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 The unpublished dissertation of Edward Peters, on the history of the axiom that nothing has the character of a sacrament outside of its use, is an excellent study.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.