Indifference is not characteristic of the liturgy
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A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

The place of "I forgive you..." and a poll on omitting the Preparation

We all learned in our history books that the Mass proper begins with the Introit - that the rite of preparation is just that. In days of yore, Lutherans insisted on communicants who made regular use of individual confession and absolution and thus prepared themselves that way. After the days of Pietism, things have obviously changed: all of our Divine Services now include a rite of public confession with either absolution or declaration of grace and individual absolution is perpetually in the process of being recovered (since the first MO Synod constitution!) with little outlook for recovery.

I have argued here and in the print journal that the old Common Service had it right in refusing to use the indicative-operative formula of absolution (I forgive you...) for public services and opting instead for declarations of grace or prayers (May the Almighty and Merciful Lord forgive us....; Grant this, Lord, unto us all.). In my opinion, this was the greatest improvement in LSB over TLH: restoring the option of using the old Common Service with the declaration of grace instead of TLH's innovative mass absolution.

I am convinced that one of the main reasons our people feel no urgency to recover the historic Lutheran practice of absolution is that since 1941 our orders have encouraged us to toss about the indicative-operative absolution in public worship to a room full of people about whose faith and repentance the pastor cannot likely have an intimate knowledge. Why go to Confession "for the sake of the absolution" if I get the very same absolution each and every Sunday? Since 1941 the currency of the indicative-operative absolution has been infinitely cheapened through usage inflation.

This hit me squarely between the eyes when I was translating the first setting of the Liturgy of Holy Communion in Liturgies et Cantique Luthériens (which I'll post later this week, Dv). I had always understood the "you" in the General Absolution as "thee" - as in TLH's Benediction. It's an individual blessing given, as it were, serially to a group. But in LCL it is not te that is used but vous! And now that I think about it, the editors of LCL are correct in interpreting the intent going back to TLH: while the Benediction is in the singular (thee) the Absolution is in the plural (you). But how can any Sacrament be given to people as a mass of people? We don't baptize crowds indiscriminately (y'all) we baptize individuals (thee). Likewise, with the Supper - it is given for thee.

How can you say "I forgive you" to a whole room of people, some of whom are visitors, many of whom are unexamined, and all of whom have made only a generic, rote confession that rises not even to the level of the Catechism's "one or two things"? Yes, the reply comes, but that's why it's prefaced with "Upon this your confession. . . ": if it's not really your confession, if you don't really mean it, then the absolution does not really count for you.

To which I reply: Bosh. So now we are cheapening sacramental words by making them conditional? This cuts against the grain of the gift our Lord gives us in John 20. Why do you need to make it conditional? If you don't think this person has true repentance and faith then these are not the words you should be saying to them, for, "Our word to you was not yes and no..."

(An aside: I gained some grudging respect for a certain pro-open communion professor at the seminary when he said to our class of first year seminarians: How can you not commune everyone if you just forgave them all their sins a couple of minutes ago? He was right: how can you not? Is your answer, "Upon this your confession"? That's a pretty lame response in my book; those words just won't carry that weight. Either commune them or stop it with the blanket indicative-operative absolution that you don't actually intend to cover all the people who hear the words.)

So either way you cut it, the words based on Jesus' institution of Absolution in John 20 (I forgive you...) are, in this parish pastor's opinion, most properly used only in individual settings. Or, to say all this much more succinctly: You should not say, "I forgive you," to someone unless you know, as much as any responsible undershepherd should know, that you shouldn't be saying, "I bind unto you..."

As I said above, we've covered this ground before. If you want my advice, make use of the LSB option for using a prayer for forgiveness or a declaration of grace in public settings. But there is another option for doing away with the general indicative-operative absolution: to omit that rite of preparation altogether and begin the Divine Service with the Introit as our history books taught us was once the case.

How often, if at all, is this done in your parish? Under what circumstances? How was it received by the congregants? Has it had any affect on the number of people who seek the Sacrament of Absolution?

Pr. H. R.39 Comments