From time to time, Lutherans mock other Lutherans for being overly careful regarding dealing with consecrated elements so as to avoid their profanation. In one recent discussion, a Lutheran pastor wrote:
I understand being reverent, but some of the specific piety is overkill, to the point where the point of the meal is missed. Do you really think if a morsel of bread is dropped to the floor, God in heaven is angry?
Of course, it’s revealing that he sought to minimize the offense by describing the “morsel” not as the body of Christ, but as “bread.” As if we were talking about an errant crumb from a Subway Spicy Italian six-inch sub instead of the flesh of the Creator of the Universe - well, if you believe that sort of thing, I suppose. And for the record, nobody suggested that this had anything to do with God’s wrath.
I have often read mockery directed toward fastidiousness regarding the consecrated elements, as if such caution was something to be avoided or held up to ridicule.
How different from our fathers in the faith, including Drs. Luther and Bugenhagen (in an incident quoted by Edward Frederick Peters, The Origin and Meaning of the Axiom: “Nothing Has the Character of a Sacrament Outside of the Use” [Fort Wayne, Indiana: Concordia Theological Seminary Press, 1993], p. 191):
[In 1542, in Wittenberg] a woman wanted to go to the Lord’s Supper, and then as she was about to kneel on the bench before the altar and drink, she made a misstep and jostled the chalice of the Lord violently with her mouth, so that some of the Blood of Christ was spilled from it onto her lined jacket and coat and onto the rail of the bench on which she was kneeling. So then when the reverend Doctor Luther, who was standing at a bench opposite, saw this, he quickly ran to the altar (as did also the reverend Doctor Bugenhagen), and together with the curate, with all reverence licked up [the Blood of Christ from the rail] and helped wipe off this spilled Blood of Christ from the woman’s coat, and so on, as well as they could. And Doctor Luther took this catastrophe so seriously that he groaned over it and said, “O, God, help!” and his eyes were full of water.
I wonder how many modern pastors would mock Luther - or even one of their contemporary brethren - for licking the spilled blood of Christ from the communion rail.
And this was not the only time Dr. Luther licked up the spilled blood of the Lord. As Fr. William Weedon wrote back in 2007, referring to a sixteenth century account by Johann Hachenburg:
Or consider how, when he spilled the chalice and it fell to the floor, he carefully set the chalice back on the altar and got on his hands and knees and lapped it up off the floor like a dog - upon which the congregation burst into tears.
I believe that our sense of the separation between the sacred and the profane has degraded since the days of our fathers in the faith. And this is understandable. For us 21st century Americans, we routinely see churches that look less like churches and more like strip malls or concert halls. Church music is increasingly secularized. Vestments are often downplayed, and the sense that worship is “set apart” from the common, ordinary life is increasingly minimalized and marginalized, if not outright combined and conjoined.
It makes one cringe to hear pastors and well-catechized laity refer to the consecrated elements as “bread” and “wine” instead of what they are by virtue of the miracle of encountering our Lord’s Word: the very body and blood of Christ. Of course, they are also bread and wine. It is a both/and and not an either/or. But in the same way that one would speak of one’s own child as one’s “son” or “daughter” as opposed to describing him as “some kid.” Of course, your own child is “some kid,” but what would cause a parent to speak in this way, ignoring the more sublime reality to settle on a technically-true generality?
But I believe that we are seeing a much more general trend in the failure to discern the sacred from the profane.
I recently had a commenter on my Facebook timeline use a certain expression of profanity that was very crass and vulgar. When I asked him to refrain, given that I’m a pastor and that I do have ladies and children who will see it, he was rather agitated.
What I found most amazing is that he is a proud Southerner. And traditional Southern culture is one of chivalry. Southern men of every socioeconomic level are traditionally raised to show deference to ladies and to children - especially by a desire to assist and to refrain from giving offense. Southern men can indeed curse with the best of their Yankee counterparts - and they do. But it has always been a hallmark of our region to make a distinction in matters of speech and manners. And when a man doesn’t make such a distinction, it is supposed that he “wasn’t raised right.” And of course, I’m being a bit tongue-in-cheek, as all regions of the country used to display such deference. It has always been stressed in Southern culture.
And this sense of distinction is what holiness is - to set apart, to remove one’s sandals on holy ground, to bow to the ground before God, and to adorn the places where God physically appears differently than one would decorate a common, ordinary living area.
The distinction between the sacred and the profane has been muddled in our modern age, and especially in the last couple decades. Words that used to be off-limits on broadcast television are routinely used. Topics addressed in commercials are now wide-open, with no sense that some things should not be discussed in front of children.
My Southern friend worded his defense of using any level of profanity whenever and wherever he liked in a curious way. I asked him if he would use such language in front of his mother, or his children, or in church, or at Bible class. His response was telling:
If I had children I would encourage them to speak how they feel not what is excepted [sic], freedom of speech is freedom of speech there is no exception and I would expect my children and grown adults to be comfortable speaking their minds freely!! I’m not for everyone and as far as church is conscerned [sic] wherever my feet are planted is my church and God is always my guide.
Of course, if he had children, he might see things differently, but then again, maybe not. I often hear parents saying the most vulgar things in front of even very small children, and it is distressing that from a young age, children are not learning boundaries. They are taught that the way we conduct ourselves in the gym, the playground, or the locker-room is the same as we carry ourselves in church, at a funeral, or at a formal dinner.
Interestingly, he openly makes no distinction between a holy place, like a church, and “wherever [his] feet are planted.” In his worldview, God doesn’t make such distinctions either.
Moreover, in the larger culture, the way we treat women is the same way that we treat men - because after all, there is no distinction between the sexes. All religions are also the same. To most people, bread that has been consecrated is just like bread that hasn’t been. A church building is no holier than a parking garage (because God is everywhere).
On a side note, this downplaying of, and opposition to, distinctions is a hallmark of Gnosticism. This point is driven home in the Fr. Peter Burfeind’s book: Gnostic America: A Reading of Contemporary American Culture & Religion according to Christianity's Oldest Heresy.
We are increasingly unable to make distinctions and to discern between that which is common and that which is holy. For us Lutherans, as sacramental Christians whose confession is that Christ is physically present in the blessed elements, we really need to double down in what we say and do with regard to that which is holy, lest we contribute to the trend of profanation, and thereby give the impression that we don’t believe what our Lord clearly told us in the Words of Institution.
And if we’re not going to be cautious with the holy things - as much as we would be cautious with caustic chemicals or high voltage electricity - then what do we really believe about what holiness is? Or more basic than that, what do we believe regarding what Jesus teaches us?
Maybe that is the question we really need to be addressing: What do we believe?
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