Here follows the reprint of my Liturgical Observer column from Gottesdienst, the Trinity edition for 2004. It is offered in view of the hot debate in the blogosphere on these matters, and of an oft-quoted article in the CTQ by Professor Roland Ziegler. This "second opinion" is a reply to his opinion.
A recently published article in Concordia Theological Quarterly entitled "Should Lutherans Reserve the Consecrated Elements for the Communion of the Sick?" (vol. 76, no. 2 [April 2003]: 131-147) caught my eye the other day. Professor Roland Ziegler is grinding an axe against the unseemly practice of sending seminary students or other laymen to the homes of shut-ins to take them the Sacrament, and heaven knows the axe needs grinding. Pastors who think they are just too busy are actually quite right: they are too busy, and a quick reorganizing of their priorities is in order. Anyone who takes the Augsburg Confession seriously (to say nothing of the Bible) must agree: the office of the ministry exists for the administration (hence the likeness of terms) of God's gifts. Pastors, don't send a poor unsuspecting vicar to do what you ought to be doing yourself. It's your duty under God.
Not only, I would hasten to add, ought we to call a layman's carrying of reserved elements to the sick a "definitely inferior" practice, to use Ziegler's term (147), but there ought to be some serious evaluation of the relatively novel and equally disturbing practice of employing laymen to assist in the regular distribution of the Sacrament, at the altar. The practice is usually defended by reference to an interpretation of "administer" in AC XIV ("No one may publicly teach or administer the Sacraments without a regular call") as "have oversight over the administration of." But if that's not a stretch, then why is it a stretch to allow laymen to carry the Sacrament to the sick? I'd rather say that it's a stretch in both cases. We ought not merely to engage the question of the propriety of the layman's carrying of the Sacrament to the sick, but the propriety of his giving of the Sacrament to anyone.
It was really something else that caught my eye, though, in Professor Ziegler's article. He is there calling the reservation of the elements for the Communion of the sick altogether undesirable, in the apparent tradition of Martin Chemnitz, the banner-bearer of late sixteenth-century Lutheranism. And this, in spite of his opening sentence, an admission that "the universal custom in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy is for the priest to commune the sick and shut-ins with previously consecrated elements." H'mm. Universal? That at least ought to give one pause. The old Vincentian canon comes to mind: "In the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all" (NPNF 2d ser., 11:132), a fifth-century torpedo against any who might harbor the arrogant notion that suddenly after aeons, he has discovered a better way.
But the author is evidently in agreement with Vincent's adage, since in trumpeting Chemnitz's discouragement of the reservation of the elements, he notes that for Chemnitz "a practice that is not mentioned in Scripture and is not universal must be judged according to Scripture" (Ziegler, 147). So historically, then, the practice was not universal. But what exactly does Chemnitz demonstrate to be less than universal? Chemnitz, as Ziegler rightly notes, points to some documents which show "that the elements were consumed immediately after the end of the divine service," while noting that other "numerous accounts . . . show that the elements were retained for a later communion" (142f., my emphasis).
Yet no single document from antiquity is referenced here, or in Chemnitz, or, so far as I am aware, anywhere, to indicate unambiguously that the priest ever routinely took unconsecrated elements to the sick and consecrated them there. The question open for consideration is not the abuses against which Chemnitz wrote--no one here is arguing for the use of a monstrance for the exposition of a Host for adoration--but simply whether the consecration of new elements at the home of the sick is preferable to the carrying of reserved elements to them.
The reservation of the elements for the sole purpose of carrying them to the sick, as Ziegler is well aware, has widespread supporting references. Indeed:
"Possibly at first the holy Sacrament may have been consecrated in the presence of the sick person, but of this in early times the instances are rare and by no means clear. In fact it was considered a marked favor that such a thing should be allowed, and the saying of mass in private houses was prohibited (as it is in the Eastern and Latin churches still to-day) with the greatest rigour ("Excursus on the Communion of the Sick," Henry Percival, NPNF, 2d ser., 7:30)."
To be sure, there's a host of Lutheran dogmaticians who nevertheless condemn the practice of reservation, and Ziegler's analysis, while referencing them, is commendable in showing the evidence against going that far. He notes that Luther permitted reservation of the elements,"but without superstition, and until one can do it in a better way" (WA Br 8, 623, 55-57, quoted and translated in Ziegler, 139), and Chemnitz, while not in favor of reservation, did not go so far as to call it illegitimate (145).
Chemnitz' Examen does indeed argue against what he calls the "papalist" reservation, but he repeatedly defines it as the practice by which the bread is "put away, inclosed, reserved, carried about, displayed, and put to other uses" (Examination of the Council of Trent [St. Louis, 1978], 2:293; cf. "put away . . . reserve it, carry it about, or display it to others" ; "shut them in, reserve them, carry them about, and use them for display" ; "putting aside, shutting in, carrying about, displaying, etc." ; "shutting in, display, and carrying about" ; "shutting in, carrying about, and display" ; "carrying about, and displaying" ). Chemnitz in fact sums up his argument by reference to the Vincentian canon, thus: "Therefore reservation of the consecrated Eucharist without distribution and reception has not been received, approved, and observed either always, or everywhere, or by all as a catholic dogma and necessary custom" (ibid., 299, my emphasis). In short, what he is demonstrating here is that certain Romanist abuses cannot be supported by reference to catholicity.
A distinction must therefore be made between an outlandish or abusive sort of reservation such as Chemnitz referenced, and a reservation which is made solely for the purpose of carrying the elements to the sick. It appears that Chemnitz himself has made this distinction, as he repeatedly spells out his definition of the "papalist" reservation. Meanwhile he defends the "reservation of the ancients" as something "used simply, without superstition, and without a peculiar worship apart from use" (ibid., 310).
The superstitions and abuses in view for Chemnitz--and for Luther, for that matter--primarily had to do with the displaying of the Host solely for adoration, as in a monstrance, abetted by the granting of "a certain number of indulgences . . . in return for reverence when it was carried to a sick person" (ibid., 310). In addition, he also cites "a legend about Basil [which] invents the fiction that . . . he reserved [the consecrated bread] that it might be buried with him" (ibid., 310). Moreover, he complained about the postponement of Communion of the sick "for days, weeks, months, or years" after the consecration (ibid., 294). But his reference had this in view: "the papalists nevertheless reserve parts from the Easter or some other solemn Communion for the sick for nearly a whole year" (ibid., 310). It does not appear that his criticism was directed against the mere practice of reserving elements between one celebration and the next, or a week at most (not an uncommon practice), for the sole purpose of communing the sick. To be sure, he bristles at the requirement of any sort of reservation (ibid., 296 et passim), but seems well aware of the ancient practice of the reservation of the elements without the attending abuses, and he does not condemn it.
Ziegler acknowledges that Chemnitz permitted the keeping of the elements "for a short time" (Ziegler, 145) to take to the sick, so the conclusion must be drawn that Chemnitz acknowledged the validity of the practice, even if we might quibble about how short the time should be.
He runs through some of Chemnitz's arguments against the reservation of the elements, and they appear for the most part to be arguments for the recitation of the Words of Institution (the Verba) in the presence of the communicants--a sentiment on which we can agree: even when the reserved elements are taken, the Verba need to be repeated, though in this case only so that the communicant can hear them.
As for Ziegler's own arguments against the reservation of the elements (145-147), while they are certainly worthy of consideration, they are also, I hope, open to debate. First, he sees no significant historical Lutheran precedent for the practice, but this is really a minor point, since it dismisses the evidence which does exist as belonging to "a period of transition" and tends toward committing the sectarian error of discounting the whole prior history of Christendom. Second, he calls it preferable not "to separate the community in which the sacrament is consecrated from the community in which it is consumed," but I would argue to the contrary that the practice actually serves to help the sick recognize his connection to the community in which he belongs: he is hereby participating in his own congregation's worship. Third, Ziegler sees a deficiency in the mere repetition of the Verba in the presence of the sick, if the words are bereft of their consecratory effect. But if this is saying that the sick person is hereby missing out on somehow "getting to see" the actual consecration, I'd say there's really nothing to see anyhow (that's why we call it a mystery), and that, well, yes, the sick person did miss the congregation's celebration of Mass (which is the main problem with his being sick or shut-in, after all, but that's another matter). His fourth objection is perhaps the most important, a suggestion that the practice might introduce doubt: the communicant didn't get to see for himself that these elements were truly consecrated. But I have never seen this happen in practice, and the reason is simple: the communicant generally trusts that the pastor knows what he is doing. For someone to doubt that the elements were truly consecrated, he'd have to suppose that the pastor was either lying about the elements, or mistaken, as if perhaps someone had snuck in unawares and placed unconsecrated elements into the ciborium. It doesn't add up. I defer again to the long tradition of Christendom, during which no such doubts ever seem to have arisen.
There are some who have taken the matter a step further, doubting whether the reliquae, i.e., the elements which remain, remain the Body and Blood of Christ after the Benediction has been spoken. Ziegler hints at his awareness of this, indicating that when there is no reservation, "the question of what the elements are apart from their use . . . is avoided" (144).
Here there often arises--I'm grinding my own axe now, quite apart from anything in Ziegler's article--a gaggle of receptionists of one stripe or another, who like to take the Formula of Concord's oft-misinterpreted usus assertion, namely, "Nothing has the nature of a sacrament apart from the use instituted by Christ" (FC SD VII, 85) and misinterpret it. "See," the receptionists want to snipe, "it isn't being used anymore after the service, so it's just bread and wine, because the Confessions say so."
We've been over this ground before, I know, but since the receptionist controversy keeps rearing its ugly head, it bears repeating that the usus clause of the Formula does not and cannot mean that only those elements which actually end up being consumed are the elements to which Jesus was referring when He said, "This is My Body" In the case of "This is My Blood," it borders on sheer looniness to suppose that He was only referring to those molecules in the cup which in His omniscience He knew would end up in the mouths of communicants.
There are not a few references in the Examen which indicate that Chemnitz himself had no doubts about "what the elements are" when reserved. He cites historical references to the "leftover fragments of the body of the Lord" (Chemnitz, 297), to "the parts of the immaculate and divine body . . . left" (ibid., 298), and to Chrysostom's tale of Roman soldiers disturbing the church whereupon "the blood of Christ" was poured out on their clothing (ibid., 303). In none of his citations does Chemnitz seek to correct any affirmation that the elements remaining are the Body and Blood of Christ. Chemnitz was no receptionist. Rather, he shows simply that in these cases they were not reserved beyond a day.
Besides, the Confessions are not, nor were they ever meant to be, the source of doctrine. They confess according to the words of Christ. It is His words alone which must determine what is true. Chemnitz makes this very point repeatedly in the Examen (294f. et passim). The usus clause must then be taken in its context, which, as the references above demonstrate, is a milieu of medieval superstition wherein the Body of Christ was regarded as a sort of good luck charm. "Apart from the use" simply means you can=t go inventing new uses for the Sacrament, and expect Christ to bless them apart from His words pertaining to the Sacrament: "Take, eat." The Sacrament only benefits those who partake, and a new benefit should not be dreamt up for it under false pretenses. This is really the heart of Chemnitz's contention in the Examen.
But now come the receptionists, who like to wave their magical usus wand over the bread to remove the Body of Christ from it after the Distribution. But how is the Body of Christ removed? Because of the usus clause alone. Solus usus! So now, ta da, it's just ordinary bread again! The use is ended! (Let's see, what would be the liturgical expression for that? Ita, usus est?) So you can put it back in the box it came from? Throw it in the trash? Trample it underfoot? Do whatever you like with it? I think not: here's my reply to anyone who wants to justify any such folly by abusing the usus clause this way: "Nothing is a confession apart from the use." You can't wrench the usus clause apart from its intended use and have it mean whatever you want it to mean. And as for doubts, I have none in this matter: what you have discarded, what you have trampled, is the Body of Christ. His words are very clear. Do you really want to pit your usus clause, or any other words on earth, against them?
Why must we question whether or not the Body of Christ remains after the Benediction? Because the use has ceased? Says who? I still have shut-ins who need it. How is carrying it to them an abuse? And besides, where is it written that the Presence ceases as soon as the last hymn is sung? Or to put it another way, if you ask me why I believe that the the reliquae are truly the Body and Blood of Christ, I shall simply answer: because Christ said so. See, right here: "This is My Body."
Although the reservation of the reliquae may be, as Ziegler has demonstrated, a minority opinion among Lutherans, it certainly is far from a minority opinion in all the Church catholic. It was precisely an increased awareness of the history and practice of the Christian Church of antiquity which first led me to consider the practice. Yes, numerous accounts show the reservation of elements.
Moreover, there is a common rule among liturgical churches which requires the celebration of the Mass only from properly consecrated altars (e.g., E. Lamburn, Ritual Notes, 11th ed. [London: Knott, 1964], 3). Chemnitz rejects as an abuse the making of this rule into an obligation (Chemnitz, 310f.), and it is to be remembered that one of the nastiest errors of Rome was to make everything including the Gospel itself an obligation, yet it does not follow that we ought therefore to dispense with the rule entirely. As in all cases of abuse, the likelihood exists that it started out as a good thing. In this case, there's certainly something less than desirable about the use of a portable hospital table as an altar, especially when it's also used for dinner trays, flowers and cards, the telephone, various personal items, and maybe even a specimen bottle. I certainly have no aversion to using whatever is necessary when circumstances do not permit a fully desirable setting for the celebration of Holy Communion (such as on the battlefield), but it certainly seems more befitting the dignity of the Sacrament to carry what has been consecrated at a proper altar to the sickroom than to enlist common furniture for the consecration, if it be at all possible. No wonder, I am thinking, there arose a proscription against the routine practice of using bedstands as altars. The very notion was probably unthinkable.
Maybe what ought to drive this discussion is a renewed consideration of the holiness of the place of consecration, which, after all, is why we like to adorn our churches, isn't it? The place becomes holy because of what is there: the true Body of Christ, the flesh of the Son of God, wherein is all the fullness of the Godhead. Shouldn't this astounding truth say something, anything, about the place where it sits?
Ample Biblical references provide evidence for the salutary practice of regarding as holy the places of God's special revelatory or sacramental presence. Moses was required to put off his shoes at the burning bush. The Holy of Holies was central to Israel's worship. The woman with the flow of blood was healed upon touching the mere hem of Christ's garment. The women at the tomb sought to anoint the dead body of Christ (from which His soul had gone). The list is long.
Since Christian worship is all about the coming of the incarnate God for our salvation, it is also about His adornment of the earth with His abiding presence. In faithful response to this wondrous truth, countless generations of Christians from antiquity, and throughout the early centuries of her history--yes, everywhere, always, and all--have sought wherever possible to adorn their altars and churches, as a confession of their faith and devotion. Granted, sometimes it was not possible, and there will always be emergency situations which supercede this desire, but it is rather debatable whether the routine making of the bedside table into a sort of makeshift altar, and the accompanying ceremony into a personal Mass of sorts, must be counted as one of them. To say the least, such a practice certainly has the downside of missing the significance of the church, the altar, the paraments, the vestments, or the Communion ware. It's hard enough to encourage faith among people so steeped in our culture's rationalistic denials of the sacred truth that the Sacrament is truly Christ's Body, without having to hold Mass in completely unadorned places, especially if we have another option. The carrying of consecrated elements to the sick, on the other hand, serves to extend the ceremony which commenced at the holy place. By no means can we require the practice, but neither should we disparage it.
The Church's current milieu is no longer beset with medieval superstitions, but with notions of a very different kind, namely, the modern world's rationalistic denial of all things holy, a spirit which for the past two centuries and more has been laughing to scorn the very idea that a piece of bread could really be the Body of Christ. The Church does well to confess before the world the foolishness of Christ. The reservation of the elements makes our faith in this matter abundantly clear: these elements are really and truly Christ's Body and Blood, and we do not hang our affirmation about this on the statements of this or that theologian, no matter how venerated, nor on rationalistic suppositions about duration of time or space, no matter how reasoned they appear, but alone on the clear and simple words of Christ. But speaking of theologians and their views, the razor of Ockham does come to mind: the simplest explanation is the best. Christ said it's His Body. Therefore it is. The tradition of reserving some of the remaining elements from the sacred place of their consecration in a dignified manner and place, and carrying them reverently to those who could not be present for the Mass, is not only a venerable and extremely well-established ecclesiastical custom; it is an unmistakable way of showing the world what we believe about them.