Thursday, December 18, 2008

Reverence & the Liturgy

This past summer I was faced with open and explicit accusations of legalism and pharisaism from a couple of churchmen for mentioning that we could learn something from the traditional rubric which has the celebrant hold his thumb and forefinger together after the consecration, and from the traditional practice of receiving the Body of Christ on the tongue instead of touching it with the hand. Perhaps even more disturbing than these accusations of legalism leveled at me is the way in which these men ridiculed, made fun of, and belittled such traditional rubrics of reverent conduct vis a vis the true presence of our Lord’s sacred Body and Blood in the Sacrament. One of them ridiculed them as “such contortions.” The other ridiculed the idea of holding one’s fingers “just so,” and called it “hyper-ritualization” and “absurd.” While being intolerant of my advocacy of traditional conduct toward the sacred species, this churchman allowed someone else to advocate in a comment at his blog the disposing of dropped consecrated particles by means of the “dust-buster.” I would not bring up such scandalous talk on their part if in the months since then there would have been any word acknowledging that they were mistaken on my position, or that there was a change of heart. Nor do I do so in order to continue a fight, though I won’t shy away from it.

I bring it up because as I was reading about the development of the liturgy lately, I was brought to reflect on perhaps the most revealing of the silly claims thrown about in the “argument” of a few months ago. (If these interlocutors would make a reasoned argument, I would leave the quotes out of this word.) The claim I have in mind is that the careful handling of the Body of Christ is a rubricism which comes out of the 13th century, and results from a theology of transubstantiation. It is purely of the Thomistic tradition, in other words.

In fact, the practice of the priest placing the Body of Christ in the mouth of the communicant dates to the ninth century in Gaul, and it dates to the sixth century in Rome. It was a reform that was necessary to curb a growing irreverence toward the Sacrament. Apparently there was a problem in some churches, where the people were led to think it was acceptable to go right up to the altar, and take the Eucharist for themselves.

Such anecdotes of irreverence are not mere historical curiosity, however. It is ironic that some of the moderns of our Church today think themselves so clever, so gloriously divergent from the past as they try to forge an emerging church. For it turns out that what goes around will come around again, especially when the Church grows sleepy and falls from its vocation of vigilance.

There are churches today in the Missouri Synod where the people gather in a circle in the chancel, and the paten is passed around, one person taking from it, and then handing it to the next, and so on. Then the same with the chalice, as one communicant hands it to the one next to him, and he to the next, until it comes all the way around.

While some preachers make fun of the idea of the priest with his pinky finger sticking out as he holds his thumb & forefinger together, the communicant is practically required to stick the pinky out when taking hold of the tiny “individual communion cup” in so many Lutheran churches today. How irreverent (intended or not) that many take a sip of the little cup, and set the rest down, leaving so much of the precious Blood of Christ to go to waste.

A few short years ago there was a meeting of seminary professors and ecclesiastical bureaucrats, where the Lord’s Supper was celebrated, in a conference room, with the bread & wine set out in the middle of each of several large round tables where the participants were seated. The Words of Christ were spoken by someone in the front of the room, the idea being that these elements were now to be thought of as consecrated. How many other instances of this sort go on I do not know.

There are endless accounts of the irreverence of the Holy Mass at Synodical Youth Gatherings (which ironically is often the only large event at the gathering specifically not called a “mass event,” according to witnesses from whom I have heard).

There are pastors who barely pause at all when reciting the words of consecration over the bread and wine. The one thing that must be avoided, in the view of many, is what President Barry, of blessed memory, often referred to as the extreme practices of “transubstantiationism,” such as the elevations of the Sacrament, genuflections, and reciting or chanting the consecratory Words slowly and distinctly over the elements.

There is a real crisis in today’s Church, viz., that of the drastic loss of reverence for the true and substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Some Lutherans think that it would be far worse if there were a loss of reverence for the Gospel itself. So let me put it into terms that will resonate with them. The Sacrament of the Altar, as Luther pointed out, is the Gospel. So the loss of reverence for the Sacrament is a diminished reverence for the Gospel. Some call this a catechetical crisis, or an aspect of today’s catechetical crisis. I do not disagree with that. I would urge, however, that we not see it only as a catechetical matter, at least not in a narrow sense of catechesis. For the people, whether the little children, or the occasional visitor, or the long time parishioner, or the thirteen year old who is engaged in intense catechetical study, learn just as much, I would argue, if not more, from seeing what happens in church and at the altar, than they do from their catechism drills and catechetical lectures, however brilliant those catecheses may be. The people pick up, learn from, and are spiritually affected, positively or negatively, by the example they see when they go to Mass. In other words, this is most directly a liturgical crisis.

Could it really be true, then, that there is something we could learn from the traditional rubrics of the Mass? Are we going to learn to become Pharisees and legalists? Are we going to "turn people away" from the church? Are we going to learn to confuse the rubrics with the “essence of the Lutheran Confession?” Despite the fact that there probably always have been those who do just that, we have absolutely no reason for letting such fear paralyze us from liturgical renewal. One thing is for sure. The Church of our time will learn, by a renewed attention to traditional rubrics, to have an increased reverence for the mystery of the Mass, in which our Lord, for us men and for our salvation, gives us the gift of Himself.

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