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. 


Anonymous said...

Do you personally drink of the Cup given by a layman and have you spoken to your pastor regarding your concerns?

Dcn Latif Haki Gaba SSP said...

I rarely answer personal questions, especially when I do not know the person who is asking the question. Also, pastor-parishioner conversations are not topics of public discourse.

Regarding your first question, however, it is good to emphasize a couple of things. The precious Blood of Christ is present in the chalice in the celebration of the Eucharist in my church, and I gladly and gratefully approach and partake of that precious gift. Though I might feel better about it if the pastor would hold his hands "just so." (Just joking.)