Sunday, June 24, 2007

ELW strikes again

So where was I in my bitchy analysis of Evangelical Lutheran Worship? Oh, yes! The "Meal" portion of the Holy Communion service!

The first act under the heading "Meal" is the collection of the offering. Coming from a tradition in which the offering precedes the prayers (hence such language as "Accept...our bodies and souls, our hearts and minds, our talents and powers, together with the offerings we bring before Thee..."), I am a bit surprised to see that the offering has become part of the meal. I can only guess at the significance of this, and my guess would be that some historical-liturgical nerds decided to restore some ancient custom in which the bread and wine for the sacrament was collected and brought forward. And the ELW rubric confirms my guess: "Bread, wine, money, and other gifts may be brought forward."

Let's not quibble about the fact that Luther and the Reformation left that custom behind, after concerned deliberation persuaded them that this "offertory" was inextricably connected with the Roman church's teaching of the sacrifice of the Mass. Let's not wonder at the fact that Lutherans these days are so hot to get rid of anything that "smacks of catholicism," even things that were never considered a danger to the gospel; yet here the very heart of the Papacy's abuse of the sacrament is being revived - in symbolic gestures, if not in words. No. Let's just sigh with admiration of the prettiness of this rubric that casts the offering in such a "sacramental" light. Though, to be sure, I forget exactly what is sacramental about highlighting the role our actions and contributions play...I think a more correct word would be "sacrificial." Hmmm....

Then the table is set, and the "assisting minister" leads the congregation in one of three prayers ("or a similar prayer"), because (A) the previous prayers, and the pages and pages of eucharistic prayers yet to come, aren't sufficient to drench the sacrament in prayerfulness; (B) the preface (now titled "great thanksgiving") is no longer prefatory enough, so it needs a preface of its own; (C) the "presiding minister" can't carry this whole thing without an assist from the "assisting minister"; and above all, (D) we don't want to fall into a rote pattern, so we have to make sure an infinite variety of options is available to us.

Actually, this little prayer is mainly a kind of dedication or, one might even say, "consecration" of the bread and wine that have been brought forward in the offering. And each of the three options given in the service includes a little plug for the poor and needy, spiritual and otherwise. Typical thought-form: "Thanks for all these blessings. Nourish us by them, and use us and these gifts to feed the world with the bread of life." What does this prayer actually add, except (just possibly) a vapor of vagueness about just what constitutes the Sacrament and why we should want it?

Then you get the "Great Thanksgiving" ("The Lord be with you," etc., all the way to "It is right to give our thanks and praise"). This is summarized by a wholly unnecessary rubric. How interesting that we are giving "our" thanks now, as opposed to giving "Him" thanks. If we try a little bit harder to expunge masculine references to God from the liturgy, we might succeed in castrating Him. Oops; I mean castrating God.

The proper preface (no longer labeled as such) continues with "It is indeed right, our duty and our joy, that we should..." "Meet, right, and salutary" are gone because two of the three adjectives have lost their street cred. The one most likely to be understood in a moralistic sense remains, along with this "duty" business, which is really going to inspire those people out there who aren't 100% sure they want to praise God. Then, in place of "evermore praising Thee and saying," we now "praise your name and join their unending hymn." Ha! Just when you were sure they had left behind the male pronoun, you catch them saying hymn!

Then the presiding minister goes on to the climactic, consecratory portion of the communion service. Four options are given in the service itself, but as we saw in a previous installment, the book contains several more options for "Thanksgiving at the Table." I am guessing that their thinking on these prayers has, in general, been influenced by a word study of the term "Eucharist," which means "thanksgiving," and has led a number of liturgical scholars to the idiotic conclusion that the part of the rite most essential to consecrating the sacrament is the giving of thanks. Actually, though the narrative contained in the "Words of Institution" does mention that Jesus gave thanks over the bread and wine, Lutheran theology holds that it was Christ's Words "This is my body" and "This cup blood" that effected (and continue to effect) the sacramental union of body to bread and blood to wine. Thus, all the effervescent verbiage of these prayers does nothing except suggest that we enact the sacrament by our prayers, our thanksgiving, or our following Jesus' example, etc.

Version II, which appears in a shaded box, is the bare Words of Institution, followed by a rubric to skip to the Lord's Prayer (important because versions I, III, and IV between them fill up the next three pages). Versions III (Advent-Epiphany) and IV (Ash Wednesday-Day of Pentecost) are seasonal alternatives, while Version I (which begins in a parallel column to the left of Version II's simple, evangelical, historically Lutheran recitation of the essential Words) is of a more general application. They pretty much all do the same things. They approach God with flattering phrases and reminders of His (hysz) saving acts (version I even paraphrases John 3:16); then they recite the words of institution, about which no better can be said than that they are at the center (though positioning them at either the beginning or, preferably, the end might give them more stress). Then there is a versicle/response bit in which the response is invariably "Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again." Then follow more prayers.

The non-seasonal variant (Form I) admits that we thank God "not as we ought but as we are able," and asks God "mercifully to accept our praise" and to bless us through Word, Spirit, and "these your own gifts of bread and wine, so that we and all who share in the body and blood of Christ may be filled with heavenly blessing and grace," leading to forgiveness, being "formed to live as your holy people," and eternal life. After a concluding doxlogy the congregation responds with a triple Amen. The Advent-through-Epiphany alternate (Form III) recalls Jesus' incarnation, death, and resurrection, and adds, "We look with hope for his coming. Come Lord Jesus." Then it prays the Spirit to come among us, bless the meal, make "your Word take flesh in us," awaken us, fill us with light, give peace on earth. Doxology; Amen.

The Lent-Easter form (IV) prays for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit "on us and on these gifts of bread and wine." It asks God to "grace our table with your presence," but the immediate response ("Come, Holy Spirit") makes me wonder which is worse: interpreting the sacramental presence as a presence of the Holy Spirit (rather than the bodily presence of Jesus), or suggesting that this presence is the result of God answering this prayer (rather than the effective Word of Christ). Wait! I know! The worst is being purposely vague so that people believing either of these teachings, which are equally repugnant to the Lutheran confessions, can find shelter under these words! This prayer goes on to ask the Holy Spirit to reveal Himself/hymnself to us in the breaking of bread, "raise us up as the body of Christ for the world, breathe new life into us. Send us forth, burning with justice, peace, and love." The doxological conclusion invites us to join specific saints (whose names can be inserted) as well as "holy ones of all times and places...the earth and all its creatures...sun and moon and stars" in praising God.

This language is all very fishy. I have heard one disgruntled ELCA theologian charge this liturgy with teaching that the sacrament is a sacrifice in which we, the communicants, offer ourselves bodily; and so by right of communion in the body of Christ, we participate in Christ's sacrifice for the world. If this charge is true, this liturgy has done no less than sell the largest body of Lutherans in the United States back under bondage to the Papacy and its anti-Christian Sacrifice of the Mass, the very first abomination of which Luther and the Lutheran Reformers hastened to cleanse the church. Of course it is probably possible to interpret these prayers without adopting that belief...but before one says it's all OK then, one should ask: What do these words suggest? Where did they come from and what did they mean in their original context? And what purpose is being served by pushing the Lutheran liturgy in this direction, and inserting these prayers into the simple, gospel-filled service of the sacrament?

But again, of course, the option remains of skipping all this ceremonial boilerplate and going straight from the preface to the Words of Institution (Form II) and on to the Lord's Prayer, with which option I could make this hymnal serve if I had to. But these Words have also changed a bit. Here they are in full: "In the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread, and gave thanks; broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying: Take and eat; this is my body, given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me. Again, after supper, he took the cup, gave thanks, and gave it all for to drink, saying: This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin. Do this for the remembrance of me."

Observe: (a) "For the remembrance of me" replaces "In remembrance of me." Why? I don't know. I don't see any point to this change; on the contrary, I think "in remembrance" flows better, sounds more natural, and is completely clear, while the updated wording is a minefield of potential stammers, stumbles, and impious questions. It suggests that one should seek a theological significance to prefering this new wording over the old; and I can't imagine what profit would come from such a search. (b) The new wording doesn't quote Jesus saying "Drink of it, all of you," or anything of the kind. Instead it invents a novel narrative: "gave it for all to drink." (c) The insertion of "for all people" bit is scriptural and all - but who asked them to change the content of the Words of Institution, anyway? (d) What happened to "as often as you drink it"? What reason could there be for deleting them? And again, who asked these people to change the Words of the sacrament? (e) Clearly, in the world these liturgy nerds inhabit, people cannot comprehend advanced linguistic devices such as relative clauses. Otherwise they wouldn't have a problem with saying "when he had given thanks," "which is given for you," and "which is shed for you."

The Lord's Prayer appears in two forms. The second form, preceded by an "OR," is the version most Protestants learned, up until around the time of the Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW; 1978). You know: "Our Father, who art in heaven..." When you see a made-for-TV movie in which people trapped in a sinking ship, elevator, hijacked plane, etc., join hands and pray together, this is the version they say. Yet by teaching the first form (left column, before the "OR," which begins: "Our Father in heaven...") to congregations and especially young people - and I know a good number of Lutherans who know only this version of the prayer - we are raising up a generation of linguistic cripples who will never be able to cope with, understand, or join in a non-sectarian, group recitation of the Lord's Prayer.

Yes folks, our own Lutherans, catechized under hymnals like this, will be the ones who mumble the words vaguely while a bunch of Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, and probably even non-Christians enunciate the "who art in heaven" version clearly. And you ask why the Lutheran church is dying? The world will see us following along nervously, half a beat behind everyone else, and conclude that we are the ones who don't know, or care, what we believe, teach, and confess!

The Communion itself happens next. The minister welcomes communicants with one of two cute little phrases (or similar words), neither of which improves substantially on a silent nod of the head. While the bread and cup are being distributed, it's nice to see the response "Amen" suggested after "The body of Christ, given for you; the blood of Christ, shed for you." It's also nice to see a rubric allowing the ministers to commune "either before or after others commune," which is more flexible than Lutheran Service Book on this point, more respectful of customs that vary between congregations. Put that down as my third positive remark on ELW. I do want the record to show that I was fair and unbiased!

During the distribution, rather than before it, "Lamb of God" may be sung, or/and "assembly song and other music may accompany the communion." After all have returned to their places, the minister "may say a table blessing," but for once, this all-inclusive hymnal omits even one suggested text for such a blessing. Then the "Now Lord, you let your servant go in peace," or "another suitable song," may be sung.

The after-communion prayer also includes three choices. The choice on the left is the familiar "We give you thanks, almighty God, that you have refreshed us" one, with some updated language. The middle version reinforces the aforementioned impression that this service suggests communion is about us sacrificing ourselves: "By your Spirit strengthen us to serve all in need and to give ourselves away as bread for the hungry..." The prayer on the right hints at the same thing from a different angle: "You have united us with Christ, making us one with all your people. Now send us forth in the power of your Spirit, that we may proclaim your redeeming love to the world and continue forever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Lord."

Is there anything specifically wrong with these prayers? In themselves, no. However, when the Christian's hope for a sanctified life embraces so many things - when the need for the spiritual gift of loving our neighbor occasions a daily struggle against so many willful, selfish tendencies - hearing the liturgy continually harping on the single note of going out and doing mission work can wear a bit thin. I have a bigger concern with this language of "serve all in need" and "give ourselves away as bread for the hungry." What are we talking about here? Social ministry? Spreading the Word? Or have we perhaps become so confused about the meaning of communion in Christ's body and blood that we forget there is a difference between ourselves and God? Are we now the bread of life, etc.?

Before you can ponder these things, the service quickly goes into its "Sending" phase. This starts with "communion ministers" (i.e. sacramental deacons) taking the sacrament to shut-ins; a nice touch, perhaps. Or, perhaps, a rubric destined to stir up trouble by emphasizing one alternative, in the eternal controversy over what to do with the leftover sacramental bread and wine, and suggesting that alternative is superior to (for example) pouring the reliquiae down a piscina, burying it, or consuming it down to the last crumb of bread and drop of wine. I suppose we can at least be thankful the rubric didn't suggest sealing it in Tupperware and putting it in the fridge.

The rubrics suggest making announcements at this point, and even devotes an entire line of text to the idea of including mission-related information. "Affirmation of Christian Vocation (p. 84) may be used here," it says.

Blessing, i.e. Benediction, can take one of at least three forms, of which the middle form is the Aaronic benediction ("The Lord bless you and keep you...") which has heretofore been the typical conclusion of the Divine Service. Choice 1 is now "Almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, bless you now and forever. Amen." (Yawn.) The third choice is actually 3 blessings, each followed by an Amen; the sort of ending that catches semi-inattentive people starting to leave after the first Amen or two. It's like a movie where the last scene comes on screen about 10 seconds after the closing credits begin, so that a whole aisleful of departing viewers have to pause and turn around in mid-egress. It's that kind of benediction.

Then there is a Sending Song. Isn't it cute how absolutely everything has a new name? Ten years ago the phrase going around was "Hymn to Depart," though it always struck me as odd that a hymn should depart. Now it's "sending song," but whether we are sending the song or the song is sending us isn't quite clear. The rubric says "Now, Lord, you let your servant go in peace" can be sung here, if it wasn't done earlier.

Oh yes, and then there is the Dismissal. The assisting minister may "send the assembly into mission" with one of four versicle-response forms. The response to all four is "Thanks be to God." Isn't this like that movie that had one ending after another, the last one coming after you were sure the movie had ended? There is something almost sadistic about this. One is tempted to scream: "Open the doors! Let us out of church already!"

Next time, I will wrap up my bitchy critique of ELW's Holy Communion with a brief analysis of its ten (10) musical settings, as well as the painfully ugly art that goes with it. Until then, I would like to remind my fellow members of a church that, just today, voted in favor (but not unanimously so) of switching from The Lutheran Hymnal to Lutheran Service Book: be thankful we didn't have to vote on ELW! On the other hand, it probably would have been a much easier decision to make...

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