy but they reflect well what we either do or do not believe.  So what do we not believe about the Real Presence when the vessels are treated casually, when spills are walked over as if nothing had happened, when the faithful are not taught how to receive the body and blood, when there is no ablution of the remains in the sacred vessels, or when the reliquae are put in an old Cool Whip container and placed in a cabinet in the sacristy or tossed into the garbage as if they were nothing of value?  You tell me?


Carl Vehse said...

On June 19, 2008, CPH Publisher Paul McCain discussed Lutheran hyper-fingerists in a now-archived Cyberbrethren article, "The Dangers of Hyper-Ritualizing Lutheran Worship Or: Why ‘Say the black, do the red’ is the wisest course." About hyper-ritualists McCain noted:

"I think some are getting too concerned about Medieval-era Roman Catholic rubrics calling, for example, for a pastor to hold his fingers in a certain position, in a certain way, 'just so' when performing the liturgy. It is this kind of hyper-ritualization of all things having to do with worship and liturgy that is about the best formula I can imagine for turning people away from the liturgy. The better way is to 'say the black, do the red' as contained in the hymnals and its companion volumes, not trying to 'one up' the church’s accepted worship resources."

Other relevent archived Cyberbrethren columns on hyper-ritualism include:

June 20, 2008, "Historic Lutheran Worship v. Medieval Roman Masses"

June 25, 2008, "Is Referring to the Lutheran Divine Service as a “Mass” a Wise Thing to Do?"

Steve said...

I have a question that I hope Pastor Peters is kind enough to share his thoughts on.

Martin Chemnitz is for confessional Lutherans our premiere systematic theologian. On the moment of the real presence, he writes:
“Christ says of that which is blessed, which is offered, received, eaten and drunk: “This is My body, this is My blood.” Therefore when the bread is indeed blessed but neither distributed nor received, but enclosed, shown and carried about, it is surely clear that the whole word of institution is not added to the element, for this part is lacking: He gave it to them and said, Take and eat. And when the word of institution is incomplete, there can be no complete Sacrament.”

Note the phrase, “and when the word of institution is incomplete.” What does this mean? The words of institution at the consecration are the spoken words of the pastor. How can they be incomplete? Unless Chemnitz is saying the whole word of institution is not simply equivalent to the spoken blessing of the pastor. Indeed, our own confessions plainly state that “no recitation of the minister” produces the real presence. So, the whole word of institution is the entire usus, including blessing, distribution, and reception, precisely because this usus IS Christ’s word of institution. The word of institution is thus the original word of Christ, whose words retain their efficacy for all time. And no precise “moment of change” is relevant for confessional Lutherans precisely because the Bible does not delve into such specific matters. By not prying or trying to mimic medieval church thought practices, we are honoring what God has chosen to reveal to us through sacred Scripture alone.

Steve said...

Reading Chemnitz closely in this sense casts light on other orthodox Lutheran dogmaticians, such as Gerhard, who also refused to fall into the ditch of either consecrationism or receptionism. “The repetition of that primeval institution, made by the minister of the Church, is not merely historical and doctrinal, but also consecratory; by which, according to the appointment of Christ, the external symbols are truly and efficaciously set apart to sacred use, and in the very act of distribution become the communion of the body and blood of Christ.”

Likewise Walther, who is frequent misread and dismissed as a receptionist:

“The sacrament has not yet been effected by the mere reading of the words of institution, if in addition the consecrated elements are not also distributed to communicants and received by them.”

We ignore our Lutheran fathers’ teaching on the sacramental union for our own 20th century pet theologians, who are often motivated more by a desire for external harmony between Roman Catholic and Lutheran teachings as validation that we are not sectarian Protestants but instead the true, visible, evangelical catholic Church at our own peril. The peril is forsaking God’s inerrant Scriptural revelation for our own desires, however theoretically noble and unifying they may seem.

Pastor Peters said...

Mr. Strickert seems to think that Lutheran worship is a good thing but our Confessions know nothing of Lutheran worship -- only that which is catholic in doctrine and practice. It is a very unfortunate thing that Lutheran has become something distinct from and even against what our Confessions commend.

Pastor Peters said...

Steve, I wonder if we are not misunderstanding some things. To say that something is a Sacrament or is not a Sacrament is not simply a statement about form but about use. To consecrate the body and blood of Jesus for another purpose other than the eating and drinking is not a Sacrament because it is not benefiting us as Christ intended. But is that the same thing as saying that Christ is not present there? Further, the consecration does not take place in a vacuum. It takes place in the context for which Christ intended -- people examined and absolved desiring to receive what it is that He has promised. I have no problem saying that apart from its use, it is not a Sacrament but that is not, I suggest, the same as the question of whether or not Christ is present in the bread and wine. He may be but it would be a travesty to adore His presence in the Eucharist and then either not desire to eat and drink or never intend to and were Christ present, it would not be a Sacrament because we would not benefit from its primary use -- eating and drinking in faith for the forgiveness of our sins.

I have long wondered if this is responsible in part for receptionism -- the desire to connect the consecration to its intended end -- though mistaken in trying to suggest that the Word of Christ did not do what His Word promises.

So in our conversation, I wonder if we should not be more precise in nuancing the difference between consecration and presence and reception and blessing. To say that something is not a Sacrament is a statement more about the latter than the former, though it may be about both. To say that the Word does not effect what it promises is another thing, though, again, both issues may be intertwined.

When Lutherans say nothing is a Sacrament apart from its use, are we really saying that we know that Christ is not present as His Word promises or that His presence does not bestow the benefits and blessings that Christ promised. Regardless, we all know that it is not the intention of Christ for His body in bread and blood in wine to be adored in place of reception by the faithful or because the faithful do not desire to receive Him. It is not that parading Christ around is the worst possible thing in the context of the full use, including reception, but it is surely an epic failure to keep His Word if we carry Him around in a monstrance or reliquary without ever offering Him to the faithful to eat and drink as He, in His own Word, declares and expects. That is the scandal. There may be some benefit from such adoration but it is not the benefit Christ intended when He commanded us to eat and drink as His anamnesis.

Steve said...

Thanks, great thoughts. I think the medieval practice of Eucharistic adoration and teaching that this benefited the laity as much as actual reception was no doubt a result of most adults fearing judgment in the Sacrament. Even Lutherans maintained the teaching that one must not be in a state of serious sin and show visible growth in sanctification to receive the Sacrament properly, a “negative” emphasis that is long, long lost. This attitude can be seen in practice by Wolfgang Musculus’ description of Lutheran worship at Wittenberg in 1536, when he notes that “no men, but only the priests and a few old women” communed.

As for Christ’s real presence after the consecration even in an incomplete Sacrament, the Lutherans were united in their denial of this. You are correct in stating that the entire Sacrament hangs together, which includes Christ’s presence. Lutheran Christology makes this presence a little more nuanced, however. Chemnitz states in the Examen:

“Nevertheless the meaning is not that the blessed bread which is divided, which is offered, and which the apostles received from the hand of Christ was not the body of Christ but becomes the body of Christ when the eating of it is begun. For the whole action of the institution hangs together, and the words, “This is My body,” belong to the entire action. Therefore it is concerning that bread which is blessed, which is broken or divided, which is offered, received, and eaten – I say, it is concerning that bread that Christ says, “This is My body.” And Paul says of this broken bread that it is “a participation in the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 10:16). Moreover, he says in the words of institution, “This is My body, which is broken for you,” that is, what is divided in the Supper is the body of Christ. Therefore Christ, God and man, is present in the total action of the Supper instituted by Him, and offers to those who eat it his body and blood. For it is He Himself who through the ministry blesses, who divides, who offers, who says, “Take, eat; this is My body.”

Again, Christ’s words belong to the entire action, not just the consecration. So as Lutherans, we cannot say either the real presence begins with the consecration OR begins with the reception. Think of Luther, who identified the beginning of the sacramental action as starting with the Lord’s Prayer, and not the words of institution! Christ is present throughout, since it is he who blesses, divides, and offers his true body and blood. This presence is real and effective through his word of institution. It is not to be confused with a local, physical presence in every crumb and drop of bread and wine at a specific moment in the liturgy.