Saturday, September 29, 2007

Roundtable 26: Confession

The Lutheran Reformation has its root cause in the confessional. People coming to make their confession to Father Martin Luther began to tell him that they needn't worry any longer about forgiveness, or about what they might, or might not do, because they had purchased an indulgence, and considered it a "get out of hell free" card that assured them of God's grace and mercy in spite of anything they, or their deceased relatives, had done. Whether this was an accurate understanding of what indulgences were meant to be is not the point. The practical consequence of the false teaching of the indulgence peddlers, who at the time were raising money on behalf of the local Roman Catholic Archbishop who was in turn paying Rome off for the exception granted him to hold more than one ecclesial office, and Rome in turn was raising cash to construct St. Peters. In the midst of this deep and profound corruption of the Gospel and the Church, the Biblical gift of absolution and the practice of giving that absolution privately to the individual sinner through the practice of private confession and absolution was being horribly distorted, corrupting the very Gospel itself. And hence, in the Augsburg Confession, in Article XXV, the Lutherans had to defend themselves from the accusation that they had done away with private confession and absolution and make clear that what they rejected were the false and Gospel obscuring practices that had grown up around the practice, like noxious weeds, choking out the beautiful gift of the absolving good news of Christ Jesus. In a tragic irony, today, for the most part, the practice of private confession and absolution has been lost in the Lutheran Church. That's the bad news. The good news? There has been a renaissance of the practice in recent years, with the convention of The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod last summer (July 2007) adopting a resolution encouraging its use and a return and restoration of this practice in the congregations of the Synod. The voice of Christ Himself, using the voice and mouth of the ministry, is being heard by the sinner in private confession and the personal application of the absolution is a priceless treasure that must be extolled and retained.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Roundtable 25: The Mass

"Our churches are falsely accused of abolishing the Mass. The Mass is held among us and celebrated with the highest reverence. Nearly all the usual ceremonies are also preserved..."

So begins Article XXIV. Here's a rather unbiased observer's notes on what the Lutherans were up to back then. Musculous, the south German, writes:

Eisenach, May 14, 1536, Cantate Sunday: the so-called "Office of Mass" was held at 7:00. First the Introit "Cantate Domino" was sung in Latin by the teacher and school children, in the papistic fashion by the choir alone. Then the Kyrie, in which the organ played in alternation. Then a liturgist, dressed in papistic fashion, intoned at a papistically decorated altar the Gloria in Latin, which was continued by the choir and organist in alternation. Then the liturgist sang a so-called "Collect" in German with his face to the altar and his back to the people. Then he turned to the people and read a lesson in German from the letter of James. Then the organ was played again, and the choir intoned "Victimae Paschali" within which the congregation sang "Christ is Arisen." Then the liturgist sang the Gospel facing the people. Then the organ was played, upon which the congregation intoned "We all believe..." Then Justas Menius preached in street clothes. Then the Liturgist said a prayer. Then a brief admonition to communicants, then he sang the Words of Institution: first the bread, during which he elevated the host in papistic fashion while the people knelt, then the cup, which he likewise elevated after he had spoken the words. Then the organ was played and the Agnus Dei was sung in alternation by the choir. During this the Priest distributed the cup in street clothes. No men communed, and only a few women. After them the Liturgist communicated himself. First the bread was venerated, but not the cup, after which he carefully finished drinking and cleaned with newly poured wine so that no blood remained. After the Supper he sang a prayer facing the altar, then he sang a blessing facing the people. Then while the people exited the choir sang "Grant Peace, We Pray" in German. [Wolfgang Herbst, Evangelischer Gottesdienst: Quelle zu seiner Geschichte, Göttingen: Vanderhoeck & Ruprecht, 1992), pp. 104, 105.]

You can see why the AC was indignant that we had NOT abolished the mass! The south German Musculus was not impressed - thought the Lutherans looked entirely too "papistic." Sadly, he was neither the first nor the last to think so.

What is absent was the offertory and Canon of the ancient Roman Rite with their frequent stress on sacrifice. In the Lutheran Divine Service the accent shifted decidedly from sacrifice, with its from-us-to-God emphasis, to sacrament, with its from God-to-us emphasis. Rather than our offering to Him, it is His offering to us. After all, think of the very words that institute the Eucharist: "Take and EAT; Take and DRINK." Never "Take and Offer." Thus the Words of Institution were left standing alone to stress the gift nature of what the Mass was all about in the overwhelming majority of 16th century Lutheran liturgies (Sweden's being a marked exception, but still inside of its eucharistia accenting squarely the sacrament as gift from God to us).

What the Lutherans DID abolish - and were not about to apologize for getting rid of - was the SALE of masses, the private mass (where the priest alone communed), and the notion that the Mass was instituted to be a propitiatory sacrifice for actual sins (while Christ's atoning death on the cross covered original sins). Additionally, they especially abominated the idea that the priest performing the mass could apply that mass to the sins of the living or the dead to their benefit merely by performing the outward act!

Rather, the Lutheran Confessors stress the true use of the Sacrament. It is the impartation to us of Christ's once-for-all-time-upon-the-cross sacrifice as the sign and seal of that sacrifice availing for us. "Therefore the Mass was instituted so that those who use the Sacrament should remember, in faith, the benefits they receive through Christ and how their anxious consciences are cheered and comforted. To remember Christ is to remember His benefits." The person, anxious and troubled about their sin, is thus given unspeakable comfort in the gift of the Body and Blood that achieved sin's forgiveness and death's destruction, given specifically "for you, for forgiveness."

Since the Mass is established to give out this joyous comfort, the Lutherans freely confess:

"We have Communion every holy day, and if anyone desires the Sacrament, we also offer it on other days, when it is given to all who ask for it."

A century after the Reformation, in Magdeburg, the Sacrament was still being regularly celebrated and offered on each Lord's Day, each Tuesday, and each Thursday.

About the ceremonies, the Lutherans have little to quibble with: "We keep the public ceremonies, which are for the most part similar to those previously in use. Only the number of Masses differs." And that because the Lutherans allow for no private mass at all.

In sum: according to the Augsburg Confession, the Mass is diligently kept and reverently celebrated in the Lutheran parishes, and it is restored to the use for which it was instituted: bringing the comfort and joy of forgiveness to poor sinners.

One final note. Someone once said: "Yes, but that was descriptive, not prescriptive." Another friend, who is quite the Wag, agreed: "Yes, it is descriptive of what a LUTHERAN is; you are quite right." In the spirit of that comment, I close with words from the sainted C. F. W. Walther on the matter of ceremonies:

In an essay delivered to a district convention, Walther said:

“We refuse to be guided by those who are offended by our church customs. We adhere to them all the more firmly when someone wants to cause us to have a guilty conscience on account of them…. It is truly distressing that many of our fellow Christians find the difference between Lutheranism and Papism in outward things. It is a pity and a dreadful cowardice when one sacrifices the good ancient church customs to please the deluded American sects, lest they accuse us of being papistic (i.e., too catholic!). Indeed! Am I to be afraid of a Methodist, who perverts the saving Word, or be ashamed in the matter of my good cause, and not rather rejoice that the sects can tell by our ceremonies that I do not belong to them?”

We are not insisting that there be uniformity of perception or feeling or of taste among all believing Christians – neither dare anyone demand that all be minded as he is. Nevertheless it remains true that the Lutheran liturgy distinguishes Lutheran worship from the worship of other churches to such an extend that the houses of worship of the latter look like lecture halls in which the hearers are addressed or instructed (NOTE: if he were writing today, he’d no doubt add: they look like movie theatres in which the hearers are entertained!), while our churches are in truth houses of prayer in which Christians serve the great God publicly before the world. (Essays for the Church, Volume 1, p. 194 (St. Louis, CPH, 1992).

P.S. The Augsburg Confession and Apology use the word "Mass" in a neutral way to refer to the liturgy of the Divine Service observed in its traditional manner. The Smalcald Articles speak quite polemically against the "Mass" but intend especially the Mass as practiced under the Pope as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the living and the dead in which the Church joins Christ in making His sacrifice.