Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The Sacrifice of the Mass

Despite the vast size of Dom Gregory Dix's The Shape of the Liturgy (for previous posts on which see here, here, here, and here), the key point can be summed up this way: the most essential word in the Words of Institution is not is but do, not this is my body, but do this in anamnesis/remembrance of me.

His story can be summarized rather simply: the original ante-Nicene liturgy focused with admirable economy on the action of the Eucharist, doing the meal as Jesus had commanded. In the post-Nicene period from AD 325 to 800, this simple action was elaborated. Much was gained in this period: theology of sacrifice was developed more explicitly, the Eucharist was adapted to sanctify all Christian times and circumstances, while still maintaining its essential nature, both 'puritan' (about which Dix is surprisingly positive) and ceremonial aesthetics received due recognition. But some valuable things were lost: the eschatological element (the idea that the Eucharist is the in-breaking of the age to come) was replaced by an over-emphasis on the remembrance of the historical facts of Christ's Passion. The theology of the Eucharistic sacrificial action sometimes degenerated a crude viewpoint of the Eucharist as a repetition of the Passion. The tight connection of the offertory to the Eucharist which gave an explicit role for the laity to do something, not just communicate, was likewise lost. The excess of devotional language to some degree obscured the central action, although the Roman church stood like a bulwark against this.

After about AD 400, a much more dangerous distortion (according to Dix) developed. As lay communion declined, as the presbyters/elders became priests and the bishops/overseers became feudal lords, the mass was transformed from something that the church does together to something that the officiant (almost always now a presbyter, often serving alone) does and the church observes. For the laity the focus was now not doing the Eucharist, but watching the priest as he did it, meditating on the Passion that occurred in Israel a thousand years ago and worshiping the result: the Body and Blood of Christ made present. Devotion began to focus on the adoration of the consecrated host, not on communicating, and still less on the church as a whole joining in the Eucharist. The is had replaced the do, and seeing replaced participating.

When the Reformation and Counter-Reformation came, neither understood the issue. Both continued to focus on the is rather than the do. The Zwinglians (the only coherent Reformers in Dix's view) made the Eucharist an optional occasion for meditating on the Passion, explicitly reducing the laity's role to merely reverent attention (the triumph of the puritan aesthetic) and incoporating the suggested late medieval devotional literature into the very words of the liturgy itself, thus wounding fatally the true focus of the Eucharist: the church together doing this in anamnesis/remembrance. Eventually the Eucharist virtually disappears from devotional life and the Protestants revert to a kind of 'catechumen' spirituality. The catholics (a word he consistently leaves uncapitalized, along with christian, jewish, etc.; how clever an evasion is that!) continued the late medieval emphasis on remembering the Passion and worshiping the "is my body." But the retention of the liturgy and the theology of the Eucharist as sacrifice left the Shape of the Liturgy intact as the unspoken framework of Christian life, ready for more conscious recovery as scholarship illuminates the ante-Nicene theology (i.e. as people read and assimilate Dix's book.)

Where do Luther and the Lutherans fit into this picture? Surely we are an is people, not do people, yet presumably the Eucharist is important to us as well? Well, actually not; being an anomaly in his theory, Dix magisterially banishes us into the realm of historical mistakes. Putting aside his comments on the Luther = Hitler argument (a tad oversimplified, but at points remarkably insightful, he concludes on p. 636), Lutherans will be puzzled by statements like this: "Faith for Luther is always not in Christ as redeemer, but faith in my redemption by Him . . . The whole process [of partaking in Communion] is self regarding and self-generated as Luther presents it" (p. 635). How exactly Luther morphed into Jonathan Edwards is a puzzle here. Here is -- complete and unabridged -- his summary of Lutheran eucharistic theology since 1546:

It is perhaps not surprising that Luther's doctrine of the objective reality of our reception of our Lord's Body and Blood in the eucharist slowly declined in precision within the Lutheran churches. It is based simply on the literal understanding of the words of institution and logically unrelated and unnecessary to the Lutheran doctrine as a whole. (!!!) It kept its place in the Lutheran doctrinal confessions, but it received and could receive no adequate expression in the Lutheran liturgies. When the bulk of the German Lutherans were united with the German Calvinists in the Prussian State Church in the early nineteenth century it was in the result the Calvinist eucharistic doctrine which prevailed, though the question was formally left open for every communicant to decide for himself.

That it! That's all! Lutheran theology is just a evanescent wave in Luther's deluded brain! Move along, folks, move along, nothing to see here.

I think there's more to say about the matter. Future posts will address the natural theology of sacrifice, in what respect the Eucharist is or is not a sacrifice, the do and the anamnesis, and the place of the Sacrament of the Altar within the Lutheran theology and the Letter to the Hebrews.

UPDATE: Continued here.

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