Tuesday, January 15, 2008

In Defense of Pseudonymous Writers

When one writes under a pseudonym, or even anonymously, is he showing a lack of courage? Should the content of his writing be disregarded because his identity is hidden? Some, such as Paul McCain, think so. This is certainly a valid opinion. However, I've been pondering the question, lately, and it occurs to me that the practice of writing under an alias merits a defense.

First, let us establish that there are levels of anonymity, or if you wish to see the cup half full, there are levels of clarity regarding a writer's identity. And I admit that when I see a commenter who reveals only a first name, or a blog of which the name of the author is completely unclear, I do find it a tiny bit disturbing. I'm not saying I'm angry, or annoyed. I'm just saying that, personally, if I could have it my way (which might not be best), I would prefer to know those with whom I am conversing. And in such cases, there are a variety of reasons for the lack of full clarity. Some are simply sloppy in their creation of blogs, and forget to make their identity more clear. Some are quite intentionally vague, and that for their own reasons, which I don't necessarily condemn. And after dealing with some of these guys in 'e' discussion for a while, I think that in many cases, we can make pretty good guesses as to who the writer is. Some of us in the Confessional Lutheran blog world, for example, can be fairly sure, I think, who "Peter" is.

Now regarding the utterly anonymous or pseudonymous, you know, the General Scuttlebutts or Priestmans of the world, their hidden identity is certainly intentional. Indeed, with some of this sort, we are dealing with the precise identity they want the world to see. I am perfectly content to hear these writers out, and deal with them on their own terms. In a moment I'll try to explain why.

But first, to be clear, dissociating one's true identity from his writings can be a vehicle for real mischief. It can afford a writer a safe haven from which he might launch unchristian attacks on others. It can enable one to write in ways that he ought not, both in terms of substance and style. This is all patently true. We must immediately admit a couple of things, however. One is that such things are done by writers whose names are known all the time. The other is simply that abuse does not disprove use. In fact, it can be argued that it only confirms the essential validity of the thing in question (Abusus non tollit usum, sed confirmat substantiam).

There are, in fact, times and places, both in the world and in the Church, where it becomes helpful, and needful, for a writer to express what he needs to express under some sort of cover of safety, such as a pen name. Immeasurable good can be accomplished for the Church in such situations.

One example that immediately comes to mind is Matthias Flacius, the true leader of the Gnesio Lutheran movement after Luther's death. The men who had the prestige, the fame, the established position of 'moral authority' after the Reformer died were the Wittenberg theologians, such as Melanchthon and Bugenhagen. This does not mean, however, (God bless their eternal memory) that they were always right. So it could be dicy business to go against them, or to go against the pope or emperor without their approval. This Flacius did, over and over again, on matters such as the Augsburg Interim, and the Leipzig Interim. And he paid bitterly for it. Much of his great work was written under his own name, but sometimes he needed to write under other names, such as Christian Lauterwar, Joannes Waremund, Theodor Henetus, and Carolus Azarias.

We do not live in the complex world of late sixteenth century Europe. Yet our situation has its own complexities. Nor, I would hasten to add, ought we presume to know the complexities of an individual's personal situation, even if our own corner of the Church seems cozy enough at the moment. Lutheran bureaucrats can be nasty, which I guess is my own twist on the adage about what absolute power can do.

Therefore my own response to writers who write from 'underground,' as it were, whether or not I always agree with you, is: right on! and write on!

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Psalm 119 & the Eucharist

A thought came to me at Epiphany Mass this past Sunday as I was praying a stanza from Psalm 119 after Communion.

But before I go on, let me make a general comment about a practice that ought to be actively revived in our Lutheran parishes. When one has returned to his pew after having received the Blessed Sacrament at Mass, it is an appropriate custom to kneel in thanksgiving and prayer.

In support of this thesis, let me first say a word about physical posture in the presence of the Presence of Christ our Immanuel. When Christ is present among us in the Sacrament, two acts of physical posture are appropriate, one is to genuflect at the end of the pew, say, for example, when going to Communion, returning, leaving church, or whatever; the other is to kneel, when receiving the Sacrament, and also at one's pew whenever modern Lutherans typically sit down. These two physical acts of worship are appropriate beginning with the Sanctus.

In churches where the sacrament is not reserved in a tabernacle, before the Consecration takes place the Sacrament is not present at the altar, and therefore it is appropriate to bow to the altar, instead of genuflecting, when arriving at one's pew, for the altar symbolizes Christ our sacrifice for sin, and so deserves reverence, but not worship. We may add, however, that in those churches where the Sacrament is reserved, it is always appropriate to genuflect at the end of one's pew, and also to kneel in prayer before sitting down when arriving at church. (It is the traditional custom that the presence of the reserved Sacrament is signalled by a constantly burning santuary lamp, but do not trust such a sign in Lutheran churches. For unfortunately the sign of the sanctuary lamp is often retained without the reality it was meant to sigfnify, but with some other meaning attached to it instead, such as the eternal nature of God, or the presence of the Spirit in the Church, or some other such thing.)

Why are such acts and postures appropriate? I suggest that it is not only that it is appropriate to behave this way, but that, in fact, the more deprotestantized we get and the more we orient our church culture back to Christ, who, propter nos homines, et propter nostram salutem, makes Himself present in the Blessed Sacrament, the more we will actually wonder the opposite question, namely, why would one not worship Him on bended knee?

If asked about all this, I think that most Lutheran pastors I know would surely say that they would not discourage such piety. And my words here are not meant as criticism of them. I would argue, however, that the policy of merely 'not discouraging' does two things. 1. It perpetuates the culture we have today, namely, an atmosphere where no progress will be made because those few who would like to practice more traditional sacramental piety are discouraged de facto by what goes on around them. They are the odd ones, who are seen as actually going against church practice, for example, when the bulletin actually instructs the people to sit (in some cases a church will even have announcements or a speech of some kind at the end of the service, with the reliquiae still on the altar, and the people expected to sit). 2. such a neutral approach is not as neutral as might appear, since it actually favors those who are actively opposed to such "extreme reverence." You better watch yourself if you happen to be attending a church which is also attended by well admired, well placed Lutherans who are in a position to cause you harm. There are many theoretical Lutherans, ie., Lutherans who agree with many things in theory, but to see things actually tried will always rub them the wrong way. The dawn of a new year of our Eucharistic Lord is surely a good time to resolve to never again worry about the Lutherans that everyone else admires.

So what would you pray when kneeling at the pew after Communion? The Church does not prescribe in this area. We might say, first, that it is good, as you kneel there, to simply be thankful to Christ our Lord for giving Himself to you in this way; you are in His presence, indeed, He is in you, and He is joining Himself with those around you. Just receive Him in your heart as you just received Him on your tongue, ie. with an open and a joyful and thankful dispostion. You might meditate for a moment on some of what we confess about the benefit of the Sacrament in the Small Catechism. You might pray certain traditional prayers, such as the Anima Christi, which is one I highly recommend. You might also pray and meditate upon the Word of God itself, for example, Psalm 111.

Getting back to this past Sunday, after Communion, for some reason this time I turned to Psalm 119, and began praying. At the third stanza, I was struck by something I had read many times before without noticing it in this light. The whole section is extremely rich, though I have neither the space here nor the ability to expound upon it all. Let me point out, however, two verses. Note the second verse of that section:

Open thou mine eyes, that I may see the wondrous things of thy law.

And also note how it culminates:

For thy testimonies are my delight, and my counsellors.

I have always loved that line, Open thou mine eyes, that I may see the wondrous things of thy law. They seem the perfect summary of the Christian approach to scripture and prayer. However, I never thought of what it could mean for the Christian who is, in a very profound sense, enlightened by God in the Sacrament. Our Lord famously reveals Himself to the two disciples after the resurrection precisely in the breaking of the bread in Luke 24. The climax of that account in Luke is surely these words,

And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them. And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight.

It could even be argued that this is the climax of the entire Gospel. The Eucharist is indeed the "summit," to use a Vatican II coinage, of the Church's life, and therefore of the Christian's life. For this is where we recognize our Lord; this is where we recognize who we are in relation to Him. As we say in the Song of Songs, "My beloved is mine, and I am his," and in the same chapter, "He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love."

This revelation, this epiphany, comes home to us most fully when we gather at the altar, and receive our Lord there. So the prayer of the Psalmist, Open thou mine eyes, that I may see the wondrous things of thy law, is most completely and profoundly answered at the altar, in the breaking of the bread. And praying the words of a Psalm like this after Communion is like acknowledging what one just received, and thanking God for it.

Finally, consider how that stanza ends, For thy testimonies are my delight, and my counsellors. What more important testimony does our Lord give to us than His last will and testament. Indeed, that is where the precious Blood that flows from His pierced side, which cleanses us from sin, is held out to us and declared to be the New Testament.

Both of these verses point toward a double truth which is sorely needed in the Church today. One is that the Eucharist is deeply scriptural. The other is that the scriptures are deeply eucharistic, and sacramental. This twofold truth deserves explication and development. For now, though, I simply wanted to share this little epiphany I had on Epiphany 2008.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Christmas decorations

It is now the second day in the octave of the Epiphany, and our decorations are still up. I wonder when most Christians take down the decorations, if there is a mainstream practice in that regard. I have heard of a number of arguments. On one extreme are those who leave up Christmas decorations until Candlemas. The other extreme, I suppose, is to put everything away on St. Stephen's Day. The latter extreme just doesn't make much sense when one considers that the 26th is only the second day of Christmas. And, frankly, the former seems a bit too much to me. Surely by the end of January the neighbors are wondering, with some justification, if you're a little crazy. If I had to guess, I would say that most church going Christians end all vestiges of Christmas celebration in the home by Twelfth Night, which this year was this past Saturday.

My own thinking on the matter is just a bit different from all of the above. Consider that the season we enter right after the twelve days of Christmas is Epiphanytide, the season which celebrates how the Christ was revealed to the wise men who had come from the east to worship Him. This wise men figure as a prominent part of St. Matthew's Infancy Narrative. They make for practically a sine qua non in home nativity scenes. My argument is to keep Christmas decorations up through the Epiphany season, which, I hasten to add, I do not interpret to mean the weeks after Epiphany. Rather, I am referring to the feast of the Epiphany (6 Jan.) and its octave, culminating on 13 Jan.

At the cost of being thought an Easternizer, I am also struck by the thought that just as we are all finished with any thought of Christmas, many (though not all) of the churches in the Eastern Orthodox world are getting ready to celebrate precisely this mystery of the birth of our Lord. Christmas is celebrated on 7 January by those churches that use the Julian calendar. So in a certain less than fully defined sense I am celebrating the birth of Christ with the Christians of that tradition by keeping the Christmas and Ephipany seasons together in certain little ways at home, such as not bothering to put away the decorations a few more days.

I leave the reader with one final unrelated thought (well, it's distantly related-maybe kissing cousins). The very next day after the Epiphany octave is complete, ie., 14 Jan., is, at least according to the sanctoral cycle, historically the feast of St. Hilary, the great 4th century bishop of Poitiers. That day, I would argue, begins the unofficial season of Carnival, a time of year which ends with Fat Tuesday. I imagine that would be a great time to be down in New Orleans. And considering that I am part of a church (the Missouri Synod) which was born of a colony of immigrants in the 19th century who entered America via New Orleans, travelling up the waters of the Mississippi, perhaps it would only be right and Lutheran to one day make a pilgrimage to that fine city for Mardi Gras. Maybe next year in New Orleans.