Sunday, November 27, 2011

why & how I respect the altar rail

The altar rail is used by many good Lutherans as a place on which to rest their hands and arms, a crutch to help them as they kneel down, a stable surface on which to lean, and in the case of children it is sometimes used as a device on which to hang their arms like a monkey. Every case is different; it does no good to stereotype or judge. The way you choose to conduct yourself, and allow your children to conduct themselves, at the altar is your decision. Seriously. It's no skin off my nose. What I would like to do, however, is share with you my own thinking on the altar rail, and why it is that I behave the way I do around it.

The altar rail is not really meant to be a handy surface for our hands or elbows.  Rather, it is a sacred object meant for sacred use.  It is an extension of the altar itself. Tradition would have us treat it as we would the altar because liturgically speaking, it is, in fact, an extension of it.  In this sense one may say that he has received communion at the altar.  When we learn to view the altar rail as an extension of the altar we begin to understand why, in former ages, the altar rail would be dressed, or we might say vested, with a special linen reserved for this purpose.  It is worth reminding ourselves also that the altar, and therefore also the altar rail, is a symbol of Christ Himself, our Sacrifice for sin.  Seeing the altar rail this way is reason enough to approach it with reverence, and refrain from touching it as much as possible.

But there is another reason, and it is related to the other reason why the altar rail was traditionally covered with a linen.  It was a way of helping to catch any particle of the Host or drop of the Precious Blood of Christ which may happen to fall in the course of the Communion. This linen is called the communion cloth, or the houseling cloth, and there is a rich history of its careful and reverent use in Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and Episcopal churches. Whether your church still uses this cloth, or gave it up decades ago, or the practice was never known in your parts, this tradition points us toward another reason for the traditional reverence with which the Christian approaches and behaves around the altar rail, namely, so as not to get in the way of its function of catching and holding particles of the Blessed Sacrament until the ministers of the Eucharist can tend to them.  Perhaps you are thinking: surely it is quite rare that a particle of the sacred Host would fall onto the altar rail.  Perhaps you are even a pastor and are thinking: I have never seen this happen.  I am not here to dream up far fetched scenarios, and draw out theologies around them.  My point is that if a particle of the Host were to fall, or if a drop of the Precious Blood were to fall, it would be better for it to fall unto the altar rail than onto your sleeve, or your little nephew's neck. 

Both reverence for the altar rail as an extension of the altar and the sense of awe and care with which the Christian conducts himself around the Sacred Species impel me to behave a certain way at the altar rail.  In particular, I have trained myself to kneel down at the rail without using the rail as an aid.  I make sure that I kneel with good posture, with my hands held before me, palm to palm, fingers extended, not touching the rail.  And after I have received Holy Communion and have been dismissed, I rise, again, without touching the rail, turn, and return to my place.  I am not sure I have touched an altar rail in years, except in caring for the church as deacon at my former congregation.

Now clearly the aged and those with weak knees, etc., will have much more difficulty doing likewise.  I do think that it would be good if we fostered this sort of reverence once again for the altar rail, and assisted those who might want to kneel but may need help in doing so.

I tend to act as though that rail were not even there.  Now it is worth noting, however, that the rail also serves a very visual purpose.  Namely, it helps remind us that there is a holy and sacred space at the altar.  This is why we call it the sanctuary.  The rail sort of marks this space.  Not just anyone may approach the altar, and manhandle the Sacrament, all in the name of Christian freedom.  That's not how the holy things, the mysteries of God are given good stewardship.  Frankly, the rail also reminds us that the Holy Communion is closed to those outside of Christ's fellowship.  There is, in other words, a boundary around the altar, so to speak.  And those of us who are called to this Most Holy Sacrament are in holy communion with the sacramental Body of Christ, yet also with the ecclesial, or mystical Body of Christ (not merely with the number of those we see there on Sunday morning).  And in some churches the rail is actually curved, which helps to remind us that the fellowship of the altar extends all the way around that altar, so to speak; that is, it encompasses the goodly fellowship of the saints whom we see only with the eyes of faith.

Let all these considerations be for you food for thought as you approach the altar next Lord's Day.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

why I kneel before the eucharist

Whether at my own new home congregation, or really any other church I might visit, I would not be surprised if some people see that strange guy in the next pew and wonder at his unusual practice.  They might even ask themselves questions like these, Why is he kneeling on the floor?  or, Is he Catholic?  or, Does he think he is more pious than everyone else?  or, Is he trying to draw attention to himself? or maybe, Is he worshipping bread?  These are good questions, and so I'd like to address the general concern behind them by reflecting briefly on exactly why it is that I kneel in church.

According to Lutheran doctrine, doctrine that is rock solid and stands firm against all opposition because it derives from the Word of Christ Himself, the bread of the Lord's Supper is the very Body of Christ, and the wine of the Supper is the very Blood of Christ.  To be clear, when I say "of the Lord's Supper," what I mean is the valid celebrations of the Holy Eucharist, not the documented cases of liturgical fraud perpetrated by so-called deacons and so-called vicars who think it is their place to play pastor.  Let me also clarify that the reason Lutherans traditionally add the word "very" to such a statement is to signify that when we say "body" we actually mean Christ's own real body, His true flesh and blood.  This doctrine cannot be emphasized enough in today's religious milieu, wherein Protestants, Roman Catholics, and even many Lutherans fail to appreciate what it is that Lutheran theology holds regarding the presence of Christ in the holy Eucharist. 

When, for example, Lutheran theology speaks of the consecrated bread as bread, neither is it a denial of the presence of Christ's holy Body in the Sacrament nor does it imply a so-called consubstantiation.  It is, rather, an insistence on taking every part of the Words of Christ's Testament seriously, and an understanding that there is no need to infer an annihilation of the physical elements that were placed upon the altar.  I do fear, however, that too many Lutherans have been cheated out of being trained properly, by catechesis as well as by liturgical example, in the wonderful, awesome, and comforting reality of the presence of Christ's very body and blood in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar, and so in many cases are actually harmed by hearing the Lutheran teachers in their life who tend only to speak of the consecrated bread, to the exclusion of it being the real Body of Christ in our midst.

Consider for a moment the genius of Luther's Little Catechism on the what of the Eucharist:
What is the Sacrament of the Altar?
It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, under the bread and wine, for us Christians to eat and to drink, instituted by Christ Himself.
Every part of that statement is important and meaningful, yet the very core statement by which it begins, before all the commas, is true in and of itself.  It is true that the Body and Blood of Christ in the Sacrament are sub pane et vino (as it says in the Catechism), yet if one cannot bring himself simply to say of what is in the hand of the celebrant, after the Words of Consecration have been spoken, that it is the very Body of Christ, then he has yet to appreciate the eucharistic realism of Lutheran doctrine.  That is, he has yet to appreciate the reality of what is going on in his midst.  Nor does Luther in this brief definition feel the need to resort to any of the handy formulae to which we have become so accustomed, like the ubiquitous prepositionally plentiful formula in, with, and under, though some feel it to be sine qua non to the Lutheran understanding of the Sacrament.

In fact, while I don't absolutely condemn them, it is worth noting here that conceptions such as the spatial prepositions in, with, and under are understood by Luther (eg., the Great Confession of 1528) and the Lutheran Confessions (Formula of Concord, Thorough Declaration VII) to be inferior to the plain identification language of Christ's own testament.  Consider, eg., this riff in the Great Confession:

Even if nothing but bread and wine were present in the Supper, and yet I tried, simply for my own satisfaction, to express the thought that Christ's body is in the bread, I still could not say anything in a more certain, simpler, and clearer way than, "Take, eat, this is my body."  For if the text read, "Take, eat, in the bread is my body," or, "With the bread is my body," or "Under the bread is my body," it would immediately begin to rain, hail, and snow a storm of fanatics crying, "You see! do you hear that?  Christ does not say, 'This bread is my body,' but, 'In the bread, or with the bread, or under the bread is my body!'"  And they would cry, "Oh, how gladly we would believe if he had said, 'This is my body;' this would have been distinct and clear.  But he actually says, 'In the bread, with the bread, under the bread, so it does not follow that his body is present."  Thus a thousand evasions and glosses would have been devised over the words "in, with, and under," no doubt with greater plausibility and less chance of stopping it than now.  (306)

Luther would have us recognize with the eyes of faith, first of all, the radical and wonderful reality that in the Blessed Sacrament the real Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ are present.  His Body and Blood are present not merely when we have engaged in all of the requisite action of the sacrament, but by His Word spoken by His called and ordained Minister over the bread and wine in the eucharistic celebration.  The Words which bring about that which they declare are Christ's.  The priest and celebrant of the Sacrament is Christ.  So no, it is not the celebrant's act of speaking the words that makes the Sacrament, nor his faith, nor our faith, but Christ's own testament and Word, which He declares in our midst through the mouth of His servant, and by that Word and testament (made effective like all testaments must be, ie., by the death of the one who gave it), His real flesh and blood are present, right there on the altar.

Now before proceeding, let me emphasize that the stark terms by which I describe the Presence of Christ in the Sacrament are intentional and chosen with due consideration.  But does this not mean that the Lutherans believe in a sort of cannibalism?  No.  For that notion implies a mode of Christ's presence by which He is present in a circumscribed manner, and is gradually eaten up, part after part (as though one person takes this part of Christ's arm, and the next takes His little finger, etc.).  Yet we have always taught, with Thomas Aquinas and all of churchly tradition, that Christ's holy Body is given out, in each particle, to the first as to the millionth.  He gives His all to each one.  While He is consumed by the communicant, yet His presence, like the burning bush of old, is never consumed.  As Luther said to Zwingli at Marburg in 1529, "God is above all mathematics."  Or as we confess in the great seventeenth century hymn by Johann Franck:
Human reason, though it ponder,
Cannot fathom this great wonder
That Christ's Body e'er remaineth
Though it countless souls sustaineth
And yet we need not shy away from realistic terminology in order to protect ourselves from the accusations of a capernaitic or cannibalistic eating.  These charges are baseless, and we need not buy into their premise.  So Luther, for example, in his Great Confession of 1528, is bold to assert that the communicant tears Christ's Body with teeth and tongue:
Therefore, it is entirely correct to say, if one points to the bread, “This is Christ’s body,” and whoever sees the bread sees Christ’s body, as John says that he saw the Holy Spirit when he saw the dove, as we have heard. Thus also it is correct to say, “He who takes hold of this bread, takes hold of Christ’s body; and he who eats this bread, eats Christ’s body; he who crushes this bread with teeth or tongue, crushes with teeth or tongue the body of Christ.” And yet it remains absolutely true that no one sees or grasps or eats or chews Christ’s body in the way he visibly sees and chews any other flesh. What one does to the bread is rightly and properly attributed to the body of Christ by virtue of the sacramental union.
Luther did not invent this realism; we see great precedent for it.  First, of course, I would argue that we have Christ's own preaching, given to us by the beloved disciple, in his sixth chapter, where Jesus is bold to use an earthy, realistic verb like trogein, which gives the picture of chewing and masticating.  I bring this up, knowing that John six, and its place in a theology of the eucharist, is much controverted among Lutherans, and will be dismissed out of hand by many.  We also have a long tradition of theological and devotional testimony, stretching from the early church through the medieval age.  Take, for example, Berengar's often forgotten first confession of 1059, which speaks of the body of Christ being chewed by the teeth of the faithful.  Or take these words of St. John Chrysostom from the fourth century:

Wherefore this also Christ hath done, to lead us to a closer friendship, and to show his love for us; he hath given to those who desire him not only to see him, but even to touch, and eat him, and fix their teeth in his flesh, and to embrace him, and satisfy all their love.  (quoted in Alvin F. Kimel's article, "Eating Christ", Pro Ecclesia Vol. XIII, no.1)

Or take this prayer to the eucharistic Lord, ie, the Sacred Species after the consecration:

Hail forever, most holy flesh of Christ, before all else and above all else the highest sweetness!  Hail forever, heavenly drink, before all else and above all else the highest sweetness!  (a medieval prayer, from the Sarum Missal, quoted in Kimel's article as above)

And despite how some mistakenly use a passage in the Formula of Concord as a statement against the stark realism of Luther's Great Confession as being dangerously capernaitic, we must make clear that the Formula of Concord actually perpetuates this realism by its full endorsement of the Great Confession:
Now, as regards the various imaginary reasons and futile counter-arguments of the Sacramentarians concerning the essential and natural attributes of a human body, concerning the ascension of Christ, concerning His departure from this world, and such like, inasmuch as these have one and all been refuted thoroughly and in detail, from God's Word, by Dr. Luther in his controversial writings: Against the Heavenly Prophets, That These Words "This Is My Body" Still Stand Firm, likewise in his Large and Small Confession Concerning the Holy Supper, and in other of his writings, and inasmuch as since his death nothing new has been advanced by the factious spirits, we would for the sake of brevity have the Christian reader directed to them and have referred to them. etc.
Many Lutherans, unfortunately, give in to the notion that Luther was guilty of a crass capernaitic understanding, and so they come up with ways to soften his eucharistic realism, claiming, for example, that we may speak of Christ's body in the Sacrament but not His flesh, or that it is in no way accurate to speak of Christ being physically present, but rather that He is substantially present.  While a term like physical can be misleading, if it is not qualified by pointing out that Christ's presence in the Supper is not of the same local, or circumscribed mode as is my body in this room right now, nevertheless, using such a term as physical not only cannot be ruled out per se, but can actually be helpful, especially over against the protestant gnostic worldview that is all around us today.  Further, while one can certainly argue that the term substance is accurate and even preferable, if properly understood, it too can be misleading, for it can actually lead to a softening of the reality of Christ's presence in the minds of our people. 

As Dr. John Stephenson puts it in his article, "Reflections on the Appropriate Vessels for Consecrating and Distributing the Precious Blood of Christ" (LOGIA, January 1995),

Luther's consistent testimony that not the mere idea or substance of Christ's body but rather the "true, natural Body" itself is present in the Eucharist prompts one to deem it appropriate to label the real presence a "physical" presence, while making the qualification that the body naturally present is present in the definitive and not in the circumscriptive mode.
I find it unfortunate that popular LC-MS publications give in to just the sort of softened language which sets up, intentionally or not, a distancing from the realism of Luther's language.  Take, for example, the 2010 CPH book, Lutheranism 101, which out of an admirable desire to clarify matters, ends up awkwardly distancing its position from language used by the Blessed Reformer, and taken over into the Confessions.  On page 150 we read:

Yikes! Are Lutherans Cannibals?

Because Lutherans teach that Jesus is really present with his body and blood, they have been accused of cannibalism.  Rest easy; it isn't true.  A cannibal eats physical flesh with his teeth.  While we teach that Jesus is bodily present, we do not teach that He is physically present.  Things are physical when they take up space; we believe that Jesus is really present with His body and blood but in a mode that doesn't take up space.  Can He do that? Yes!
It is all very admirable what the writer is here trying to do, but he ends up twisting himself in a knot to stay clear of the capernaitic position.  Luther's realism is not capernaitic, and his contemporary opponents knew this. So all this twisting, in which, mind you, the writer unfortunately does a lot of relying on the spatial preposition "with" (an over-use of which is suspiciously Philippist) ends up unnecessarily leading us away from good earthy realist terms like flesh

Even Pope Paul VI, a bona fide Thomist, in his encyclical Mysterium Fidei, says that in the Sacrament:

Christ, whole and entire, in His physical 'reality' is bodily present, although not in the same way that bodies are present in a given place.
The reality, then, is that in the Holy Mass, ie., in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, the true Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ are present on the altar, on the paten, in the chalice, and in the pastor's hand.  And as you approach the altar, He is there waiting to be joined with you in this great and mysterious way.  Already, while you wait for the usher to get to your pew, there are people, your brothers and sisters in Christ, who are going back to their pew, bearing in their bodies the Eucharistic Lord.  And then you get to the altar, and kneel down.  The pastor walks toward you.  His thoughts might be on what is doing.  They might momentarily stray to things he sees around him, or what he said in the pulpit, or what he will do later.  Nevertheless, the Lord Jesus Himself, in His sacred Body, is in the pastor's hand, and is being placed on your tongue.  The real and precious Blood of Jesus is then given to you.  Even as you get up, and walk back to your pew, He abides with you.  In those moments you, and those around you, are veritable tabernacles of the presence of Christ in the venerable Eucharist.  What could this be but holy ground?

Let us also note why it is that Christ makes Himself present in the Holy Supper.  He does so not to be worshipped.  In fact, He knows full well that in the Sacrament of the Altar He will be disregarded, even abused, by many in this world.  He makes Himself present precisely for us.  He became a man for us men and for our salvation.  The same incarnational reality obtains in the Holy Supper.  He comes to us in the Eucharist to bring to us that salvation which He earned in His bitter passion.  He wants to deliver and serve it to us personally.  In uniting Himself to the communicant in the Holy Supper, the baptized Christian finds the high point of his life in this world, and realizes his true identity as one whose soul is espoused to Christ.  In that gift, that self-giving, Christ promises the forgiveness of our sins, and the gift of utter forgiveness leaves us with pure and true life itself, life in its fullness, and thus salvation.  The unbeliever who receives this awesome and holy Presence, on the other hand, is confirmed in his unbelief; he is totally unprepared for such a gift, and can only be harmed by it.

Christ nowhere demands to be adored and worshipped in the Eucharist.  It is not as though He has said, "At what time ye hear the sound of the sanctus bells, ye fall down and worship My presence the Blessed Sacrament."  Those who make this point are quite right.  He doesn't make such a demand.  Our Christian brethren of past ages, and even today in other lands, however, faced with the awesome reality of the salvific gift of Christ's holy Body and precious Blood in the Sacrament, have preferred to approach the matter of their posture or comportment from a different perspective, namely, by the simple thought, Why would I not fall to my knees and adore Him here, where He has promised to be present?

And so, in traditional fashion, some of us will, even in twenty first century America, kneel down during the consecration, and for the entirety of the Communion.  It is a good way to prepare oneself in prayer.  It is a good way to remind oneself of what is happening.  It is a good way to thank Him afterward.  And it is a good witness. 

In case anyone is tempted to think of this as an aping after Roman Catholic practice, let us set the record straight.  Matters are not nearly so clear cut and easy to divide into the neat categories too many of us were taught by our teachers.  On the one hand, Eucharistic adoration, though you may not see it much among your friends or in your own congregation, is truly at home in the Lutheran tradition.  And on the other hand, the common Lutheran notions of the ritualism and reverence to a fault that will be found in Roman Catholic churches are really cute, but sadly naive.  There are many Roman Catholic parishes today, and in some places virtually whole dioceses, where Roman Catholics are ridiculed by other Roman Catholics for daring to genuflect or kneel before the eucharist.  They are mocked as "cookie worshippers."  In terms of actual Catholicism on the ground (instead of, say, rumors, folklore, or centuries' old texts) what we see is that in many places Catholics (including some pastors and bishops) are repulsed and embarrased by traditionalist Catholics in a way reminiscent of the attitude of the Philippists of old, for whom adoration of the eucharist was artolatreia - bread worship.  It does not, therefore, appear that the Mass is more devoutly celebrated among our adversaries than among us.  So no, I am not copying the Roman Catholics when I kneel; rather, too many Roman catholics have become Philippist in the brave new post-conciliar age.  I am daring not to go with them.

What is the Christian thing to do with the weaker brethren in your midst?  We all know the answer to this.  We are patient with them.  We make allowances for them.  Faced with the true presence of the Creator of all things, Who comes to me in the holy Eucharist, my heart and knees fail me.  They are too weak to stand before Him.  I am bold to approach, for He invites me.  But I do so with awe and wonder.  I cannot not kneel.  And so now you know, dear friends, my reasons.  Bear with me, even as we bear one another's burdens.

Friday, November 4, 2011

looking for help

In my spare time, and with my presently limited resources, I have been searching for some texts, with no luck so far.  So I thought I would throw this out there in case anyone might have an answer, or a good lead. 

The Small Catechism of Martin Luther, as it has come down to us, includes a couple of sections which for various reasons are not included in the Small Catechism as it was published in the Book of Concord, and therefore I have found it very difficult to find the Latin texts of those parts.  They are the following:

1. The three questions on The Office of the Keys:
What is the Office of the Keys?
Where is this written?
What do you believe according to these words?
2. The Christian Questions With Their Answers (for those who intend to go to the Sacrament)

Obviously, these texts in English come down to our use in the Missouri Synod most directly from their German antecedents.  My hypothesis is that both of them also were in Latin use in the 16th and 17th centuries.  And I want to find them.  If anyone can help, I would be grateful.