Saturday, March 18, 2023

Look at me. . .

Looking back on the vestments that Benedict XVI wore, I was first struck by their stunning artistry only to find that they were old, very old.  He worse these vestments not out of preference for a style but as a visual demonstration of his hermeneutic of continuity.  It is clear from Francis' refusal to wear them that the current pope is saying something essentially different.  Benedict was identifying with his predecessors while Francis is saying quite visually as well as in words -- I am not those who went before me.  Perhaps he is saying even more.  Look at me and do not pay any attention to those who went before me.  Although his stewardship of the papal office is fraught with contradictions and confusion, he as the center, the star, the one in control is unmistakable.  For all the talk of synodality and collegiality among the bishops, Francis does everything he can to make sure no one influences him and he alone is large and in charge.  The vestments he chooses are as much as visual cue to this characteristic as are his words.

The early Lutherans were slow to break with the past in ceremony, vestment, or doctrine.  When they did, they were also careful to insist that it was because Rome had veered away and the Lutherans were making a course correction for continuity and not against it.  The proliferation of quotes from the fathers give the Confessions backup for the claim of continuity.  Indeed, unless the Lutherans were claiming and could give evidence that Rome was the innovator and they were the true catholics, the whole Reformation is merely a vain personality conflict and its doctrine the triumph of reason and individualism.  What makes the Reformation hang together is the almost casual and yet profound insistence that the Lutherans were catholic in doctrine and practice and Rome was not.  As significant as this truth might have been then, today Lutherans have not a clue what to do with it.  On the one hand some are in pursuit of a radical ecumenical vision with their embrace of culture.  On the other, some are perfectly content to be a Protestant sect with peculiar worship styles.  Neither is an authentic voice for what is embodied in the Lutheran Confessions or early Lutheran practice (before it was impinged upon by governments and agendas).

Which, when looking at vestments, is a visual clue to Lutheranism.  The preservation for many years of the traditional mass vestments as well as the mass form (with the Formula Missae more as evangelical rubrics to stand along side the medieval missal) were in the mouth and in the eye the same.  We are those who went before us.  The Lutheran doctrinal and ceremonial ideal is exactly the hermeneutic of continuity (unlike Rome, it is not wedded to a moment in time like the Tridentine Mass but to the whole).  Of course, it is a rejection of the Church as infallible voice above that of Scripture but it is not a rejection of the Church as the Body of Christ visible and present where the true marks of the Church are found -- including catholicity.

When Lutheran pastors use personal style or preference to decide what to wear or they shy away from the logical and normal judgment of the world watching the Lutheran Divine Service (you are catholic!), it is a reflection of their uncertainty and discomfort with that very catholic identity.  It is as well a visual cue that they do not see themselves or who they are or what they do as in continuity with the catholic and apostolic faith and practice that went before them.  It is as if they are very much like Francis in Rome:  Look at me; I am not like those who went before me.  Even those who love Luther, love the Protestant sounding Luther and not the catholic voice -- note the discomfort with Luther's commentary on the Magnificat.  It is as if some modern day Lutherans are out-Luthering Luther in trying to insist that the Reformation really was about establishing a new church!  What they wear or do not wear is part of that erroneous conviction.

What you need are pastors who insist the opposite -- do not look at me but look at the Word I proclaim and the Sacraments I administer and the office I hold.  Some years ago a volume came out with the wonderful title At Home in the House of My Fathers.  Increasingly, Lutherans are having trouble feeling at home in the house of their fathers and because of that they are also making it hard for God's people to be at home in the house of the Father on high.  If the Lutheran Reformation ends up running out of gas, it will not be because the Lutherans confessed the faith of their fathers but because they were not at ease with their fathers in the faith and have decided to make Lutheranism merely a church instead of the church that the Reformers claimed.  When that happens, they deserve to fade away but the faith once and lively confessed will remain because it is the faith of the Scriptures and of the fathers.

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