21 July 2008

Bending and Lifting: Ceremonial Catechesis

I had a pleasant and productive visit with my District President, the Reverend Daniel May, earlier this month. I met with him in my capacity as the chairmain of our district's Worship and Spiritual Care Committee, and I appreciated both his time and his attentiveness to what I had to say. I certainly don't envy his job, nor the hours he has to keep and the many miles he has to drive, but I have been thankful for the pastoral perspective and demeanor with which he has approached his office these past five years. His several decades in the parish shaped him in a way that climbing the bureaucratic ladder would not have.

Our meeting was chiefly to discuss a set of guidelines that the Worship and Spiritual Care Committee recently completed, intended to assist the president in giving evangelical direction to pastors and congregations when they are hosting services for gatherings of the Synod in this place. We're all painfully aware of the rampant diversity that has increasingly plagued the worship practices of congregations across the Synod. There seems to be little that synodical officials can do about that trend, other than encouraging the use of mutually agreed-upon orders of service and hymnody. When it comes to gatherings of the Synod, however, at the circuit, district or national level, Christian love for the neighbor and practical propriety commend the use of those things we have agreed upon together in our fellowship. By and large, the guidelines developed by our district committee urge that approach, specifically the use of service orders and hymns from the Lutheran Service Book.

Along with the suggested use of LSB, our committee has also urged that pastors and congregations who are contemplating practices that are likely to seem unusual, or even questionable, should seek the counsel and advice of the District President before incorporating such practices at district gatherings. Although we did not attempt to specify a list of what those particular practices might be, our committee discussions included the examples of "incense and rock bands in the chancel" as two extremes. Never mind that the use of incense is about as ancient and scriptural a practice as one may find, and that rock bands in the chancel are a modern novelty that intentionally draws upon the pop culture of the world; in today's Indiana District of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, both practices may be found, but neither is common, and either one is likely to raise eyebrows. For those inclined to use such things outside the ordinary experience and expectations of brother pastors and sister congregations, we have asked that the District President be consulted at least.

Our approach to these guidelines, happily, is very much in sync with the goals that President May has advocated since he was first elected in 2003. His leadership in this area has been toward the common acceptance and use of LSB, with due allowance for evangelical freedom and a healthy consideration of love for the neighbor. In my opinion, this is a worthy goal, although I think it is a shame that it should have to be a goal instead of the way things simply are. Of course, I'm not talking about LSB vs. TLH or LW, but the use of any official service book and hymnal as opposed to the smorgasbord of local creativity and cleverly invented spectacles that no eye hath seen nor ear ever heard. How can the people of God confess such things? How should they even attempt to do so, not knowing whence they come or whither they are going?

Anyway, if we could all humble ourselves in Christian love to use the agreed-upon service orders and hymns of our official books, such as LSB, then we'd be a long way toward a greater unity of confession and practice. The sticky wicket, then, comes mainly with the question of ceremony, in the way that optional rubrics are followed (or not), and in the use of freedom where the rubrics do not give directions or suggestions. It is in such areas, again, that we have urged an exercise of caution when it comes to gatherings of the Synod in this place; lest, by our freedom, we sin against the weaker brother by distracting him from the Word of God. From what I am given to understand, it is especially in response to such things (at district gatherings and within congregations) that complaints are most often raised. Which goes to show that adiaphora are not indifferent, incidental or insignificant things, free though they be of divine command or prohibition.

My point is not to comment on the practices of the Indiana District, far less to criticize anything in that regard. I'm more interested in some general observations pertaining to adiaphora and the evangelical use of ceremonies. I'm quite adament about the freedom of genuine adiaphora, notwithstanding the misunderstanding, misapplication and widespread abuse of this teaching and confession. I've had my own frustrations in this area, and at a times a visceral resistance to it, but it is what it is; it belongs to the proper distinction of the Law and the Gospel, and it should be embraced within the bonds of faith and love. In particular, I recall a passage from Wilhelm Löhe, great liturgical scholar and reverent liturgist that he was, in which he praises the Lutheran teaching and confession of adiaphora as one of the most precious gems of the Reformation. I am grateful for his instruction and good example in this respect, which I strive to follow faithfully.

In faith toward God, we exercise our freedom in love toward our neighbor. We don't insist upon our freedom for the sake of serving ourselves, but for the benefit of others, that we may glorify the grace of God in Christ. Thus, we lay no laws upon others which God has not laid upon them or us; and we place no weight upon the consciences of others, whom Christ has redeemed and cleansed with His own blood. Sometimes that means foregoing pious practices which, in and of themselves, are meet, right and salutary. Else it means patient teaching and careful catechesis, in order to introduce a salutary practice as a gracious gift and as a way and means of confessing the Gospel. As pastors, even our exercise of personal piety bears a public witness and example, which may unwittingly impose itself upon the weaker brother or the uninitiated observer. It is for such reasons, for the sake of love, that I urge the avoidance of "extremes" in gatherings of our synodical fellowship, wherein our common confession and the common good is served by a recognizably common practice. To speak somewhat crassly, the "high church" brothers bend down to serve their neighbor, and the "low church" brothers lift themselves up for the many.

With those thoughts in mind, I have been contemplating a couple of particular examples. For I have it on good authority that two of those pious practices which are frequently perceived and questioned as "extreme" and outside of the norm are genuflecting and the elevation of the Holy Sacrament. Another sort of bending low and lifting up, both of which belong to my pastoral practice at Emmaus. Would I insist upon either one of these in a gathering of my brothers and sisters in Christ, knowing that many of the faithful in that context may be distracted or troubled by them? No, I would not insist upon either of these ceremonies. But in consideration of these two examples, I have wondered whether there are times and places for pushing the boundaries a bit, and how one might go about doing so in a loving, evangelical fashion. At the Divine Service in St. Louis for the Higher Things conference, I exercised both of these ceremonies; because they are my usual practice at Emmaus, and because I believe them to be, in their own unique way, a beneficial form of catechesis. Along with that, a written catechesis on these and other liturgical ceremonies was provided to all of the participants in the conference, so that all things might serve to the glory of God and for the edification of His people. Similarly, though I would not presume to insist upon genuflecting or the elevation at a synodical gathering, it is my opinion that catechesis in these ceremonies would be appropriate and beneficial to the Church.

Somewhere in our Lutheran Confessions, perhaps Apology XXIV, it is stated that the purpose of ceremonies is the teaching or instruction of the faithful, especially the young and the simple. I think there is more to ceremony than such instruction, and I resist the trend to make everything didactic in a cerebral manner; yet, I wholeheartedly agree the ceremonies do teach the faith in a particularly powerful way. It is certainly true, in my observation and experience, that the little children are formed significantly by what they see and experience in the Divine Service. They are also among the first to detect a dissonance or contradiction between what is said and what is done. A pastor can repeat ad nauseam that the bread and wine in the Holy Communion are the true body and blood of Christ, but, if he comports himself as though he were handling nothing else than bread and wine, the children will wonder if he is either a fool or a liar. My dear father in Christ, Professor Marquart, once described this sort of problem with a reference to pastors who distribute the body and blood of Christ as though they were hawking fish at the market. Such conduct is not only inappropriate and unbecoming, but misleading and offensive; it is surely as much a stumbling block to the simple faithful and the weaker brethren as any insistence upon that which is free. If some pastor has such a strong faith and confidence in the freedom of the Gospel that he may comfortably act the buffoon in the presence of God, he ought to rein himself in and forego his own freedom for the sake of those who may be led to wonder if they are in the presence of God or the devil.

I genuflect at various points in the Divine Service because I am there and then given to receive and to administer the very Lord Jesus Christ, the almighty and eternal Son of the Living God. I do it to discipline and govern my own body, that my outward actions may confess and assist the faith of my heart; no less than my lips also confess the Word that I believe with my heart. And I genuflect, also, to teach and remind the people of God that there is more happening in the Divine Service than we can see with our eyes on the surface. We enter with boldness and confidence, yes, but we enter into the Holy of Holies through the very flesh and blood of Christ our Savior.

To genuflect at the consecration of the Sacrament is an adoration of that Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. He is not present for the sake of our adoration, but He is surely present, and it is truly meet, right and salutary that we should worship and adore Him: with our lips and with our lives, with the prostration of both our hearts and our bodies. It is not necessary, but it is appropriate.

I elevate the body and blood of Christ before the congregation of His disciples at the Pax Domini for the very reasons that Dr. Luther advocates in both his Latin and German orders of the Mass: It is an appropriate ceremonial affirmation of the Peace that Christ grants with the giving of His body and His blood for the free and full forgiveness of sins, and it offers a visual invitation to His Christians that His Supper is now ready for them to eat and to drink at His gracious Word. I am honestly surprised that this ceremony should be questioned among Lutherans, though I do not doubt what I have been told, that it is. Again, for the sake of love, I would not presume to insist upon the elevation; nor do I suppose it to be necessary. But I would like to suggest that the elevation not only enriches the celebration of the Holy Communion, but also serves to catechize the faithful in the Gospel of the Sacrament: that Christ comes to them in love, personally and bodily, to give Himself to them, and to welcome them to Himself.

The elevation invites and draws the communicants to Christ precisely in the Sacrament, in those external elements which are His very body and precious blood, rather than leaving the people to wander about in their minds looking for Christ in their hearts or in heavens far above, somewhere over the rainbow. It is a powerful confession of the Word of Christ, echoing their "Amen" to the Pax Domini, when the people sing the Agnus Dei to the Lamb of God who is right there lifted up before them in the bread and in the cup, concerning which He has spoken: "This is My Body. This is the New Testament in My Blood." And how shall we not bend low before that?

I'm not pushing for anything, nor suggesting that there be an imposition of liturgical law upon pastors and congregations. But I wonder if the absence of genuflecting and the elevation have not only impoverished our Lutheran ceremonial but also impoverished our Lutheran catechesis of the Sacrament. It goes hand-in-hand with a tendency to speak most often of the bread and wine, but seldom of the Lord's body and blood. That is like describing Sarah as Abraham's sister (true enough) without mentioning that she is his beloved bride.

I would like to suggest that faithful catechesis may include the gentle restoration of these two historic ceremonies; and that their evangelical use in the freedom of the Gospel would itself be a meet, right and salutary catechesis in the Word of Christ.


Rev. Robert Franck said...

An interesting article. I suppose I genuflect and elevate less than some and more than others. Even so, I doubt that either of these practices would be questioned by any of those who would question either rock bands or incense.

However, when you consider our synod as a whole, I wonder if another practice might draw more attention, even though it IS clearly specified in the LSB rubrics, at least in the Altar book. I'm speaking of the practice of the celebrant communing himself.

Really, I was surprised this rubric made it into LSB. Not because I don't support it. It has been my practice for years, and I am glad it is there. But I wonder if this is the practice of the majority of our LCMS parishes. Based on my experience, mostly with more conservative churches, I doubt that is the case. And I also really doubt that the churches where an elder or someone else communes the pastor are going to all of a sudden change their practice because of a rubric in the Altar book.

Rev. Paul Beisel said...

I agree with your post, and think that especially in areas where Reformed theology and practice are rampant, it is a good way to show a "Lutheran Distinction." Great point about children recognizing inconsistency.

I have said on my own blog that much of the discomfort with bowing, kneeling, and other forms of reverence toward God may have to do with the culture in which we live. We don't have kings and princes, or royalty. We have a president, who dresses like a business man. Although we have a lot of pomp and circumstance surrounding his appearances and speeches, you will never see people bending the knee or today even doffing the hat as was expected behavior in the time of kings.

But I would submit that we needn't omit such behavior in the church just because we live in America. Christ is still our King, and if you look at the different places in the Bible where God is pictured in worship, he is the King, sitting on the throne. (I'm thinking of Isaiah 6 and Rev. 4).

Perhaps in our teaching we need to emphasize the royal and kingly nature of Christ, and such actions will seem more natural to people in the Church.

Rev. Jacob Sutton said...

Pastor Stuckwisch has again posted a thought provoking article - and I am thankful for the evangelical, churchly, and Christ-like way in which he couches his argumentation. It is a fine example for all of us.

Sometimes, depending upon where one is located and the history of that place, one has to bend down in humility for the sake of the neighbor more often than one might like. I would not dare, here where God has placed me in His service, at this point, to genuflect without further teaching. But at "he was made man" in the Creed, I intentionally bow my head. At "This is My Body" (etc.) I bow my head, I slow down, I pause. We can show reverence and bring the reverence level up in ways great AND small until the many are ready for the great.

Part of the problem in LCMS circles with "showing reverence" around the Communion Rail and the altar is that there has been so much bad or lacking catechesis about Roman Catholic errors and more specifically "Transubstantiation," that many of our laity think that any reverence showed on the part of the pastor somehow confesses such abuses of the Gospel. Which is a shame - as if a faithful Lutheran pastor should want to give up Article IV of the Augustana, simply because one bows here, chants there, genuflects here, elevates there! It is actually quite insulting! People do not think about what they are saying or the implications of what they say! They should know better about their pastor in Christ!

There was a pastor (to remain unnamed) who used to be the senior pastor of a larger LCMS congregation, and has now moved onward and upward (so to speak). I respect him very much, a very faithful man. I used to attend Divine Service there because my in-laws were located there. But he did something that drove me nuts. He used to give the dismissal blessing to each table of communicants so casually, so quickly, so matter-of-factly, as if it was the 8 billionth time he had done so. And it was as if he was in such a hurry to move along. He literally gave the blessing and made the sign of the cross as he was walking away towards the next table. Almost a backwards, behind-the-back sign of the cross. I don't think he meant to do so. I think it was a bad habit he had picked up and no one ever said anything to him. The "lay of the land" in the small altar area and rail sort of contributed to it too. But boy, what does something like that confess - intended or not!

I welcome and hope to read and contribute more to the idea of "Ceremonial Catechesis." It seems obvious to say so, but there is a crying need for Christocentric catechesis on the ceremony, ritual, rubrics, and ordinaries of our Divine Service. Perhaps this blog could become a resource where much expertise and study is drawn together comprehensively for the sake of the Church at large. I think the very discussion between Pastors Stuckwisch and May bares this out to be true - our church at large is bereft in the very basics of our faith in Christ.