At the church where Ruth and I are active and hold membership I do not serve the church as deacon. I knew that most likely I would be, for the present, setting aside official diaconal parish ministry when we switched to our current church, and I was willing to do so because transferring to our current parish means having a pastor who is faithful to the Gospel and to his calling. So in the grand scheme that trade-off is worth it. This situation means that my wife and I are again together in the pew for Mass. And so I have gone back to a practice that may seem curious to some, so I thought I would reflect briefly on it here.
I refer to the fact that when we get up to go to Communion, I do not do what most considerate and loving husbands and heads of households would do, and step aside to let the wife go first. That is a rubric of social etiquette which, when in the church, I completely ignore. I do not judge others for their proclivities in this regard, but would simply like to offer a thought or two on why I do what I do in terms of the order in which we go to Communion.
As I say, giving a lady the deference, when walking in line, or, say, when going through a door, is a custom of social etiquette, and a very worthy one. It is part of what it means to manifest respect for the fairer sex; it helps foster in our young people the important lesson that a man should act like a gentleman, part of which means to treat ladies with modesty and respect, to treat them as ladies, in other words.
So why do I not do this in church? It is because, while there are many points of identity and intersection between worldly etiquette and churchly etiquette, there are also points at which they traditionally do not manifest themselves in the same way, and this is one of them. There was a time in the church when all the men would take Communion first, and only then the women would receive Communion. This was easily facilitated in many churches by the men and women being segregated from each other. I am not advocating a return to that practice. It is instructive, however, to consider the order intended by this custom, and how we might preserve such order in our modern church. Consider what the Blessed Reformer writes in the 1526 Deutsche Messe, "Let there be a decent and orderly approach, not men and women together, but the women after the men, wherefore they should also stand apart from each other in separate places." Reverence for the Word of God, both in terms of the Gospel, and the faithful preaching thereof, and in terms of the true presence of our Lord Jesus Christ in his Sacrament, and manifesting and fostering such reverence by traditional practices of churchly order and etiquette, these are of greater importance to Luther's liturgical thinking than modern notions of conceiving the liturgy as a celebration of the assembled community.
In our modern milieu, for the most part the people gather in the church according to nuclear familial units. That is, whole households worship together in the same pew. And of course I advocate no change in this regard. We might draw certain lessons, however, from the way our forebears worshipped and conducted themselves in the church. And I suggest one way we can translate this lesson of order is for the husband and head of the household to walk to the altar before his family, and to take Communion first. In doing so, he shows himself to be the leader, the husband, the head of the family. He literally leads his wife, and children if applicable, to our Lord. He thereby sets the example of spirituality for his family. She (or they) see him get up first, and when he gets to the end of the pew she might even see the example of his genuflection before leading her to the altar. Then, at the altar he kneels down, setting the example of reverence for his family. His posture, his signing himself with the holy cross, all of these things, too, have the added benefit of being examples for his family. Finally, the celebrant and his assistant arrive and place the Sacred Host in the man's mouth. I am not saying that the wife actively and directly sees all of this, as though she is there to study her husband. Nevertheless, he provides the spiritual leadership and sets the very real, flesh and blood, example of Christian piety for his family. It is the Christian husband's role to lead his wife and family in prayer, and what we often overlook is that Sunday morning (and whenever else they have the chance to go to Mass together) is one of those times when he gets to do just that, by bringing his family to church, and also by his conduct in the church.
And what does it mean that he eats and drinks of the Blessed Sacrament before his wife does? It means, for one thing, that he sees any strength and moral and spiritual leadership he provides in his house as first deriving from what he is fed at every Eucharist. To a degree it is analogous to the tradition of the pastor (whose office is that of spiritual father of a church and the office of Christ, Who is husband to His Church) giving Communion to himself before he gives It to the people. (As Luther writes in the 1523 Formula Missae et Communionis, "Then, while the Agnus Dei is sung, let him communicate, first himself and then the people.")
It is not the goal of any Christian to be the focus of attention in the church. Nevertheless, by our conduct we do set an example, each according to his station and place in life. And by maintaining traditional order in our churchly conduct we foster and cultivate the environment conducive to spiritual benefits we cannot know or foresee.