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.


Paul T. McCain said...

You write:

In churches where the sacrament is not reserved in a tabernacle

And that should include all churches of the Augsburg Confessions, which, in their Book of Concord, confess that we do not practice this sort of thing.

Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Pastor McCain,
You write, in reference to the non-use of the tabernacle:

"And that should include all churches of the Augsburg Confessions, which, in their Book of Concord, confess that we do not practice this sort of thing."

Evidently you and I disagree on this point. First, I would make clear that I surely don't expect all pastors to necessarily find it needful or desirable to reserve the Sacrament in a tabernacle. There are those who do reserve the Sacrament reverently in a tabernacle, and that precisely for reasons of pastoral care.

The Formula surely condemns scenarios in which the Sacrament will not be distributed to and received by the people, in other words, that which is outside of the use instituted by Christ. Indeed, it names more than once in such condemnation the Sacrament being "locked up." When it does, however, the confessors have in mind a locking up of the Sacrament in a situation where there specifically will not be a reception and participation of the people. This is not the case among Lutheran priests I know who reserved the Sacrament reverently in a tabernacle. Rather, those are priests who will give it to communicants latrer that day, or week, either outside of Mass, or at the next celabration of Mass.

There seems to be many more pastors that have the Body and Blood of Christ left over after the Mass (for whatever reasons-eg, too much was consecrated, or it is needed for pastoral reasons later in the week) than the number of pastors who store that Sacrament reverently in a tabernacle. So my question would not be why those few who store it reverently do so, but rather the opposite, viz., why we tend not to press the issue with those who treat the Sacrament irreverently.

Paul T. McCain said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Apparently, dear reader, there was a third comment here, which was removed. I did not even see it, so I will not presume what the nature of the comment was. It may have been something quite innocent, that the writer simply changed his mind about publishing. I guess I didn't even realize that someone could remove a comment from someone else's blog. Maybe one of you could explain that to me.