Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Sacrifice and Prayers of the Mass

Luther's Babylonian Captivity of the Church (available here) had to deal with the whole question of the legacy of the traditional teachings on the Mass. Convinced by the Scriptures and his whole understanding of how God relates to man, he had to deal with the issue of the legacy of teaching that the Mass was in fact a sacrifice offered to God by the priest. What is striking is the degree to which, while preserving the most resolute Evangelical substance, he anticipated the "catholic" liturgical experimentation and historical theology of the twentieth century.

First for the Evangelical substance. Let this be the watchword:

For unless we hold fast to the truth, that the mass is the promise or testament of Christ, as the words clearly say, we shall the whole Gospel and all our comfort. Let us permit nothing to prevail against these words, even though an angel from heaven should teach otherwise. For there is nothing said in them of a work or a sacrifice. . . . For at the Last Supper, when He instituted this sacrament and established this testament, Christ did not offer Himself to God the Father, nor did he perform a good work on behalf of others, but He set this testament before each of them that sat at table with Him and offered him the sign (p. 162).

As distributing a testament, or accepting a promise, differs diametrically from offering a sacrifice, so it is a contradiction in terms to call the mass a sacrifice; for the former is something we receive, while the latter is something that we offer (p. 163).

Having set these ground rules, how does Luther deal with the “canon of the mass and the sayings of the Fathers?” He first establishes that if they go against the Scriptural understanding they must be rejected, but then seeks to find a reasonable interpretation of them, consistent with the Evangelical faith. Far ahead of his time, he found it in the offertory, exactly the liturgical action whose organic link to the mass the twentieth century liturgical movement was to re-emphasize, and where the earliest Christian theologian St. Irenaeus had located the oblation. (I wrote about this earlier here and here). There are historical errors about the elevation and the origin of the word “collect” but the basic historico-theological point is sound:

The Apostle instructs us in 1 Corinthians 11 that it was customary for Christ’s believers, when they came together to mass, to bring with them meat and drink, which they called “collections” . . . From this store was taken the portion of bread and wine that was consecrated for use in the sacrament (p. 163)

He linked the elevation of the elements to the Hebrew rite of “lifting up,” meaning to sanctify something by word and prayer, and continues:

For this reason the words “sacrifice” and “oblation” must be taken to refer, not to the sacrament and testament, but to these collections, whence also the word “collect” has come down to us, as meaning the prayers said in the mass.
(p. 163-64) . . . Let the priests, therefore . . . take heed, first that the words of the greater and lesser canon, together with the collects, which smack too strongly of sacrifice, be not referred by them to the sacrament, but to the bread and wine which they consecrate, or to the prayers which they say. For the bread and wine are offered at the first, in order that they may be blessed and thus sanctified by the Word and by prayer: but after they have been blessed and consecrated, they are no longer offered, but received as a gift from God. (p. 164-65; emphasis added).

Interestingly, Luther saw no aspect of “idolatry” in the elevation of the bread and chalice immediately after the consecration, nor something connected to the idea of sacrifice. Linking it to the Hebrew rite of elevating created things offered to God, he saw it as an acceptable stimulus to faith:

For it is faith that the priest ought to awaken in us by this act of elevation
(p. 164).

Luther also had to deal with the matter of prayers. If the mass was a propitiatory sacrifice for the living and the dead, it meant that mass could be communicated by prayer to persons (living or dead) or intentions for whom it was offered. Luther laid down that:

when a priest celebrates a public mass . . . he may at the same time offer prayers for himself and for others, but he must beware lest he presume to offer
[as opposed to receiving] the mass (p. 165; emphasis added).

We must, therefore, not confound the two -- the mass and the prayers, the sacrament and the work, the testament and the sacrifice: for the once comes from God to us, through the ministration of the priest, and demands our faith, the other proceeds from our faith to God, through the priest and demands His answer. The former descends, the latter ascends.
(p. 167).
I am ready, however, to admit that the prayers which we pour out before God when we are gathered together to partake of the mass, are good works or benefits, which we impart, apply, and communicate to one another, and which we offer for one another [he cites James and Paul in 1 Timothy 2 on prayer] These are not the mass, but works of the mass -- if the prayers of the heart and lips may be called works -- for they flow from the faith that is kindled or increased in the sacrament (p. 160).

The prayer may be extended to as many persons as one desires; but the mass is received by none but the person who believes for himself, and only in proportion to his faith (p. 161).

Luther concluded thus that while the mass remains the mass even when a wicked priest administers it, the prayers said on the occasion of this sacrament are affected by the priest’s worth and godliness. God hears the prayers of the righteous, not the wicked.

It is striking how these Lutheran formulas underlay, even in their denial, the Roman Catholic scholastic theology of the sacrifice of the mass after Trent. Sacrament (down from God) and sacrifice (up to God) are distinguished quite after the manner of Luther -- only this time both are affirmed:

The Sacrament of the Eucharist is something essentially different from the Sacrifice of the Mass. In truth, the Eucharist performs at once two functions: that of a sacrament and that of a sacrifice. . . . The real difference between them is shown in that the sacrament is intended privately for the sanctification of the soul, whereas the sacrifice serves primarily to glorify God by adoration, thanksgiving, prayer, and expiation. The recipient of the one is God, who receives the sacrifice of His only-begotten Son; of the other, man, who receives the sacrament for his own good.

Luther predicted that resistance would come to his teaching, because by denying the ex opere operato efficacy of prayers for the dead, it would overturn all the different votive masses: anniversaries, intercessions, applications, communications, etc. in churches and monasteries -- that is to say, he cynically concluded, their fat income (p. 159).

And indeed just as "received orally" and "by the righteous and the hypocrite alike" is the acid text distinguishing Reformed from Evangelical ideas of the Real Presence, so too the idea of a multiplicity of masses being celebrated individually for the deceased or various intentions is the acid test of the mass as a work being done by the priest. Read the article linked to above, from the Catholic Encyclopedia, which does indeed carefully try to reduce the more objectionable elements from the Evangelical point of view: its declares that the expiatory effect of the mass functions only "mediately" through the creation of contrition and penance (i.e. an "act of sorrow") in the beneficiary (change "contrition and penance" to "faith" -- which will then involve repentance -- and the Evangelical can fully agree). Thus, only relief of the temporal penalties of the deceased in purgatory is dispensed by the mass, not expiation of sin and salvation itself. The authors are likewise careful to identify as closely as possible the sacrifce of the priest in the mass with that of Christ, so it is as much as possible no longer seen as the priest's own work. "As much as possible" -- but how much? The acid test remains when it comes to what Catholic dogmaticians call the "special fruit of the mass" which is what benefits those for whom it is celebrated. If the priest's work is wholly identified with Christ, than the fruit of the mass would presumably be infinite, and a priest who has received stipends for various deceased souls and intentions could say one mass and cover them all, thus defrauding the payers of the value for their money:

The question now arises whether in this connection the applicable value of the Mass is to be regarded as finite or infinite (or, more accurately, unlimited). This question is of importance in view of the practical consequences it involves. For, if we decide in favour of the unlimited value, a single Mass celebrated for a hundred persons or intentions is as efficacious as a hundred Masses celebrated for a single person or intention. . . . But, since the Church has entirely forbidden as a breach of strict justice that a priest should seek to fulfil, by reading a single Mass, the obligations imposed by several stipends . . . the overwhelming majority of theologians incline even theoretically to the conviction that the satisfactory -- and, according to many, also the propitiatory and impetratory -- value of a Mass for which a stipend has been taken, is so strictly circumscribed and limited from the outset, that it accrues pro rata (according to the greater or less number of the living or the dead for whom the Mass is offered) to each of the individuals. Only on such a hypothesis is the custom prevailing among the faithful of having several Masses celebrated for the deceased or for their intentions intelligible. Only on such a hypothesis can one explain the widely established "Mass Association", a pious union whose members voluntarily bind themselves to read or get read at least one Mass annually for the poor souls in purgatory.

So in the end, what is it that keeps in business the idea that the mass -- Christ's last will and testament -- can in practice be treated as a limited, quantifiable work done by the priest? Luther's answer seems to still hold: it is the continued practice of having special masses celebrated for the deceased and for particular intentions.

The more I blog this the more I am confirmed in my feeling that the Babylonian Captivity is indeed the central work of Luther's theology. Well, that's the mass/Eucharist/Holy Communion/Lord's Supper. On to baptism!

Continued from here; back to the first post in this series.