Word, bath, meal: the raw materials of Christian spirituality

luckau_nikolaikirche_abendmahlsbild
Abendsmahlbild, St Nikolai’s Church, Luckau

Christians meet for worship on Sunday. Christians pray, together or singly, on all days of the week at morning and evening, perhaps also at noon or night. They pray in praise and intercession. In their Sunday meetings Christians gather around the scriptures. They also hold a meal. They teach faith to those who would join community, then they bathe them. These are the root elements of an ordo, of a pattern of scheduled rituals.

Gordon Lathrop, Holy Things, p.35 (src)

I came across this quotation the other day, and it’s been bouncing around my head ever since – partly because it resonates with me, partly because it leaves me feeling that more needs to be said (and to be fair, Lathrop does describe this as just the “root elements” of a Christian ordo: more needs to be added).

Lathrop’s structure of “word, bath, meal” is helpful, though there is a risk of reductionism in saying, simply, baldly: “they hold a meal”; “they bathe them.” After all, Luther tells us in the Small Catechism that baptism “is not simply water [a ‘bath’], but it is the water included in God’s command and connected with God’s Word” (emphasis added). Similarly, in the Sacrament of the Altar, “it is not the eating and drinking [that is, the ‘meal’ in and of itself] that do these things, but these words: ‘Given and shed for you for the remission of sins.’” It is the word that makes the bath and the meal what they are; it is the bath and the meal that thus become indispensable means of bringing that word to us.

But as a reminder of the deep structure of Christian spirituality, corporate and individual, there is a lot to reflect on in Lathrop’s words. There are three patterns at work here:

  • a pattern of corporate worship, in which Christians meet together each Sunday to “gather round the scriptures” and share in the Lord’s Supper;
  • a pattern of personal devotion, in which we pray, either alone or with others, in the morning and the evening, with an emphasis on praise and intercession;
  • a pattern of spiritual formation, in which Christians are taught the faith and baptised.

These three elements are not wholly separate and distinct, but are intertwined together in the day-by-day, week-by-week life of the church.

This reminds both of the threefold Rule described by Martin Thornton, and also of Thornton’s emphasis on the Book of Common Prayer as the basis of a spiritual “rule” rather than simply a set of liturgies. More practically, immediately and personally, it has also highlighted that in recent months I’ve probably let the element of “praise and intercession” slip away in my own patterns of personal devotion: a useful corrective.

Justifying God

Luther preaching Christ and him crucifiedI’ve now taken delivery of Steven Paulson’s book Lutheran Theology (see previous post), and so far it’s proving as remarkable as I’d hoped. Quite mind-blowing at times, in fact.

One of Paulson’s themes (as we saw in my previous post) is the centrality of preaching. Paulson argues that Luther set out, not to reform the church, but to reform preaching. The gospel, for Luther, is a preached gospel, so that life can be divided into two periods: the period “before the preacher”, lived under the law, and the period “after the preacher”, when we have heard the promise of the gospel that frees us from the law.

This is vital to understanding “justification by faith”, as Paulson sets out in his second chapter. Luther’s understanding of justification hinged on Romans 1:17 (adapted here to mirror Paulson’s translation):

For in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who by faith is righteous will live.’

Luther had hated the phrase “the righteousness of God,” because it had been presented to him as an abstract, philosophical standard towards which he was to strive. The turning point for Luther was his discovery that Paul used the phrase as a promise, a concrete promise in the declaration of which – the preaching of which – God gives his own self to sinners.

So we see that faith is not something introspective, not a turning within to ask what I “think” of the “idea” of Christ and the gospel. Rather, it is the result of hearing the external, concrete proclamation of Christ. Paulson emphasises this by turning to a second OT quotation in Romans, Paul’s quoting of Psalm 51:4 in Romans 3:4:

So that you may be justified in your words.

In other words, when the gospel promises are declared to us and we respond in faith, not only are we justified by God, but God is justified by us: indeed, for Paulson, our justifying of God, our acknowledging him as righteous and trustworthy, is precisely the faith that justifies us. As Paulson writes:

Trusting a promise from God is the justification God seeks for himself, and he intends upon getting this justification come hell or high water so that stories of God’s arrival to sinners make the great tales of Scripture (Abraham, David, Mary) and our lives like Augustine’s Confessions. (p.55)

Thus Luther found “a gracious God”:

…hiding in the word of promise delivered by a preacher in the real word of penance: Te absolvo! I forgive you. That word is not a sign pointing somewhere else for its truth, but is the power of the Holy Spirit to create out of nothing. Luther had discovered what he called promissio, by which God creates a new person in a new world with faith that hears the promise for me – and trusts it. In doing so the believer justifies God in his words and has a gracious God. (p.58)

The problem, as Paulson goes on to observe, is that subsequent Protestants (including many Lutherans) have forgotten the importance of the preached word, the word in which God is justified. Instead, they have turned faith into “an act of self-reflection”; a psychological experience; an inner, existential act; a seeking of “the Christ within”; and so on. None of these things can give us the joy of knowing God as righteous and gracious, because God is justified only in his words.

Paulson concludes:

…for Luther at least, faith does not trust in its own power to believe. It takes leave of itself by hearing the promise from the preacher and justifying God for saying it. […] In Christ’s story faith and word are properly fit. Faith alone justifies; faith comes by hearing the promise of Christ: “I forgive you.” (p.60)

Worthy of all thanks and praise!

He Alone is Worthy!Now this forthcoming book looks interesting: He Alone is Worthy! (PDF) by Naomichi Masaki.

It remains to be seen whether I dare to add it to my groaning shelves of not-yet-read books, but the blurb alone has some fascinating points to make about the distinctive nature of Lutheran liturgy, and its influence on other parts of the church (as we’ll see in a moment).

In this book Dr. Naomichi Masaki highlights the liturgical thinking of Theodor Kliefoth (1810–95). Kliefoth served as Oberkirchenratspräsident in Schwerin, Germany, and found his liturgical ideal in the Reformation era liturgy. Fundamental for him were the interaction in the liturgy between the Lord’s giving and our receiving, between sacramentum and sacrificium, and His service to His people in the means of grace through the means of grace office.

This idea, of our worship (in particular, though not only, the Lord’s Supper) as being about God’s service to us, rather than the other way round, was fundamental to Luther’s understanding of the liturgy. As I posted on some years ago, Luther:

made a distinction between worship as sacrificium – a sacrifice offered to God – and worship as beneficium – a gracious gift of God to His people.

Luther regarded the medieval church’s understanding of worship as sacrificium to be one of its greatest errors. As Bard Thompson (quoted at more length in that post) put it, for Luther:

All of worship, and the Mass in particular, must be viewed as a beneficium of God, “who gives but does not take” – who gives freely out of pure mercy for the undeserving, asking only to be confessed and glorified.

It sounds from the first paragraph of his book’s blurb, though, as if Dr Masaki sees the Lutheran position as being slightly more nuanced than an outright rejection of sacrificium. The point is that our sacrificium is our response to the beneficium that has already been bestowed upon us (concretely, in the word and sacraments) by a gracious God. This is captured well in Norman Nagel’s introduction to Lutheran Worship:

Our Lord speaks and we listen. His Word bestows what it says. Faith that is born from what is heard acknowledges the gifts received with eager thankfulness and praise. Saying back to him what he has said to us, we repeat what is most true and sure. Most true and sure is his name, which he put upon us with the water of our Baptism. We are his. The rhythm of our worship is from him to us, and then from us back to him. He gives his gifts, and together we receive and extol him. We build each other up as we speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Our Lord gives us his body to eat and his blood to drink. Finally his blessing moves us out into our calling, where his gifts have their fruition.

This understanding of the liturgy is expressed concretely in how Lutheran liturgies treat the words of institution in the Lord’s Supper: not as part of a prayer directed towards God, but as words spoken by Christ, through his minister, to the congregation. Christ gives, we receive. This is one of the distinctives of the Lutheran liturgy that I appreciate the most.

One other interesting point from the blurb to Dr Masaki’s book:

When the thinking of Kliefoth in the 1850s started to influence the liturgical thinking in Sweden, one consequence was that the culmination point of the Lord’s Supper’s Preface should no longer be formulated as Det är rätt och tillbörligt (“It is right and proper” or “It is meet and right so to do”), but instead as Allena han är värdig tack och lov! (“He alone is worthy of thanks and praise!”). This acclamation becomes the prism through which Dr. Masaki studies how a number of Swedish theologians drew consequences of Kliefoth’s theology and eventually let them have their way into the liturgy of the 1894 Kyrkohandbok / Church Agenda.

It would seem that the Swedish liturgy has influenced contemporary Anglican liturgies here. One of my favourite parts of the Church of England’s communion service in the Alternative Service Book was its rendering (taken from the ICET texts) of the end of the Sursum Corda and the start of the preface:

P: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
C: It is right to give him thanks and praise.

P: It is indeed right, it is our duty and our joy…

The Swedish Lutheran influence can perhaps be seen in the wording of that response: “It is right to give him thanks and praise” having clear echoes of “He alone is worthy of all thanks and praise!” (Though see the first comment to this post.)

The Lutheran Service Book uses the same response (“It is right to give him thanks and praise”) in its first communion setting, Divine Service 1. The more traditional setting, Divine Service 3, has “It is meet and right so to do”. Similarly, the response in the new translation of the Catholic mass is the rather pedestrian “It is right and just”.

As for the phrase “it is indeed right, it is our duty and our joy”, this is surely one of the finest expressions ever of what should motivate us as Christians, not only in the liturgy, but in our private prayer, our vocations, and in every other area of life: our sacrificium in response to God’s beneficium.