A Pilgrim in Augsburg

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Mysterium Tremendum: The Awe-ful Weight of Sacramental Celebration

Part of the series Stewards of God's Mysteries, a series considering the theology and practice of lay sacramental authority.

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Altar with Lectern in Foreground, Sacred Heart Chapel
Saint Benedict's Monastery, St. Joseph, MN
One common argument in favor of lay celebration is that a bad preacher can do far more damage than a bad celebrant. Therefore, if we allow lay persons to preach in public worship, why would we deny them the authority to celebrate the Sacraments?

There is a ring of truth to this. The Church long ago determined that Sacraments administered by scoundrels are still means of God's grace. Poor theology doesn't turn the Blood of Christ into poison, but poor theology can do great damage to the Body of Christ as expressed in the assembly of the faithful.

I deeply respect the emphasis on preaching. The pulpit should not be approached lightly. As important as sermons and homilies are, though, the Sacraments are infinitely more vital.

Let us consider more fully what we mean by ordination to Word and Sacrament. We go to seminary and take classes to learn and practice preaching. Preaching is an art upon which we can improve. We should be concerned with what is said in the Church's pulpits and exercise discretion when inviting guest and lay preachers. I'm not advocating for lowering the bar of preaching; on the contrary, I am completely convinced that we need a homiletical revival and a renewed emphasis on Scripture in our preaching. I've heard too many sermons in which well-meaning presbyters fail to consider the full implication of their words.

But we must recognize that ordained ministry is not defined by areas in which we risk doing harm. It's defined by the call of the Holy Spirit affirmed by the Church. And while we're on the topic of things in the ministry that can do great harm if done poorly: building management, pastoral care, faith formation, budgeting, and running a committee or staff meeting all carry with them the terrible truth that they can fracture the Church. We learn all of these things in seminary and "on the job." This is why we expect our clergy -- and indeed, most of our parish leadership, staff and non-staff -- to undertake some form of continuing education. Ministry involves quite a bit of risk, but that is not the threshold of ordination.

What sets the ordained presbyter apart is the Sacraments.* We cannot improve upon the Sacraments through classes or workshops. Sure, we might better be able to chant different sections, memorize specific prayers, grow more relaxed in the manual acts, and learn to think more carefully about the rubrics, but none of that makes the Sacrament itself better. Proclamation of the Gospel is the common vocation of all Christians, but presiding over the Sacraments is the specific domain of ordained pastors and bishops.

Everything else that we do -- be it preaching or pastoral care or even the budget -- flows from our authority as celebrants of the Sacraments. It is the Sacraments, those physical means of God's grace, that set us apart as the Body of Christ.

Yes, everything else we do has real-world consequences. Preaching and pastoral care and faith formation and budget work can all set a parish up to do well or ruin lives. But only the Sacraments bring God's grace to us. Only they have that sense of numinous awe, that weight of glory. It's not that these other aspects of ministry are unimportant; far from it. Rather, it's that the Sacraments are paramount.

*Again, I write this in recognition that deacons in other traditions are permitted to celebrate other Sacraments, especially Holy Baptism, and that UM deacons might even have the bishop's permission to preside at the Altar.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Eucharist and Social Justice

The prolific Lutheran liturgist Frank Senn offers these reflections on Corpus Christi:
Going back to my college years in the early 1960s, I recall how liturgical renewal was inseparable from social renewal, and the sacrament of Holy Communion was central to both. From the beginning—all the way back to the problems in first century Corinth—the Lord’s Supper was social dynamite, bringing masters, clients, and slaves together at the same meal. In the civil rights movement of the sixties we came to realize that those who ate and drank together at the Lord’s table should not eat and drink separately in the cafeterias. Likewise, those who were baptized in the same font should not have to swim in separate swimming pools.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Stewards of God's Mysteries: On the Sacraments and Lay Celebration

Presbyter's stoles
It's a bit ironic that as the Church in the United States lives into its renewed emphasis on weekly celebration of the Eucharist, the number of ordained clergy is beginning to decline and local parishes are struggling to afford full-time pastors.

This is leading to some difficult conversations about how to fill these positions: do we change the requirements for ordination? Do we permit lay persons to celebrate the Sacraments in specific circumstances? If so, what's the mechanism for such licenses?

As it stands today, both my tradition of origin (the UMC) and the tradition in which I currently serve (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) permit lay celebration in particular circumstances. In the UMC, lay persons may be licensed as local pastors; with the bishop's approval, they are appointed to a charge and granted the title "Reverend." In the ELCA, the bishop may approve a lay person as a "synodically authorized minister" -- who is not considered a pastor. In both traditions, the lay celebrant is limited to their parish. Unlike a fully ordained presbyter,* these lay persons may not celebrate the sacraments outside the regular duties of their ministry to that single congregation.

Over the next few weeks, I'll consider some of the arguments for and against lay celebration.

With all due respect to my family and friends who have served the Church as lay celebrants, there is a better way. It better serves the Church catholic if we ordain all of our celebrants as presbyters.

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*Definitions and snarky side notes:

  • Yes, I know that both the United Methodist Church and the Episcopal Church prefer to style themselves as "The". I'm not going to do that because it's stupid.
  • I know that charge, parish, and congregation are not, strictly speaking, the same thing. However, for sake of ease, I'm going to use them interchangeably.
  • We don't seem to agree on what to call our parish pastors: are they pastors, priests, elders? I'm going to stick with the Greek and call them presbyters -- which is especially helpful when talking to "low church" folks and when comparing presbyters to deacons and bishops, who also fulfill a pastoral function.
  • Instead of "licensed local pastor" or "synodically authorized minister," I will be using the term "lay celebrant" as it gets directly the heart of the matter I want to discuss.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Praxis: Faith Inspires Justice and the Care of Souls

Over at Covenant, Episcopal seminarian Matthew Burdette writes on the place of theology in theological education as seminaries and seminarians push ever further towards the "practical":
A useful illustration of this dynamic is the centrality given to pastoral care, the current conception of which is a 20th-century innovation. Prior to this time, pastoral ministry was generally conceived of in moral and sacramental terms, rather than in therapeutic (and therefore medical) terms, which is currently dominant. It has become a widespread requirement for ministers of different faiths to undergo the training of Clinical Pastoral Education, or CPE, usually in the context of hospital chaplaincy. One of the stretching and beneficial characteristics of CPE is that ministers work with ministers of other faiths, as well as offer pastoral care to people of other faiths. Beneficial as interfaith learning is, a question does loom over the whole process: If I can offer the same pastoral care to a patient as the imam, and if I think that pastoral care is at the center of ministry, then what is the significance of those doctrinal matters that separate me from the imam?
The question is a serious one, and my own suspicion is that there is a correlation between the pervasive focus on this model of pastoral care and the implicit Unitarianism espoused by many clergy in mainline Protestantism. The same question emerges from the focus on social justice. When a parish’s or cleric’s social vision is indistinguishable from a party platform, and when the Church’s message is said to find its telos in that social vision, one must wonder why anyone should bother with the religious baggage. Again and more pointedly: When pastoral care or social action are assumed to be the goal of theological education, then the particular matters of doctrine that are the content of the Christian faith become irrelevant and distracting; focusing on them deters from what theology or ministry is allegedly about.
...The presumption that theological education is for some practical end is perhaps also related to widespread biblical illiteracy and poor catechesis. It is difficult to prioritize teaching the Christian faith when the implicit assumption is that its content is inconsequential.
I couldn't agree with Burdette more. Just as "Intro to Worship" is about more than just what color stole to wear and the proper way to bless the assembly, so to should our classes on conflict transformation and pastoral care more than crash-courses in community organizing and family systems.

As I've said before, so many young clergy and seminarians are passionate about social justice and pastoral care but neglect any sense of theological framework. Instead, many of my colleagues -- wonderful and loving people that they are -- try to wrangle a Christian identity out of progressive social actions. In this view, the Church would function just as well without God -- perhaps even better if we get to catch up on sleep on Sunday mornings.

The Church's rediscovered passion for social justice and pastoral care -- even among younger fundamentalists! -- is commendable. Good will come of it. But this new passion is not enough if it is not based in belief in the Triune God.

The Church is called to work for justice and to care for souls, but those vocations flow out of our sacramental identity. We are the Body of Christ. Here we stand. We can do no other.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

"Go Weird or Go Home"

Living Church's blog, "Covenant," offers these reflections on "Evangelism of the Weird":
The weirdness of the Christian faith is a potent weapon against indifference among the faithful and a strong tool for fanning the flames of curiosity among the unchurched. Strange practices abound in the tradition — Rogation processions, the burying of the Alleluia before the start of Lent, eucharistic adoration, the marking of the forehead with ashes on Ash Wednesday, the washing of the feet on Maundy Thursday, the entire drama of the Great Vigil of Easter. And these are just the liturgical bits. Something as simple as making the sign of the cross in a public place, offering a blessing over a meal, or even carrying a Bible or a prayer book under your arm is enough to get you strange looks in many places today. These things are strange to people who do not understand them. They may even seem frightening.
As Christianity has become increasingly domesticated in its practice in the West, our tendency has been to let these strange practices go or to try to do them in secret so as not to draw attention to ourselves. This has been a mistake. What the current moment calls for is an even greater commitment to our distinctiveness from the world. While emphasizing these practices may turn some people off, many of them were never going to darken the door of a church anyway. Embracing the oddness of our faith reinforces the power of the Christian narrative for those of us already committed to it and sends a strong signal to others that there is something different about the Christian Church, that Christianity is not just one more club or party but a radically unique way of living and being in the world.
This is not to say that we should just seek out weirdness for the sake of weirdness. Not every strange practice is salutary. Whatever we are doing ought to be congruent with the faith proclaimed in Holy Scripture and taught by the great saints of the Church for 2,000 years. In that same vein, while newer practices can be very useful and meaningful, we ought to give a preference to those activities that have a long, rich history in the life of the Church. This is especially true when we are attempting to recover something that has been lost or obscured. The washing of feet at Maundy Thursday, for instance, has been discontinued or played down in many parishes, but it goes back to the New Testament and has been practiced liturgically since at least the post-apostolic age.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

"Special" Eucharists: Against Novelty in the Liturgy

During the series on the paschal candle, I wrote about the difference between "special" and "unique." Something becomes special when it has meaning over and above what would normally be ascribed to a similar item, event, location, or what-have-you, whereas something is unique when it is less common. By way of example:
Woodcut of Holy Communion
Wittenberg, 16th c.
  • A meal with the whole family might be more special than grabbing a burger at the drive-thru while rushing to an afternoon meeting -- even if the family meal is a nightly occurrence.
  • Hopefully, rushed fast food meals eaten hastily in the car are a unique experience, happening very rarely. Presumably, that rather stressful lunch would not hold any special significance.
  • A meal with the extended family is understandably special and unique -- reserved for a few holidays during the year.
Unfortunately, our culture has tended to conflate these two meanings. While I'm sure that Catholics and Orthodox Christians have made the same mistake, it seems to me to be a decidedly Protestant problem.

As weekly celebration of the Eucharist has become more common in the Episcopal Church and the ELCA following the height of liturgical renewal in the 20th century, many laity and clergy have objected that regular Communion makes the Sacrament makes it less meaningful.

Apparently doing something too often makes it "less special." 

To paraphrase the Rev. Dr. Ted Hackett, I would hate to be married to one of those people.

The Sacraments are special. This is most certainly true.

That is, the Sacraments have meaning beyond normal water, bread, and wine. They are special, though, not because of how rarely we celebrate them but because of a divine promise. Baptism is "special" because God has promised to unite us into the Body of Christ in our Lord's death and Resurrection through water and the Divine Word. The Eucharist bears meaning because Christ has promised to be present.

Paraphrasing another Candler faculty member, nothing we can do makes these Sacraments more or less meaningful. Their value is an act of divine grace; sacramental meaning is not derived from how rarely we celebrate them.

And while such resistance to the sacramental pulse of Christian worship is waning, another (equally harmful) emphasis on "specialness" is creeping in.

In many communities, there is a new push to bring in "special" elements to make "meaningful worship experiences."

A seminary might use champagne for the Eucharist on Easter.

One community might change wines in accordance with the liturgical seasons to highlight different emphases -- darker, heavier wines for Advent and Lent, a sweeter wine for Easter.

A parish might use a different, more "exotic" bread for World Communion Sunday. 

In a congregation where the bread is usually store-bought, they might have students bake a "special" bread for their first Communion.

While canon lawyers might argue over the validity and licitness of champagne or leavened breads, and I am interested -- if not entirely convinced -- by those arguments, that is not where I take issue.

Rather, I'm concerned with the attempts to make the Eucharist "more special," to bring out meaning other than the Body of Christ made present.

The Eucharist is and always will be the Church's participation in the Body of Christ, a lifting up of our hearts as we offer to God our thanks and praise. Every time we celebrate the Sacrament is a communion with the entire Church of God throughout all ages past and all ages to come. While we may speak of one Divine Service at 8:30 and another at 11:00, or one Mass on Saturday evening and another on Sunday morning, we truly celebrate only one Eucharist.

Any attempt, therefore, to highlight one eucharistic celebration over another -- to make the Sacrament on one Sunday appear different from the Sacrament on another Sunday -- is to obscure the essential unity of our worship. While the readings and prayers and paraments may change, God's means of grace remain the same.

Where is the harm? In trying to call attention to one over the others, we obscure the importance of all others. By using "special" bread, we call into question the meaning of every other Sunday when we use ordinary bread. By using "special" wine, we call into question the unity between the Sundays when we use other vintages -- or just the giant jug of Manischewitz. When we lift up one particular celebration over all others, we leading our parishioners to believe that the average Sunday is somehow lacking: that God is somehow less interested in plain bread or cheap wine.

God, of course, will show up in the Manischewitz and in the merlot, in the wafer and the fresh baked bread. Grace abounds. But we must be mindful of how our parishioners -- and we ourselves -- perceive the elements. We should do nothing to suggest the Eucharist is somehow "better" one Sunday.

If you are going to use fine wine, use it every week. Every time we gather is cause for the "good stuff."

If you are going to have your parishioners bake the bread fresh, do it every week. Every time we celebrate the Sacraments we should approach them with the joy of our first Communion.

God's Sacraments mean more than we will ever understand, are more special than we will ever know. Our task isn't to make them novel but to celebrate them with abundant joy. When we celebrate the Eucharist on the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, we approach the same risen Lord that we celebrate during the Great Vigil of Easter.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

In the Clarity of this Bright and Holy Light: The Paschal Candle as a Resurrection Sign

The final installment of We Sing the Glories of This Pillar of Light, a series on paschal candle and its use throughout the liturgical year.
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Paschal Candle
Basilica of Saint Mary, Minneapolis, MN
Christ is the light of the world. This profound truth is the most basic meaning behind every single candle we burn in our sanctuary. But do they have meaning beyond that?

To my mind, that is the driving question at work in our use of the paschal candle.

There are, to be sure, plenty of other issues at work. There are other candles burning in the sanctuary, and the name we give to them will affect how and when utilize them. Different placements for each candle will exert different pressures. A prominent candle raises more questions when it is unlit, and our tendency will be to light it more frequently. Likewise, a candle suspended from the ceiling, just above our line of sight, might burn out without being noticed. An oil candle -- one which can be used and refilled without ever losing its shape or stature -- might entice us to more frequent usage.

These other issues feed into the larger question: what do these candles mean? In the very first post of this series, I cited to Anita Stauffer's Altar Guild and Sacristy Handbook, where she claims that the evening light and the paschal candle have different meanings: "The paschal candle is a resurrection symbol, while the evening prayer candle is a more general reminder of the light of Christ." But that's where she leaves it; the claim is far more nuanced than a single sentence. After all, Christ is the light of the world ultimately because of his Resurrection. Why not use the paschal candle as a marker of Christ's illumination of the evening darkness?

Moreover, we proclaim every Sunday to be a "little Easter" -- that is, every Sunday is a celebration of the Resurrection -- and so why limit the paschal candle to only the Great Fifty Days, the Sacrament of Baptism, and the rite of Christian burial? Why not let the candle shine every Sunday as a reminder of Christ's light through Resurrection?

I doubt anyone will be surprised to read that I have not changed my position. I still hold that the Church should only light the paschal candle during the Fifty Days of Easter, at Baptisms, and during funerals -- and, possibly, at All Saints'. (Indeed, I've become more convinced that the paschal candle should not be used at Christmas to replace the Christ candle. Our paschal candles come laden with visual symbols of the Passion and Resurrection. While the Lamb of God might make sense during Christmastide, a lily does not.)  We have so many rich symbols of Christ's light sitting disregarded. Let us explore these symbols by bringing them to the foreground and allowing them to shine brightly rather than opting for a single multi-purpose year-round candle. If we turn the paschal candle into a generic "everyday use" item, we do so at the risk of undermining both its function and the function of every candle it would be replacing. Worse still, if we use the paschal candle as an "all-purpose feast day" candle, lit on any day of unique significance -- Reformation Sunday, Transfiguration, Ash Wednesday -- it becomes all the more muddled. Rather than pointing to the Resurrection, it becomes the sign of nothing more than that the paraments have changed color. 

Too often, the issue is reduced to "specialness." Such an argument lacks the nuance so often required by good theology and is often used to advocate against weekly celebration of the Holy Eucharist -- a position I cannot support. "Special" things maintain that quality even when done frequently -- and indeed, some acts become more special the more often we do them. Who among us would say that kissing a spouse, reading to a child, or enjoying a conversation with a close friend is "less special" if done on a daily basis?

Rather, it comes down to an issue of unique meaning and function.

Before proceeding, let me make a crucial distinction -- and one I've been trying to put into terms since jumping down this rabbit hole. What's the difference between "special" and "unique"? In this context, I would suggest we often use "special" to mean something along the lines of "imbued with extra meaning or significance." "Unique," on the other hand, might be defined as "possessing a quality not found in other, similar items." So some things might be special but not unique (eating a meal with friends or family). Others might be unique but not special (a chipped coffee mug). Still others might be both (a favorite toy from childhood).

Under these definitions, then, every candle in a parish is special in that they are set apart for the worship of the Triune God. The candles at the Altar, the red lamp burning in the sanctuary, the paschal candle, the votives in the iron stand, the candles in the Advent wreath, and the mass-produced paraffin numbers we use for Christmas Eve and the Easter Vigil: they are all special in that they carry meaning beyond that of ordinary candles at home. Each of them represents the light of Christ in the world.

Each of those candles, though, has a unique meaning. The Advent candles mark the weeks passing towards Christmas, building the amount of light in the darkness of winter. Their companion, the Christ candle, marks the arrival of the Nativity. The sanctuary lamp reminds us of God's eternal presence (and, depending on where you are, Christ's presence in the Sacrament reserved in the tabernacle/aumbry): a constant light shining even in an otherwise-vacant space. The Vespers light is Christ's light illuminating the night.

The paschal candle's unique meaning points very specifically to the Great Vigil of Easter. Lit from the new fire on the night in which our Lord passed over from death into life, its light very specifically points to the Resurrection -- not as an over-arching emphasis (as we do every Sunday) but in very concrete terms. This candle, unlike all others, is inscribed with signs of Christ's victory: the Cross, the lily, the Paschal Lamb, the Alpha and Omega. Five grains of incense are placed in its wax. 

Week-in and week-out, we proclaim our Lord's Passion and Resurrection. This is the very nature of Christian worship. But for fifty days, from sun-down on Holy Saturday until Pentecost, we proclaim our Lord's victory in our boldest terms. We turn our entire liturgy to that cause, adding our Allelulias and making every hymn one of joyful adoration. This candle -- more so than any other in our sanctuaries -- points us to that wonderful season of the Easter feast.

The function of the paschal candle, then, is to carry that meaning to other times when we look specifically and concretely to the Resurrection.

The paschal candle carries all of that extra meaning with it into the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. When we usher people forward to be brought into the Body of Christ, we do so quite literally in the light of Easter. The paschal candle reminds us that in Baptism, we join with Christ in passing from death into life.

The same candle brings hope into our funerals. When we bury our beloved kindred in Christ, we know that they are only asleep for a time but that they, promised life everlasting through their Baptism into Christ, will pass into life everlasting.

All of our candles show the light of Christ shining in the darkness, with the subtle hints of the Resurrection echoing underneath. The paschal candle brings the subtext of the Resurrection to the foreground. We cannot, through overuse, rob it of that meaning. We cannot make it "less special." We can, though, undercut its function.

The paschal candle acts as something of a liturgical highlighter, calling our attention to the Sacrament of Baptism and the Church's burial rites while also drawing forward the meanings of Easter. It makes us mindful of the connection between Christ's Resurrection and our own hope for the Life Everlasting, bringing forward a visual manifestation of a single common thread.

Through over-use, we drown out these connections, obscuring their meaning. The paschal candle will always continue to bear its meaning; the difference is in our own ability to discern its significance.