Sunday, November 4, 2012

the Our Father & the pastor's priestly role at the altar

This morning in the pre-mass announcements, Dr. Wieting explained that when the pastor prays the Our Father alone at the altar, this serves to signify the reality that Christ Himself prays with us, and if I recall correctly, he said that moving forward he will be using this option in Lutheran Service Book's Divine Service III once a month.  I wish to voice here my strong support for this practice.

I do not recall the Our Father being chanted very often by the celebrant at Luther Memorial in the year and a half that we have been there.  And, in fact, I would infer from the catechetical nature of the announcement that the Church in this place is rather unaccustomed to the practice.  And so I applaud Dr. Wieting for the courage to introduce it.

To be sure, when the pastor sings or recites the Our Father alone at the altar, he is not really praying alone, but is giving voice to the prayer of the whole Church, which of course includes all of the baptized in attendance.  We are not talking about a return to pre-Reformation notions of the mass, which would have the people feel no particular need to participate in or even know what is happening at the altar.  And so I reiterate that the celebrant must give voice, not only theologically but also literally.  It is not sufficient to mumble the prayers of the mass quietly at the altar, like my last pastor likes to do.  No, whether recited or chanted, the Our Father must be vocalized clearly and distinctly. 

Traditionally, the people then unmistakably make this praying their own by joining in the Amen.  Modern American Lutherans, in fact, are in the habit of singing an expanded "Amen" by prefacing it with the doxological For Thine is the kingdom, etc.  (I do not discourage the use of this doxology, but would only warn that too many Lutherans, like the good Protestants they think they are, assume that whenever the Our Father is prayed, it must include this expanded conclusion).  And so, when one steps back and ponders what is happening, I would actually argue that the effect of the pastor solemnly chanting the Our Father with the people responding with their robust and heartfelt singing of the doxology & Amen is that the point is reinforced, not denied, that this is the prayer of the whole Church. 

But isn't it the case, nonetheless, that every Christian ought actively to pray this prayer?  Our Lord's teaching of the Our Father was an answer to a disciple's prayer that Jesus would "teach us to pray," after all.  Indeed, we should pray the Our Father fervently and often.  We should pray it privately and also as households.  We should pray it in class groups, in social groups, and when the Church is gathered for a prayer office.  We should pray it verbatim and also make it the model for our whole prayer life, and the subject of our meditation.  However, this does not imply that there are not circumstances wherein one might pray on behalf of others.  The celebration of the holy Eucharist is one such circumstance.  And the very office of the one, in that case, who is thus praying has, by his ordination, certain priestly facets. 

The Church itself is called to a certain priesthood, by means of which her members both speak God's Word when needed and pray on behalf of others.  The pastoral office, too, is priestly, and some of the most prominent aspects of the pastor's priestly ministry are when he is "standing at the altar" (as AC XXIV quotes St. John Chrysostom).  The "priest" word is scandalous to many Lutherans, at least in reference to the one man in the room who is ordained, for it evokes notions of one who makes propitiatory sacrifices for the rest of us.  Let us be clear.  There is precisely one priesthood, that of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the presbyteral office is the office of Christ in the Church.  This Lutherans confess.  That this office has certain priestly dimensions, then, ought not be too hard to swallow, though none of them involve making sacrifice for sins.  What our Lord accomplished in His all-availing sacrifice on the cross (in which He is both priest and victim) He graciously dispenses through the hands and mouths of his ordained servants.  Besides delivering to the people the good gifts of God, the priest also gives voice to the people's faithful prayers.  At the very same time, we might say that he serves a priestly role in another sense, namely, he shows, or manifests, the activity of Christ, in Whose priesthood his ministry is comprehended.  That is, the presbyter speaks and prays in the person of Christ, and thus pictures for us the fact that our prayer is not apart from Christ, but in and with Him.  In fact, He is here, praying with us.  In like manner, it is good for the pastor to be the first to receive Holy Communion, at his own hands, and thus show us that Christ Himself is here in our midst, eating and drinking with us.

So I encourage and support the practice of the celebrant chanting the Our Father, and the people responding with their faithful Amen.  And I pray that eventually it will be the weekly practice.

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