Wednesday, January 18, 2006

How to Approach Holy Communion

As we have seen Luther made much of the idea of the Lord's Supper as Christ's last will and testament. In anti-Reformed/revivalistic polemic, this idea is often used to emphasize how the words of institution were serious and solemn and hence should treated solemnly and not juggled with word tricks. True enough, and Luther often makes that point in later anti-Zwinglian polemics. But he first emphasized the idea of testament to make a more significant theological point: that the Supper is a promise we receive, not a work we do.

If the Lord's Supper is a promise, then a number of very practical issues come out of this. The first has to do with preparation. As the Small Catechism says of the Sacrament of the Altar:

Fasting and bodily preparation are indeed a fine outward training; but he is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words, 'Given and shed for you for the remission of sins.'

This theme too goes back to the Babylonian Captivity of the Church:

If the mass is a promise, as has been said, it is to be approached, not with any work or strength or merit, but with faith alone (p. 149).

Herefrom you will see that nothing else is needed for a worthy holding of mass than a faith that confidently relies on this promise, believes Christ to be true in these words of His, and doubts not that these infinite blessings have been bestowed upon it. Hard on this faith there follows, of itself, a most sweet stirring of the heart, whereby the spirit of man is enlarged and waxes fat -- that is love, given by the Holy Spirit through faith in Christ -- so that he is drawn unto Christ, that gracious and good testator, and made quite another and a new man. Who would not shed tears of gladnes, nay well-nigh faint, for the joy he hath toward Christ, if he believed with unshaken faith that this inestimable promise of Christ belonged to him! How could one help loving so great a benefactor, who offers, promises, and grants, all unbidden, such great riches, and this eternal inheritance, to one unworthy and deserving of something far different (p. 149).

Note that here with the mention of love, Luther is slowly moving into the topic of what we do in the mass. This he will need to do to confute the views of the opponents who hold that the mass is primarily a work, in the sense 1) that we must prepare ourselves for it by fastings and other mortifications, 2) that it is the perfect prayer in which we pray to God ; and 3) that it is a sacrifice in which the priest mystically participates in the offering of Christ on the cross. All three of these things are classic statements of Catholicism, none of which is flat out rejected in all senses, but none of which may be admitted in the then-traditional sense if the idea of the Lord's Supper as Christ's promise and testament is to be retained.

Luther first explains the "do this" of the words of institution: what is it we are to do?

Therefore it is our one misfortune that we have many masses in the world, and yet none or but the fewest of us recognize, consider, and receive these promises and riches that are offered, although verily we should do nothing else in the mass with greater zeal (yea, it demands all our zeal) than set before our eyes, meditate, and ponder these words, these promises of Christ, which truly are the mass itself, in order to exercise, nourish, increase, and strengthen our faith by such daily rememberance. For this is what He commands, saying "This do in rememberance of me."

This should be done by the preachers of the Gospel, in order that this promise might be faithfully impressed upon the people and commended to them, to the awakening of faith in the same. But how many are there now who know that the mass is the promise of Christ?
(p. 149-50).

He next deals explicitly with the idea of bodily preparation:

From this everyone will readily gather that the mass, which is nothing else than the promise, is approached and observed only in this faith, without which whatever prayers, preparations, works, signs of the cros, or genuflections are brought to it, are incitements to impiety rather than exercises of piety; for they who come thus prepared are wont to imagine themselves on that account justly entitled to approach the altar, when in reality they are less prepared than at any other time and in any other work, by reason of the unbelief which they bring with them. How many priests will you find every day offering the sacrifice of the mass, who accuse themselves of a horrible crime if they -- wretched men! -- commit a trifling blunder, such as putting on the wrong robe or forgetting to wash their hands or stumbling over their prayers; but that they neither regard nor believe the mass itself, namely, the divine promise -- this causes them not the slightest qualms of conscience. O worthless religion of this our age, the most godless and thankless of all ages!

Hence the only worthy preparation and proper use of the mass is faith in the mass, that is to say, in the divine promise. Whoever, therefore, is minded to approach the altar and to receive the sacrament, let him beware of approaching empty before the Lord God [note the allusion to the proverbial statement of Exodus 23:15, 34:20, and Deut. 16:16, "They shall not appear before the Lord empty," referring to the need for a sacrificial offering]. But he will appear empty unless he has faith in the mass, or in this new testament [note the meaning here, of new last will and testament]. What godless work that he could commit would be a more grievous crime against the truth of God, than this unbelief of his, by which, as much as in him lies, he convicts God of being a liar and maker of empty promises? (p. 151-52)

Now does Luther leave any trace of the traditional (but not Biblical) disciplines of fasting before the mass? Only in the sense that fasting itself, like all forms of bodily discipline, are good things for the restraining of gluttony and self-indulgence. The Christian is a soldier, and soldiers who let their bodily condition go to pot betray their commander, their comrades, and their flag. Thus, we should take seriously the Small Catechism's admonishment to fasting and bodily training, whether connected to the mass or not, but always keep faith as the one essential thing, just as Paul says in 1 Timothy 4:8:

For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.

Some, not none. Fine outward training, not hypocritical and evil outward training. But faith in the promise of salvation is the foundation of all such useful physical training and outward discipline.

Next up: Ex opere operato and the benefit of the mass. And following that, the notion of sacrifice and in what to Luther the idolatry of the mass actually consisted.