Saturday, July 28, 2012

a scene from The Diary of a Country Priest

One of my favorite scenes from one of my favorite films, The Diary of a Country Priest. In this scene, the young priest visits one of his parishioners, a proud woman who, though not a church delinquent, has nonetheless allowed herself to become estranged from God.

While the skilled Lutheran pastor will have certain things to say and certain accents he will make which in some ways differ from the Roman Catholic perspective, nevertheless there is much I love about how this scene plays out. I must add, too, that this scene cannot be fully appreciated without having seen the whole film. In fact, I also recommend the book, which is even better than the film.

One of the things the viewer must bear in mind, going into this scene, is that the priest is going into this visit under a weight of great suffering. He suffers physically (he won't know until later that it is stomach cancer), and also spiritually. It is in that context of suffering and weakness that he enters into this pastoral visit. 

Leadership consultants know that one should not go to an important meeting in such a condition.  Many in the church feel the same way.  Yet here he is, in a state of weakness and vulnerability, the degree of which seems analogous to the condition of Jesus when He met the devil in the wilderness after a forty day fast.  In fact, this is an apt comparison, for a number of reasons.  For the priest, in this pastoral visit, is not involved in a mere business meeting, requiring the mere conveying of information and a good impression.  Rather, he is engaged in a serious spiritual conflict.  This is a front in a great spiritual warfare.  To be sure, this is not to say that there is hostility between him and his parishioner.  He is there out of love for her.  She is not the enemy; the enemies are sin, death, and the devil himself.  Put another way, he wrestles not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.  And in this fight it is not what we bring that matters, for God's grace is sufficient, and His strength is made perfect in weakness.  The spiritually mature Christian knows his weakness, and glories in his infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon him.  Indeed, it is the power of Christ which is at work in this confrontation; in fact, it is the very work of Christ Himself through the ministry of this humble priest. 

And in the end, it is Christ's peace which the priest bestows upon his penitent, a peace that will renew her life, and which will cost the priest more suffering and scandal.  But for that, you must see the movie.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Apocrypha-Lutheran Edition?

It is good that CPH is finally publishing the Apocrypha. It seems, however, that it will be in the modern ESV translation. Also, some of what is said in the CPH web page on this publication is disingenuous. For example:

For more than 100 years, the Apocrypha has been left out of English versions of the Bible. Concordia Publishing House is proud to announce the 2012 release of the first and only ESV edition of the Apocrypha with notes and annotations by Lutherans.

The second sentence in that quote does not follow logically from the first, for it could almost give the impression that CPH is reversing the century old trend of leaving the Apocrypha out of the bible, when in fact, this publication still leaves the Apocrypha out of the bible. It merely continues the decades long American trend of printing the OT Apocrypha in a separate volume.  Doing so in the ESV, and doing so with “Lutheran” notes, these are the things that are different.  Yet it remains the case that this new CPH books continues the American tradition described in the first sentence of the passage quoted above, a most unhealthy, uncatholic, and unlutheran tradition.

When I want to read the Apocrypha in traditional English, and I usually do, I open my King James Bible, which I obtained from Cambridge University Press before I started seminary, and it still serves me well.  At other times, I like to consult my RSV Bible with the Apocrypha, a modern English version which has stood the test of decades of use, and, frankly, of rather ecumenical usage.

Let CPH publish the King James with Apocrypha, and a modern English bible with Apocrypha, whether RSV, or their trendy ESV.  And add as many new Lutheran notes as you like.  Then we will have real progress toward a healthy evangelical and catholic appreciation of our biblical heritage among our people.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

spectacles & the liturgy

The year I started seminary study I went to get an eye exam, and sure enough, I was found to be in need of glasses for reading.  After a couple of years those glasses disappeared.  As I recall, I left them sitting on the table at a restaurant, and when I went back, they were gone.  Well, I've finally decided, several years later, to invest in another exam and pair of glasses.  I'm very mindful of these glasses, perhaps more so than people who wear theirs all the time, since I put mine on when I read, write, and work on the computer, and take them off when I'm not engaged in those tasks.  In other words, they go on and off quite a lot, and I'm continually handling them.

And one of the thoughts to which I'm repeatedly drawn, as I fumble with these glasses in church, is that the need to wear glasses at Mass is a sign that there is something fundamentally wrong with the state of the liturgy in the modern Church.  In theory, the Lutheran Church prides itself in being the praying Church, ecclesia orans; in reality, she has fallen from that ideal, and prefers to live her common life as the reading Church, ecclesia legens.  I find myself having to put on my glasses for parts of the liturgy in which I am least interested in participating, like 20th century hymns of questionable worth, or clever confessions of sin, like the so called Setting Four.

When I wear glasses at Mass I am also holding whatever it is that I am reading.  This, of course, robs me of the freedom to hold my hands in prayer and worship.  Reading also robs me of the ability to gaze upon the altar, or sacred art, or close my eyes. 

More importantly, the Church is leaving behind the disabled, the illiterate, the very young, and the attention challenged.  The liturgy was meant to be known, deeply, by the the Church's members, and worship was meant to involve the mind, the heart, and the body.  These are ancient lessons we could learn anew, if we were to move away from the trend to use liturgical forms which require us to read.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Christological Nature of the Distribution of the Sacrament

When the ordained presbyter consecrates the bread and wine in the celebration of the venerable Sacrament of the Altar, he is engaged in an essentially christological activity, for in his recitation the all-powerful Word of Christ Jesus Himself is accomplishing that which it expresses.  It is the office of Christ that is being executed through these simple actions of the priest.  The same actions performed by someone who has not been called into that office in no way bring with them the promise that Christ's presence and grace are involved.  As His Grace, Bishop Jobst Schone, put it in his 1996 essay, The Christological Character of the Office of the Ministry and the Royal Priesthood, "There is no doubt that Luther regarded ordination as absolutely necessary for full practice of the pastoral ministry, in particular, for administering the eucharist. He would never concede this to the non-ordained even in cases of emergency."  This ought not be a scandalous claim, though if it were not only the general position, but also one that were generally taken seriously in today's Missouri Synod, then I dare say we would have less pastors rushing through the Words of the Sacrament, and it would certainly not be the case that laymen are still to this day given official permission from Districts of the Synod to [supposedly] celebrate the Sacrament.  (The seminaries show themselves to be complicit in this scandal by inviting these men, not to repent and cease, but to enroll in alternate route seminary study.) 

Be that as it may, I would like to challenge those among us who do still hold such old fashioned views to take their thinking one step further than is generally done today.  That is, not only the consecration of the elements, but also the giving out of the venerable Eucharist is an essentially christological activity, and traditionally left to those men who are called and ordained for eucharistic Ministry.  Just as by the mouth of the celebrant Jesus Himself consecrates His Holy Supper, likewise by the hands of Christ's ordained ministers Jesus Himself feeds His people.  Our Lord wants this to be His Supper, by which He feeds us His own self for food; He did not set it up as a celebration of the assembled community, in which it is important for the people to be represented by the assistance of certain laymen.  As Luther says, in the Supper "Our Lord is at one and the same time chef, cook, butler, host, and food." 

Lutheran tradition assumes that both the celebrant of the Mass and anyone he has to assist him in giving out the Sacrament will be men who are currently (ie, not merely training to be) ordained ministers in the Church.  In the case of the celebrant, he must be a presbyter.  If he needs an assistant, traditionally he would employ for this service either another presbyter who happens to be present, or an actual deacon.  (And with the mention of "deacon" I am speaking a foreign language to many, so I must leave off that topic for another occasion.)  Elders, let us be clear, are not ministers of the Church.  Neither are seminarians.  And to be clear, in the category of seminarian are those who are referenced by LCMS custom as "vicars."  These men are done a disservice, to their thinking and formation, when they are given tasks that ought to be reserved for ministers of the Church, though too often they see the wrong example growing up, they see it in college, they receive muddled teaching on it, and they are pressed into this position in field work, in pulpit supply, and on vicarage. 

In a sense it is quite natural for a church to deem it suitable to give to spiritually mature laymen (like "elders") or otherwise prominent and honored persons of the parish (such as political leaders, etc) prominent roles in the celebration of the eucharist.  But what feels natural, and in some places what has been done for generations, isn't always what is right.  The tendency to give ministerial responsibilities to men who are not ministers is hardly new to our time.  It is reminiscent of an episode in the career of St. Ambrose, the great fourth century bishop of Milan.  The bishop was celebrating Mass, and the Emperor Theodosius approached the altar.  Ambrose inquired why Theodosius was entering the sanctuary, and the emperor, well meaning and accustomed to a practice which prevailed elsewhere, responded that he was going to assist at the altar.  Ambrose, through his deacon, answered the emperor firmly and pastorally, "My lord, the law is that you go out and stand with the rest.  The purple robe makes princes, not priests."

I suggest that one of the clues to this traditional approach to the administration of the Sacrament is still built into our liturgy, though it is easily overlooked.  Namely, when the communicant receives the consecrated Host he usually hears either the words "Take, eat; this is the true body of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, given into death for your sins" or an abbreviated form of essentially the same thing.  And likewise, when the communicant receives the precious Blood of Christ, he usually hears either the words "Take, drink; this is the true blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, shed for the forgiveness of your sins" or an abbreviated form of essentially the same thing.  And if we stop and listen to these words, perhaps one of the thoughts that will come to most of us is that they remind us, to a great degree, of the words of Jesus Himself in the words of the institution of the Sacrament.  They are, in fact, modeled on those holy words, and in a sense they are a restating of them.  How much more clear would the christological nature of the feeding of the Supper become if we could always count on hearing those words of distribution, so eerily reminiscent of the Verba Christi, coming from men who actually are ministers of Christ?

I am thankful to be at a church where at least the pastor still gives out the Host.  I have been in less fortunate situations in the past.  For example, there are churches where the Supper is given out on both the north and the south halves of the altar rail simultaneously, so that there needs to be besides the pastor, three others, namely, one for the second paten and two for the chalices.  In that scenario, if one ends up taking communion on the side that is not served by the pastor, then he will end up receiving both the Host and the Chalice from the hands of laymen.  The pastor may as well sit down and let others handle the distribution of the Sacrament, like some Roman Catholic priests do today.  Yet even in some of our more mindfully traditionalist parishes, there is room for more consistent thought and practice in this regard.

Good pastors would begin to rethink aspects of their eucharistic practice if they were to consider these matters not only in terms of the rubric of gospel freedom, but also that of vocation.  That is, a man ought ask not merely whether he is forbidden by chapter and verse to do this or that, but whether God is clearly, manifestly, calling him to do it.