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A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

TBT: Responding to Romaphobia: The Reason for Liturgical Piety


This Liturgical Observer Column is from the 2000 Christmas issue of Gottesdienst. It can also be found in a compilation of 25 years of liturgical observations collected in the recently published Gottesdienst book Leave It Alone. You’ll Break It. Liturgical Observations.

Legalism! Legalism! So runs the protest of a horde gathering outside the walls of liturgical piety and renewal, a cry of outrage growing ever louder, either due to an increase in numbers, or (more likely), intensity. The intensity increases as it gains false conviction that its cause is just, which seeks to oppress and suppress a liturgical life being renewed among us. They shudder when they hear Christian people being instructed in the traditions of faith which they have grown to despise, probably for no greater reason than that they find themselves unaccustomed to those traditions. They were not themselves raised making the sign of the holy cross, so they look askance at those who do. They never saw a Lutheran pastor genuflect at the altar, and were never taught to genuflect themselves, so they assume he must be a closet Romanist. And they certainly never saw a Lutheran pastor commune himself, so they conclude he thinks too highly of himself to let someone else do that for him.

So even though no such Lutheran pastors—at least neither your scribe nor anyone he has ever known— have ever thought of themselves in these terms, yet the others, who themselves either misunderstood the liturgical renewal or refused to consider its purpose, routinely find the cry of “legalism” a convenient mantra to repeat, enabling them to dismiss the whole enterprise as a charade.

By “legalism” they generally mean a loveless enforcement of rules without regard for the Gospel, where the Gospel is defined as freedom from the straitjacket of tradition. Those who promote the historic liturgical tradition are not unfrequently labeled as arrogant or lacking humility. It is odd that Roman Catholic priests, whom we are accused of being like, are not generally labeled as arrogant or lacking humility. Rather, they are expected to act the way they do, and when they do not act that way—as has been more frequently seen since Vatican II—they are wondered about.    Perhaps it is Romaphobia, if I may coin the term, which is driving the ad hominem attacks against the representatives of liturgical piety. Our opponents don’t really mind if Roman priests genuflect or commune themselves; they just don’t want to see any of that sort of thing in Lutheran churches. That’s too close to home.

Stories are still told among the laity about the days of a generation or so ago when in your typical Midwestern town having a Catholic church at one end and a Lutheran church at the other, schoolboys from one side would engage those from the other in some serious snowball fights on the Main Street bridge. The Catholic kids were the bad guys, and that was that. Lutheran pastors in some ways actually promoted this sort of thinking in those days: they would themselves not be seen wearing so much as a white surplice, to say nothing of an alb or (heaven forbid!) a chasuble. Geneva gowns were everywhere fashionable for the pulpit and the altar. The men who liked to wear them routinely catechized their students by telling them that although Lutherans are not Methodists who believe the Sacrament is just a symbol, they are certainly not Catholics who believe in transubstantiation! Somehow Catholics were thought to be too superstitious for us, with their smells and bells, their altar boys and flowing vestments, their genuflexions and signs of the cross. A Lutheran on vacation might have to attend a Reformed or Baptist church if no Lutheran church could be found, but never a Catholic church. Those people were just too weird, at least when it came to worship. And now there are Lutherans doing Catholic things? Well! One might as well raise the Confederate flag in Philadelphia, and see how people react! No wonder we get grief. Thus we find still today, as Father Richard John Neuhaus is inclined to say, that anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable form of bigotry. The problem is far more serious than aesthetics, however, since it is not—contrary to what they are saying—a love of Rome which drives this liturgical renewal among us. To be sure, there are surely some who think of these things in no more than aesthetic terms, who just like liturgical ceremony because, as they say, it’s cool, way cool. But those miss the point of it just as surely as the Romaphobic community. What drives, or ought to drive, liturgical renewal is a renewal of understanding of the Holy Sacrament. Catechetical renewal must begin with a renewed awareness that the Sacrament is truly Christ on the altar.

It is informative, I believe, that one will often find a well-entrenched receptionism alongside the low-church mentality which opposes liturgical renewal. The receptionist position holds that the words of Christ apply only to those parts of the elements which are actually received. Lutheran pastors can easily be found who say that the Sacrament is truly Christ’s Body and Blood, as He said, but only if it is eaten and drunk. That is, whatever remains is mere bread and wine, since it is not included in the entire sacramental action. They like to point to the Formula of Concord’s Article VII (“Of the Holy Supper”) which declares that

this blessing, or the recitation of the words of institution of Christ alone does not make it a sacrament if the entire action of the Supper, as it was instituted by Christ, is not observed (as when the consecrated bread is not distributed, received, and partaken of, but is enclosed, sacrificed, or carried about), but the command of Christ, This do (which embraces the entire action or administration in this Sacrament, that in an assembly of Christians bread and wine are taken, consecrated, distributed, received, eaten, drunk, and the Lord’s death is shown forth at the same time) must be observed unseparated and inviolate, as also St. Paul places before our eyes the entire action of the breaking of the bread or of distribution and reception, 1 Cor. 10,16. . . .

If the institution of Christ be not observed as He appointed it, there is no sacrament. This is by no means to be rejected, but can and should be urged and maintained with profit in the Church of God. And the use or action here does not mean chiefly faith, neither the oral participation only, but the entire external, visible action of the Lord’s Supper instituted by Christ, the consecration, or words of institution, the distribution and reception, or oral partaking of the consecrated bread and wine, of the body and blood of Christ. And apart from this use, when in the papistic mass the bread is not distributed, but offered up or enclosed, borne about, and exhibited for adoration, it is to be regarded as no sacrament; just as the water of baptism, when used to consecrate bells or to cure leprosy, or otherwise exhibited for worship, is no sacrament or baptism. (Solid Declaration, par. 83-87)

By a careful examination of this passage, one can ascertain that what the Formula means to reject is the abuse of the Sacrament, inasmuch as This do refers to the entire sacramental action. The Corpus Christi festival is in view here, where the host is enclosed in a monstrance for adoration only and is never eaten. “Nothing is a sacrament apart from the use” means nothing more than that no one may make of Christ’s institution something of his own choosing. It is quite a stretch to suggest that this proscription of the Sacrament’s abuse may also be taken to mean that only that portion of the elements actually used in the distribution are truly Christ’s Body and Blood. With that sort of reasoning, one ends up with the impossible conclusion that when Christ said, This is My Body, He really only meant “that portion of this bread which you actually consume is My Body,” or, even more worthy of ridicule, the notion that This is My Blood applied only to those molecules of wine floating about with the rest in the same cup which would end up being drunk. What is the communicant to think? Not only that Jesus’s words do not mean what they say, but that they have to be contorted in a way worse than the most flagrant sacramentarian ever imagined.

Yet the receptionists among us believe this very thing, and although we don’t really know why, we are hard-pressed not to suspect Romaphobia driving also this belief. For if the Sacrament is truly Christ’s Body, according to His words, then no amount of (mis)reading of the Formula of Concord can alter the fact that it is not only that portion which is actually eaten that is Christ’s Body, but also that which is left, that which remains, that which sits on the altar–-even before, after, and apart from the distribution. For it is indeed meant for distribution, and hence no abuse can be found here, such as what the Formula rejects. And therefore we are left having to regard the elements as such, due to Christ’s own words; and this will in turn mean bowing, genuflecting, and even adoring; and we end up looking like the very Catholics we feared. For where the Sacrament is being rightly administered, then it most clearly must be seen as the Body and Blood of Christ, and we are left with no options but to behave accordingly.

It is surely no accident that liturgical piety remains strongest among churches who have the strongest view of what the Sacrament is. Nor is it happenstance that liturgical renewal is found among those of us who have learned to take Christ’s words seriously. No amount of insistence on the part of low-church receptionists that they really, really do believe in the Real Presence can countervail the contradictory message they send loudly and clearly. Their obstinate refusals to take some lessons in how to behave reverently at the altar tell us they must think that there’s really nothing extraordinary going on up here. Their use of plastic individual communion cups will never permit us to take them too seriously when they say it truly is Christ’s own very blood in there. That these cups are disposable demands one of two points of view: that the element they contain is only wine and nothing more, or that there is an unspeakable sacrilege at work among them. It must be the former view which prevails here, for it surely cannot be the latter. Yet the former must simply be recognized for what it is: wrong. And then, when this recognition begins to sink in, perhaps we will begin to see more knees touching the ground.

But now we are called legalists for encouraging such things and speaking this way. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is faith and confession which are at stake here: faith in Christ’s own words and confession of the same. We take Him at His word: This is my body. But Christians are free, comes the retort. Yes, we reply, free indeed, free to take Him at His word. He does not say This is partly My Body, or This is My Body if you eat it, or This will become My Body as soon as it passes through your lips, or, This is My Body in such a bizzare way that you needn’t bother thinking about it too much. He simply says is, is! Thus we are free to believe Him, and we begin to learn by this a certain freedom from idolatry in all its forms. We died to sin! How can we live in it any longer? How can we—how dare we—carry on as if Christ were absent? Does our freedom mean we may reject His Word and Sacrament? Are we free to abandon Him? Imagine Moses, on coming down the mountain and seeing the Israelites frolicking around their golden calf, saying to them, “It’s all right, folks! You’re free to do that!” Now consider the Divine Service. Are we free to pay little or no attention to Christ—Christ on the altar? What does our posture say? What do our actions say?

And how, for that matter, is honoring Christ a show of arrogance? Who is truly being arrogant but the one who refuses, maybe just because he’s afraid he might have to admit he could have been wrong about some of his long-held stereotypes, to give an honest consideration and evaluation of these most sacred things. These things most certainly do need careful consideration, rooted as they are in a conviction that Christ meant what He said when He said,This is My Body. We mean no one harm in confessing these things in words and actions. We mean only to be true to Christ in every way. Liturgically, this means in particular that we must behave at the altar in such a way as to reflect our convictions about what sits on it. Our liturgical actions portray our confession of faith.

In short, since we believe, teach, and confess that Christ’s Body and Blood are truly present in the Sacrament, therefore we also believe, teach, and confess that the Holy Liturgy of the Church is most certainly not a matter of indifferent things.

Burnell EckardtTBT1 Comment