The Deacon after the Priest
As I was musing on St. Laurence, whose martyrdom we celebrated yesterday (August 10) at mass, I got to thinking about the apocryphal story of the exchange between him and Sixtus, who was himself being led off to martyrdom on August 6 of the fateful year 257.
The story goes that Laurence was grieving over the fact that he could not accompany his bishop to martyrdom: "Father, where are you going without your son? Have I not ever followed you wherever you have served? Have I not been faithful to you in all things? How can you leave without me?" To which Sixtus prophetically replied, "Yet three days and you will follow, the deacon after the priest."
This led me to thinking about a related matter, one we tend to be rather loath to talk about in the Missouri Synod, because our established practice is already so entrenched. I refer to the matter of lay assistants at the distribution of the Sacrament.
I'm fully aware of the parish nightmares that tend to arise when a pastor institutes change too abruptly or without forethought or warning. Gottesdiensters already have a bad reputation in this regard, though I would submit that it is largely undeserved. We do not endorse foolhardy revolutions in the parish; but we do take issue with those who deny the need for certain changes, especially regarding the Sacrament.
So on the matter of lay assistants at the altar, of course we have to deal with the century or so of the use of this practice--and I'm probably being generous in my assessment; it may be far less than that, but I'm not going to go look it up right now--which means that practically speaking there will be a need for much education, catechesis, preparation, etc.
But what I find unsettling is the popular notion that this is a matter we can altogether ignore. Here's the other side of the matter. AC XIV is not the first time the Church has insisted that no one should administer the Sacrament without a regular call. If you think so, you might be able to dismiss its more "rigid" interpretations by saying that when a lay assistant is handed the chalice, then in fact the one distributing is still the pastor (though even this is a stretch; I mean, distribution has to do with, well, distributing). But the Church catholic has, prior to the sixteenth century's Augustana, always insisted that only ordained men should do the actual distributing of the chalice (to say nothing of the Host!).
St. Laurence was a deacon, and one of the most prominent diaconal duties was the distribution of the chalice. This was widely known and indisputable in the third century and well before and beyond. The deacon was ordained to do this. St. Laurence did not need ordination to tend to the needs of the poor and look after the church's treasury, though he did those things too. He was ordained to distribute the chalice and to read the Gospel (there's another matter we can perhaps take up at another time).
To make matters worse for the confessional Lutheran's conscience, consider this: it was among the Protestant churches--specifically those churches with a low view of the Sacrament--that the use of laymen to distribute first became popular. It's a kind of Pietist invention. While it is true that this is one area in which (sadly) even the Roman Catholic churches have at last been influenced, it was not always so. It's only since Vatican II, if I'm not mistaken, that their "extraordinary ministers of the Sacrament" have arisen, among whom today one can even find women.
In St. Laurence's day it was unheard of; as also in Luther's day.
I will grant on the one hand that this is not a matter that must be changed this instant: having lay assistants at the altar does not make one apostate, after all, and no Gottesdienster would say such a thing. On the other hand, I think it needs to be considered; it needs at least to be on the radar screen. With the acknowledgment that we've come a long way in the Missouri Synod comes a rider: We can do better.
+ BF Eckardt