Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Lutheran Reverence Toward the Blessed Sacrament

Today it is only too common to hear Confessional Lutherans express suspicion of and downright disdain for behavior in church which seems to them to border on the excessively reverent. Yes, we believe that Our Lord's true Body and Blood are present in the Sacrament of the Altar, and it is certainly acceptable to express reverence toward that Presence, but only during the Service itself, and only through behavior which is commonly accepted in a given parish. Step over those lines, and you risk being called a legalist, a Romanist, or a pharisee. You will be called these things openly by some. And it will be whispered and implied by others. Some will throw accusations of this sort at you once, and then pretend it never happened. Calling them on it is like trying to nail down jello, and on top of that it is especially dangerous to confront some of them, since they are so well respected and admired in the church. It is like dealing with jello that is designed to explode in your face upon impact.

Having chosen for the most part to ignore people of this sort, the movement toward restoring and improving traditional reverent practice in our churches presses on, thanks be to God. And the Christians of our time (and the curious), as well as those who will come after us, are the ones who benefit.

Let us be clear about one thing, reverent treatment of the Blessed Sacrament is deeply rooted in our Lutheran tradition. This can be shown in manifold ways. On this occasion I would simply like to highlight an anecdote from late in the life of the Blessed Reformer, about four years before his death. The unpublished dissertation of Edward Peters, on the history of the axiom that nothing has the character of a sacrament outside of its use, is an excellent study. It is hardly the only source of good data on this, but it is very good. I consider it a must-read for seminarians. Father William Weedon includes the following passage in his recent blog entry:

A woman wanted to go to the Lord's Supper, and then as she was about to kneel on the bench before the altar and drink, she made a misstep and jostled the chalice of the Lord violently with her mouth, so that some of the Blood of Christ was spilled from it onto her lined jacket and coat and onto the rail of the bench on which she was kneeling. So then, when the reverend Doctor Luther, who was standing at a bench opposite, saw this, he quickly ran to the altar (as did also the reverend Doctor Bugenhagen), and together with the curate, with all reverence licked up [the Blood of Christ from the rail] and helped wipe off this spilled Blood of Christ from the woman's coat, and so on, as well as they could. And Doctor Luther took this catastrophe so seriously that he groaned over it, and said, "O, God, help!" and his eyes were full of water. (191)

First, note that this was from 1542. I think it is in most cases a mistake to qualify words or actions in Luther by claiming them as early Luther, or late Luther, etc. It is far wiser, I think, to instead gain a grasp on what it is he is reacting against at any given point. It is significant that we find such reverence on the part of Luther not only in the early stages of his life and priesthood, what some would call the still all too Catholic stage, but in every stage, even late in life.

Second, consider once again this account, and note that he does not merely assume that since the consecrated wine is spilled out onto the floor, that it must therefore be "outside of the use." Those who use this sort of logic have found a way to comfort their consciences about their own irreverent behavior. If Luther were here today he would not act any differently. For his love and respect for the Blessed Sacrament far outweighed his concern for how others would perceive him. God grant us the same faith and fearlessness today.


Eucharisted said...


Good post. I am quite unconvinced by the argument that Christ's presence in the sacrament ceases after the use for which it was ordained. Receptionism as it is called sometimes, runs into both logical and practical problems.

First, if the eucharistic elements cease to be Christ's body and blood after the divine service, what would be wrong with putting leftover hosts in the garbage and dumping the contents of the chalice on the sidewalk outside?

Second, the receptionist position is similar to the Neoorthodox understanding of the nature of scripture. The bible only becomes the word of God to us in a time of crisis; i.e. scripture is not objectively the word of God, but only subjectively. Traditional Christians generally believe that the bible is the word of God regardless of whether one is reading it or hearing it. The same can be said of the eucharist: that the elements retain their sacramental properties even after their immediate use is finished.

Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Thanks for sharing these thoughts, Eucharisted. Very valid points.

Eucharisted said...

Essentially, the point I was trying to make was that those who are averse to giving the sacrament too much respect usually hold to what I see as a faulty understanding of the sacramental union. Unfortunately, hyper-Protestantism doesn't appear to be leaving any time soon...

Amberg said...

I am quite unconvinced that people who don't consume all the elements after the use are giving due honor to the Sacrament.

Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

I appreciate this point of view, though I must say that I would disagree with the notion that reserving the Sacrament for later consumption is outside of the use.

The other thing I want to say in response to your comment, though, is that there are most definitely cases where I fully agree that leaving the Sacred Species unconsumed after the liturgical celebration is dishonorable. For example, there is no honor at all in taking the remaining consecrated Hosts, and setting them on a shelf in the sacristy, or on a table, or in a cupboard, no matter what one's reason is for keeping It, and no matter for how long one is keeping It, whether it be three days, or ten minutes. If one is not prepared to reserve the Sacrament in a fitting manner, then he has no business at all in reserving it, ie, in not consuming It all at the altar, before the ablutions.

This, ie., the irreverent treatment of the reliquiae, happens all the time. It is quite common, and I hardly ever hear a peep about it. It is, in my view, a slapping of our Lord in the face. It is a modern example of spitting in His face.

Eucharisted said...

Obviously, most of these folks are the ones who pour Christ's blood into little cups and then run all of them through the dishwasher...

The Exiled said...


I couldn't agree more with you. What is even worse are those who say that they believe in this, but their actions prove otherwise. I wish there was more emphasis on teaching reverence in the church.

Rev. Paul Beisel said...

Most of us are in congregations where developing a reverent practice is a work in progress. Having been here for just over four months, I am pleased with the progress we have made. The elements are consumed after the service, in the sacristy in a reverent manner. The individual cups remaining are poured into the Chalice, and then rinsed in hot, soapy water in a basin, and then the water is poured on the ground outside the church sacristy where no one walks. After the chalice is consumed, it is cleansed as well. We are actually offering the Chalice now during Communion, which is an improvement, though we have not gone back to the glass cups yet in the trays. There are so many aspects to this that must be worked out. I appreciate your comments, and assume that your criticism is leveled more towards those who are not even trying to improve their practice rather than those who are working with people who have never been told any of this before.

Eucharisted said...

Indeed, I attend a congregation in which the eucharistic practice is not where I wish it was. Rather than destroy relationships, it's better to implement reform slowly and in a Christian manner than in an uncharitable way. Though the common chalice is far more preferable in my mind to individual cups, trying to make it the norm by some sort of edict would destroy our very Lutheran belief that "not all practices need be the same everywhere." In evangelical freedom, some may choose to use shot glasses for communion. However, that needn't be forced on anyone, and the common chalice (nor eucharistic adoration) should not be looked down upon.

Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Father Beisel:

You write: "I...assume that your criticism is leveled more towards those who are not even trying to improve their practice rather than those who are working with people who have never been told any of this before."

For the record you can rest assured that this is indeed the case. Let me take this occasion, though, to point out that it is a most unfair and unfortunate fact that in today's Missouri Synod, it is those who would dare to discuss such things as reverent treatment of the venerable and holy Sacrament, or at least those who do so and are not politically well connected, who are accused of "going too far," or of being "insensitive," or "unpastoral." (For me they should really ammend that do "undiaconal.")

Don't get me wrong, this is not at all a veiled attack on you for bringing up the question. I am simply using it as an occasion to point out that it is all too real.

We might say there are basically three approaches to improving liturgical practice in our grandfathers' grandchildren's Synod:

1. To change things too suddenly, too forcefully, and to unfairly criticize others who are not doing likewise.

2. To actively work with the people, and be a pastor to them, liturgically, sacramentally, homiletically, to dare to deal with them, in the real world, collectively and individually, and to truly lead.

3. To live by the idea that changing things in the parish is really none of the pastor's business, that his job is to "love" them and serve them by means of the style they are used to.

There are hybrids and nuances to these, etc. But if we just look at the current scene today in light of these basic categories, I would suggest, in fact I not only suggest, but claim and argue, since I don't have much to lose anymore, that category 1., for the most part, is a strawman, an invention, and that all too many of the "good Confessional Lutherans" are precisely the ones at the front of the line to accuse others of being in category 1. They are also the ones, too often, to warn students and seminarians to avoid category 1 at all costs, which in those moments anyway, effectively puts them in category 3. They are teaching in university & seminary classrooms, they are in school & synod bureaucracies, and they hold much power & influence.

I stand, with all my obvious synodical shortcomings, as testament to the fact that one can raise his voice in today's Church in defence of the evangelical tradition of the Church of our fathers. And Saint Stephen's, as well as many other places, like Immanuel, Iowa Falls, stands as testament to the fact that a church can raise its practice, and not despite this but because of this, be a blessing to its people, and to the world.

Keep up the good work, Fr. Paul.

Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...


I like where you're coming from, but I disagree with you in one way. I believe that the use of the chalice, and the non-use of the shot glasses, is precisely one of the ways in which the practices need to be the same everywhere. That does not mean, however, that I am down on those who are moving in the right direction. Moving in the right direction begins with the willingness to call a thing what it is.

Eucharisted said...

I agree with you in a theoretical sense, in that the common chalice *should* be the uniform practice of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. From a practical perspective, I don't see it happening. I can be convinced of your position, but there needs to be a viable way of actually making people want to share a cup of wine with each other. In the mean time, I can only appeal to the gospel.

By the way, what are your thoughts on intinction?

Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

It is constantly claimed as a truism that the individual shot glasses are here to stay. We cannot expect to get rid of them. Et cetera. This is simply not the case. I have seen more than one case now of churches where they have been successfully abolished. No, it is not done overnight, or thoughtlessly, or without great sensitivity, or without much work. I know of nobody who actually thinks such things.

What I can tell you is that Saint Stephen's, Milwaukee no longer uses them. The shot glass tray just performs the valuable role of dust collector in the sacristy. And now we have decided to put it out of its misery.

I can also tell you that at Zion, Ft. Wayne, where I worshipped for ten years of my ministerially unfit life, they went from all shot glasses to all chalice in just a few short years. I arrived in Ft. Wayne when Harrison was still pastor, and at that time there were Sundays when you didn't even have a choice, everyone had to take from the little cups. One reason this made no sense to me was that there was a chalice on the altar! It was used only by those in the chancel. So after a short while of putting up with this, one Sunday I went to the sacristy before mass, and spoke with Fr. Kaiser (he was one of the pastors there at the time; this was pre-Punke; I don't recall if it was post-Harrison, or if he was just out of town or what) and I asked if they wouldn't mind giving me and my wife the Precious Blood of Christ from the chalice. He replied that, since I feel so strongly about it, he would do it, and only asked that I come up with the very last group, so that it would be less obvious. I was like, Cool. Long story short, eventually, after several intermediate steps, the final step, under Fr. Punke, was to pretty much eliminate the little cups altogether. This is a testament to Fr. Punke.

It is also a testament to the fact that it usually takes time, patience, and sometimes more than one pastor. I only urge that we don't take these truths as excuse to turn it, in reality, into time which is vacant of real effort, and patience which is vacant of real action.

Amberg said...

I'm ok with the shot glasses as long as they're made out of crystal, gold or silver.

Eucharisted said...

Well with the liturgical problems that modern Lutheranism has, the common chalice may be a great place to start.

It would also be great if we could get congregations to actually use the Great Thanksgiving.

Tim said...

The Great Thanksgiving? As in, a full-fledged Eucharistic Prayer? What are you, a closet-Catholic/Orthodox?
I jest, I jest.

In all seriousness- I doubt that the Eucharistic Prayer will ever make a huge come-back in Lutheran circles. Why? Because it was eliminated at the Reformation- to focus on the Verba. And, gosh darn it, if you add anything to Verba, you're not being Biblical.

At least, that is the argument I remember hearing all my life. *Sigh*

Amberg said...

I just don't understand why you guys like the Eucharistic prayer so much. I LOVE not having it. It's great! I can't imagine life with it.

Tim said...

I'm not saying "Verba-only" is wrong. It is what I've grown up with and always known; and I think we're all clear that it is the Verba the effects the Presence of Christ's Body and Blood, and not the Eucharistic Prayer.

However, I find the Great Thanksgiving to be full of deep meaning and symbolism. That, and the fact that it has been historically used by the Church.

I suppose, in my mind, I don't see any reason to not use it anymore. It is not like we would have to rely strictly on a "Roman" Eucharistic Prayer; there have been discoveries of earlier prayers; we could also use some from the Eastern Church as well.

Eucharisted said...

I'm ELCA, so I've grown up with LBW which has an ample eucharistic prayer. Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't LSB the first LCMS resource to actually have something that resembles a eucharistic prayer?