Friday, April 28, 2023

Communion outside the Mass. . .

It may come as a surprise to some that communion within the Mass is a norm which is more the result of reforms in Rome than a reflection of history.  The practice of communing outside Mass seems to be mentioned first in the second and third centuries. The context seems to arise from "emergency" situations in which the Eucharist from the Sunday celebration was sent to those who were absent (Justin, 1 Apol. 1, 67) and from domestic settings, bringing it to the home of the sick during the week (Tertullian, Ad uxorem 2, 5; De oratione 19).  Domestic weekday communion declined with overall less frequent communion and the introduction of weekday Mass (late fourth century).  In the Christian West, from the ninth century on, those not receiving communion on Sundays were sometimes dismissed with the priest's blessing, and communion then followed. This became more common in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The Sunday Communion Service apart from the Mass is a late twentieth-century development. Although the service provides a means of eucharistic participation and access, the practice is at best tolerated and has never enjoyed the preeminent status according to the documents governing the liturgy.

Dogmatically, the Roman Church has always considered the reception of Communion by the faithful as the logical and necessary conclusion of the sacrificial celebration.  This was clearly the express will of Christ who invites to take and eat. Already St. John Chrysostom (349-407) complained, “In vain we stand before the altar, there is no one to partake.” Instruction had to take place to enjoin to the faithful the importance of receiving Communion. From the fourth century there were conciliar decrees obligating clerics to commune and in 1123 the First Lateran Council found it necessary to absolutely require confession and Communion at least once a year for all Catholics as an absolute minimum. This requirement, though it remains in force today it has seen widely diverging practice.  A return to more frequent Communion, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, restored the practice of more normal communion within the Mass.

My point here is not to focus on Rome's problems but to consider the situation Luther found in the Church at the time of the Reformation.  If communion was not usual within the Mass, if the people had to be encouraged to commune at least once a year, and if it would take three to four hundred years after the Reformation before Rome was able to restore communion during the Mass as a norm, that says a great deal about the condition of the faithful at the time of Luther.  It certainly explains Luther's own minimum of four times a year and makes Luther's minimum a much higher standard than the typical standard in place at the time.  In this respect, Luther was ahead of his time and envisioned the norm that was typical of the early church and should have remained the standard for the church ever since.  

Growing up in the Lutheranism of the 1950s I can see how a minimum of participation soon became the maximum number of times the Sacrament was even offered.  It would take a couple of generations within the Lutheranism of my past before we learned to see Luther's words in context and move to engage more faithfully the norm of our own Confession and the standard of the Church from earliest times of a weekly Eucharist in which the faithful would have had a pretty big reason not to commune when the Eucharist was offered.  In our Lutheran history, the Reformation which was also a time of sacramental renewal ended up getting lost in the swamps of Pietism, Rationalism, and non-sacramental Protestantism until it would take our own version of liturgical renewal to restore what Augustana said was our norm.  More than this, however, is the continuing work of restoring the Sacrament as the beating heart of our piety.  The easy part of restoring the frequency with which the Sacrament is offered is being done as I write.  The more frequent communions that take place as a result of more frequent celebrations is also being done as I write.  The restoration of the Eucharist to the center of our piety and the source and summit of our individual lives as well as our lives together continues to go on....

No comments: