Sunday, May 13, 2012

a point of churchly etiquette

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.

Monday, May 7, 2012

liturgical thoughts on the book, French Kids Eat Everything

Recently I had the pleasure of reading Karen Le Billon's book, French Kids Eat Everything, a book I highly recommend to you, dear reader.  It describes, by means both of autobiographical anecdote and informed research, the stark contrast between the French food culture and that of North America (to be sure, America is not singled out-she continually uses the language North America-her main experience on this side of the ocean being in Vancouver).  There is more to life than the two party American political divide, how much moreso when that divide is dumbed down and oversimplified into ignorant caricatures.  Therefore let me just remind and assure my more overtly Republican friends that France is a friend of America, and there are valuable aspects of French culture from which we could learn and benefit. 

In the case of the present study, the French attitude toward food, and the culinary aspect of education, is described in detail. This is an education that is not limited to the school, nor to an elite class, but begins almost from birth, and is supported by every aspect of daily life.  Raising the child to appreciate food and truly to enjoy and respect food is part of what it means to raise him to be bien éduqué.  As such, it is essential to expose the child, by stages, though beginning quite early and aggressively, to a great variety of foods-fruits, vegetables, fish, meats, etc, their smell, taste, feel, look, and texture.  To accomplish this, the child is raised naturally to expect to try whatever is on his plate, rather than to have the freedom to choose not to eat something if it doesn't strike his fancy.  What is important in this approach is not so much fostering the child's personal freedom, but teaching him to develop his taste.  As a result, he develops a very mature appreciation and taste for good food, which also happens to be very good for him.  By contrast, the American tendency is to cater to the child's desire-to feed him exactly when he wants to eat, to feed him what he wants, and to allow him to refuse to eat something that he has decided he does not like.  What is important in this approach is the child's individuality, and the integrity of his sense of personal freedom.  As a result, he develops likes and just as many dislikes, regardless of whether those likes or dislikes are qualitatively good for him, and he will, by and large, settle into a lifestyle that is largely oriented toward junk food and his more immature culinary tastes.  In contrast to the French, we must admit that the American approach too often raises a child to be an adult who is stuck in a culinary infancy.  This is the briefest of summaries, and as I say, I commend the book to your own study. If I ever find the time, I would like to discuss it in detail here.

For the present, however, I wish to draw a connection between the contrast in food cultures as described in this book and what this contrast might teach us about where we are going wrong liturgically in the modern Church.  The modern approach to liturgy, certainly in the American Confessional Lutheran scene, tends toward preserving the people's sense of their own personal freedom in the Gospel, their freedom of liturgical choice, we might say.  The people get what they want, and when they want it.  I might add here that another dynamic which very much factors into the liturgical dimension of pastoral ministry is fear, and I believe this is often the case even among those who might not routinely and overtly sense this fear.  It is naturally never very far from the surface, for the people have the power to punish, even fire and evict, a pastor who displeases them.  For those whose experience prevents them from accepting this as plausible, except where the pastor "must have done something wrong," I assure the reader it has happened many times and will happen again. 

And so we emphasize the slowest and most "sensitive" approach to change, if at all.  We know the value of waiting till everyone is "on board."  Even better to make change happen so slow that the people don't even notice it happening.  Like the American parent with the temperamental child, we don't want to upset the people.  Maybe stretch it out to, say, a fifty year plan.

Many of the same Confessional scholars and church leaders who emphasize this Gospel freedom in their approach to liturgical leadership astutely admit that the wonderfully rich and healthful diet of the traditional liturgy would be good for our people, and so they come up with well intentioned ideas of long term change, and in some cases unproven social experiments, such as creating a dumbed down version of the traditional liturgy with the hope that it will eventually lead the people on to something better, not unlike giving your children McDonald's food because, after all, it is better than Doritos, Twinkies, and doughnuts, hoping that one day they will express a desire to eat real, natural, healthy cuisine. 

It has been openly admitted, for example, that the inclusion of the "Setting Four" in Lutheran Service Book was intended merely for those congregations that have lacked a historical practice, with the intention of introducing them to a form of the liturgy that will at least be an improvement over the practice to which they had been accustomed.  (See this Gottesdienst discussion, including the comments.)  Whether this odd contrived experiment has resulted in an improvement in the practice of some congregations will certainly be argued by some advocates, though there is no evidence that it will lead them to a true appreciation for a richer diet of the traditional liturgy.  Just as importantly, notice what else has manifestly resulted.  This order has become a regular part of the liturgical diet of many congregations.  My own parish is one example, a church with a reputation for better than average liturgical practice.  Once a liturgical order has been introduced, it will have its fans and advocates, and since the people's taste and desire, their freedom, is of central value, it will stay in rotation, and eventually become domesticated and be considered quite normal.  Scholars will one day sing its praises, like now happens with "Setting One."  Elbowed further to the fringe in this process is the order with real, organic connection to our liturgical tradition.  And pushed even further to the fringe, as a mere oddity of taste, are those more solemn aspects of the traditional usage, earning for themselves the suspicion of legalism and Romanism. 

My point, I hasten to clarify, is not to use this whole discussion as a guise under which merely to pick on Setting Four.  Picking on Setting Four would require a separate blog entry, and it would be a worthy endeavor, like picking on Setting One and Setting Two.  Rather, it is an effort to promote the conversation in what is perhaps a new, but I think a healthy, direction. 

Another point of contact we might make between the French approach to food and the Church's liturgical life is the French aversion to snacking.  It leaves one at times with the real feeling and sense of an empty stomach, or what we might even term "feeling hungry," yet this is not seen as a bad thing.  It helps to promote an anticipation for and true appreciation of the next meal, which is usually a wonderfully thought out and well prepared meal.  Likewise, I suggest our eucharistic piety would be greatly edified (that is, the rich feast of the Lord's Holy Supper would be more fully appreciated) if we would more actively promote the traditional practice of fasting, which helps, among other things, to increase our sense of need for the gift of the Supper.  Bon repas doit commencer par la faim.  The other lesson we might draw from the non-snacking culture of the French is the fact that there is a rhythm to the Liturgical Year; that is, we cannot fully appreciate the feasts of the liturgy if we practice it at will all year round.  Rather, we liturgically "fast" from aspects of it in certain seasons, and learn to slow down, and more fully sense and enjoy the whole rhythm of our liturgical life.

Our modern approach infantilizes the Church and its liturgical tastes.  I suggest we could learn from the French approach to food education, in which even the infants, out of love for them, are brought, sensitively but quite actively, out of infancy and finally to the maturity of good taste.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Saint Athanasius the Deacon

2 May, in the Western Church, is the day traditionally kept as the feast of Saint Athanasius, the great fourth century bishop of Alexandria and doctor of the Church.  Keeping a saint's feast means, first of all and most essentially, celebrating his life in Christ by means of the ultimate Christian feast, the Holy Supper of our Lord's Body and Blood, ie., the Holy Mass, wherein the Christian community is blessed with the joyous opportunity to feast upon the Saint in whom all true saints have their holiness, the Holy One of God, Jesus Christ our Emmanuel. 

Unfortunately, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, by and large, is not yet at the point in her development where it is normal for a Christian to expect to hear the Mass at his local LCMS church on a saint's day.  What is the reason for this? 

It is partly explained by the less than wholesome and catholic ways the saints are treated among us, where, for example, Lutheran Service Book refuses the title "saint" to the saints who came after the age of the Apostles, both when it comes to the listing of holy days and in the author citations for the hymns. 

It is partly explained by the tendency in our church too often to prefer pedagogy over liturgy, catechesis over mystery.  Not that teaching and catechesis ought not have a healthy place in the Church, but that place ultimately is to lead people into the holy mysteries of God.  The pedagogical tendency to which I refer is manifest, for example, in the telling fact that on saints' days it is far more common to see a plethora of summaries of a saint's life in the cyberworld than to see the people gather in actual flesh and blood liturgical assembly.  So a paragraph on a blog or on Facebook, whether it be cleverly composed or copied from some official church site, passes for commemorating a saint and keeping his feast. 

But mostly, I suggest, it is explained by the fact that ours is a church that is not evolved to the point where it could be said to be marked by a truly eucharistic culture and piety.  This observation is not made out of disrespect to the liturgical progress that God has brought about to this point in our history, but rather out of the fervent prayer and the hope that, for the sake of our young people, for the sake of their future children, and for the sake of our witness to the world, we will thus grow.  That, to be sure, is the "church growth" for which we should actively strive, not numerical but spiritual.  Call it the Sermon on the Mount's corrective to the Church Growth Movement (seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you). 

Let the Mass truly be once again the chief divine service for Lutherans. 

Having offered that little diatribe, let me now share a brief thought on our saint of the day, the holy bishop Athanasius.  It was in the early stages of the post-persecution era, the supposedly peaceful Constantinian age, in which the devil attacked the flock in the most effective and clever way, by sowing and cultivating the seeds of theological discord within.  And this discord not about what in a later millennium would be thought of as secondary or non-fundamental doctrine, but about the very heart of Christian doctrine and confession, the person and natures of Christ, and the Holy Trinity.  Athanasius labored long and hard in his episcopal career, in the decades following the Council of Nicea, in defense of the full divinity of Christ, the uncreated One, who for us men and for our salvation took on flesh and became man.  For against this confession stood Arius, a popular priest from Alexandria, Athanasius's own back yard.  The Arian problem was more than merely a man, it bloomed into a real movement, with followers across the spectrum of society.  Despite the cartoonishly inaccurate rhetoric we get from anti-Lutheran Catholic apologists about the unity of the Church before 1517, we cannot appreciate the disunity of the Church in the age of the christological controversies.  Whole dioceses could be in the hands of rival parties.  It was as hostile and uncertain a time to be a Christian as the fourteenth century epoch of the rival popes, or the midst of the Smalcald War.  As Adrian Fortescue puts it in his excellent 1908 book on the Greek Fathers,

During the very lifetime of the heroes who could show the glorious wounds they had received under Diocletian, the Christian Church was tossed by a raging storm that nearly wrecked her.  Bishops fell on every side, intruders and counter-intruders filled every see, Anathemas and counter-Anathemas thundered across the empire from Tyre to Milan, so that the wretched layman who wanted to serve God in peace may well have wondered whether the old cry of Christianos ad leones were not on the whole pleasanter than the shouts of Homousios and Homoiusios, of which he understood nothing except that, whichever he said, someone was sure to excommunicate him.

The towering figure in the early days of this warfare on the catholic side was St. Athanasius.  He suffered dearly for his confession of Christ, being sent into exile five times.  His was a very real sort of martyrdom, a costly witness, for which he received his crown in Christ. 

Now you will recall the curious fact that I titled this reflection Saint Athanasius the Deacon, and that not to disrespect his episcopal dignity, but to honor his churchly servanthood.  For a deacon never really ceases being a deacon, even when his circumstances change, whether to a seeming loss of diaconal ministry or a promotion in rank.  But I also highlight Athanasius as Deacon because of the remarkable role he played when he served under Bishop Alexander.  When the ecumenical council of bishops convened at Nicea, there was a deacon from Egypt present, the holy and learned Athanasius, who was made deacon six years earlier.  So strong was his theological leadership that his succession to the great see of Alexandria was a foregone conclusion. 

I am the least of all deacons, but I look to Christ, whose whole life was diaconal to the core, and I look to the great exemplar deacons of Christ's Church, among whom St. Athanasius stands as one of the great confessors of Christ our Lord.