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A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

More discussion on the consecrated elements

by Larry Beane

Here is an interesting "diablog" between Deacon Latif Gaba and Dan at Necessary Roughness regarding the Holy Eucharist - more specifically, the practical issue of how the reliquiae (the unconsumed consecrated elements) should be treated.

It's nice to see spirited discussion carried on respectfully by both sides.

As a comment to his own blog post (and as such, might be missed even by subscribers), Deacon Gaba has an eloquent and helpful little excursus that I think summarizes much of the controversy:

Beside the comment I posted at Dan's blog, I'd like to comment also on the following from his blog post:

"The Roman Catholic Church treasures the unconsumed hosts and wine because they teach that the elements have been transubstantiated, or transformed. The elements are parts of God and should themselves be adored, worshiped, etc."

A couple things.

1. There is virtually never such thing as unconsumed wine in the Roman Rite, at least when priests' practices are consistent with the rubrics of that rite.

2. The consecrated bread or wine that is unconsumed, whether in the Roman or Lutheran Churches, is not treasured because of transubstantiation, but because of the orthodox doctrine of the real and true presence of our Lord in the Sacrament. The way the RC Church conceives of the Real Presence is via transubstantiation. I see that as a flawed concept. Nonetheless, it is beside the point.

3. It is quite false to claim that either the Lutheran or the Roman Catholic Church believes or teaches that in the elements in the Sacrament we have "parts of God." God is never partitioned, or parted, from Himself, neither in the three Persons, nor in the self giving of Christ in the Most Blessed Sacrament. Christ in His Sacrament is beyond all mathematics (as Luther put it at Marburg). For He is the font of endless mercy (as Ambrose puts it in one of his prayers). His sacramental body, like His ecclesial body, cannot be hacked into parts, but is an organic whole. Where you find one particle, you have the whole.

As Thomas Aquinas writes:

And whoe'er of Him partakes,

severs not, nor rends, nor breaks:

all entire, their Lord receive.

Whether one or thousand eat,

all receive the selfsame meat,

nor do less for others leave.

(A sumente non concisus,

non confractus, non divisus:

integer accipitur.

Sumit unus, sumunt mille:

quantum isti, tantum ille:

nec sumptus consumitur.)

And as Johann Franck writes:

Human reason, though it ponder,

Cannot fathom this great wonder

That Christ's body e'er remaineth

Though it countless souls sustaineth,

And that He His blood is giving

With the wine we are receiving.

These great mysteries unsounded

Are by God alone expounded.

The Deacon's words make me ponder the Eucharist and the Words of our Lord - (a common consequence of much of Brother Latif's writing and conversation).

This made me think about how I often hear from well-intentioned (but wrong) Reformed folks that we Lutherans believe in "consubstantiation." This would be the case if we believed the substances of bread, body, wine, and blood were intermingled as particles of one another and were somehow glued together, or if we believed the bread to be a conduit for the body of Christ and the wine were merely a vessel containing the Lord's blood. None of this is the essence (from Latin: "esse" meaning "to be) of the word "is." We Lutherans reject consubstantiation as much as we reject transubstantiation.

This is why Luther, in his debate with Zwingli, kept returning to the words of institution, the verb of which is "is." Jesus uses the verb "to be" without qualification and without sophistry. To put it the way many Roman Catholics (rightly) confess: "The Mass is a miracle." It should also be said that the word "sacrament" is based on a Latin way of saying the Greek word "mysterion." The Eucharist is a miracle and a mystery.

The "is" doesn't imply that it "is" for only a short duration of time (like the half-life of a radioactive isotope), nor that it is for the time that it is in the mouth of the communicant. There is an eschatological nature of the word "is" - concerning Him whose incarnate flesh "was, is, and is to come." The Words of Institution are the stuff of eternity. Just as the crucified, dead, and buried body of Jesus did not lose its divinity on the cross and in the tomb (to later return to the body of Jesus at the resurrection) - so is the reality that the bread "is" and the wine "is." The bread and wine have changed (while yet remaining bread and wine) - they do not merely "contain." Any attempt to impose rationality, compartmentality, or temporality onto the Lord's simple verb "is" is nothing less than intellectually manhandling the Holy Things. Even as the Lord told Moses, "I am who I am," which in no way is limited to the present tense (for God is eternal). Similarly, His body and blood are what they are.

And this is precisely why we Lutherans are so fastidious about consuming the elements.

For consumption of the elements is the only way that the Presence in the elements ceases. Not because God ceases to exist, but rather because the elements themselves do! When the host and the wine are consumed (through eating and drinking), they chemically disappear. Bread and wine are broken down by the body, converted into caloric energy (heat), and are, in essence, burned.

It is interesting that burning is the way that holy things that must be discarded are typically "consumed." Rather than have a holy thing desecrated (such as a woman's blouse that had the Lord's blood spilled on it as a result of Luther's shaky hand), the object is consumed through burning (as Luther ordered the blouse to be). Burning with fire is essentially the same thing as eating. Both result in the consumption of the elements - which prevent desecration.

We are indeed commanded to consume the body and blood of Christ ("Take... eat..."). The argument about tabernacling the elements - at least among Lutherans - has nothing to do with monstrances and superstition - as no Lutheran advocates such a use. Any attempt to raise that specter in this day and age among Lutherans is to make a classic straw man argument. Rather, the discussion has to do with the best way to consume the elements. Some consume them through immediate eating and drinking so as to avoid desecration, while others reserve the elements against the next communion (to be eaten and drunk) or in order to bring to the sick and shut in (to be eaten and drunk).

In the latter case, some pastors simply believe it is not fitting to use a hospital tray as a temporary altar. They also believe the sick should participate in the parochial Mass in so far as they are able. Consuming the elements consecrated at the parish altar is a way to do this. There simply are no Lutheran pastors seeking to use the host as a talisman. So any arguments concerning such abuses are not germane to the discussion. These pastors are, rather, seeking the most reverent way to consume the Lord's body and blood. And it follows that if one is going to reserve the elements (whether for the sick or to use in the next communion), a fitting box ought to be used - not a Jif peanut butter jar with a sticker on it that says "consecrated wafers" to be put in the cabinet next to the can of WD40 and a pack of Post-It notes - while the elements await consumption.

If we believe the elements "are" what the Lord says they are, we are going to be reverent, even worshipful, in their presence. Some Protestants, and even some Lutherans, have made the charge that those who adore the consecrated elements (whether at the elevation or when in the presence of tabernacled elements) are committing idolatry.

This line of reasoning led me to ponder the Magi.

For these men of the East made an arduous journey of hundreds of miles along the bandit-ridden highways of the fertile crescent so that they could worship God. But isn't God everywhere? Might they not have just stayed home? Instead, they traveled in order to worship God in His flesh, kneeling down before the Baby Jesus. They did not worship Him piecemeal, a thumb, an eye-socket, and a spleen. No indeed. They worshiped Him in His whole and holy body, in a catholic and wholesome sense. But neither did they worship Him from afar, apart from His bodily presence. Rather they went to where God was found physically. And they bowed down before His body, adoring His flesh. And it was in no way idolatry to genuflect and worship His flesh - for the flesh of Jesus is the True Body of Christ, God incarnate. His body simply is.

In fact, it would have been sinful not to worship the fleshly body of this little Nazarene Child.

This is said in so many words by St. Augustine:
"'Worship His footstool.' His footstool is the earth, and Christ took upon Him earth of earth, because flesh is of earth; and He received flesh of the flesh of Mary. And because He walked here in this very flesh, he also gave this very flesh to be eaten by us for salvation. But no one eats that flesh unless He has first worshiped it. Therefore the way has been found how such footstool of the Lord may be worshiped, so that we not only do not sin by worshiping, but sin by not worshiping." (emphasis added)
A similar confession was made by St. Athanasius:
"If any one says that the flesh of our Lord as that of a man is inadorable, and is not to be worshiped as the flesh of the Lord and God, him the Holy Catholic Church anathematizes."
Both of these quotes are endorsed by the Lutheran confessions, as they appear in the Catalog of Testimonies of the Book of Concord.

If we are indeed to worship the Lord's flesh, especially before eating it (as St. Augustine implores us to do), that has ramifications on how we ought to treat the elements which our Lord, in His miraculous and creative Word, has declared: "This is..."

Thank you, Latif and Dan, for leading me to ponder the sacred mystery of our Lord in His incarnate flesh and blood!