Most of us have probably heard some version of the story about “Why Mom Always Cuts the End Off of the Ham Before Putting It in the Oven.” As the story goes, a child wondered about this practice and asked Mom. The mother said that she did it because her mother always had done so. Following up with Grandma, the child learned that early in her grandmother’s marriage the oven had been quite small, requiring a roast or ham of any notable size to be shortened. And so a custom was born, and so it continued, only without any reason whatsoever.
To suggest that this kind of deracinated ritual occurs with any frequency in Christian worship would caricature tradition-based liturgical practice in the worst way, but, at least in my experience, rituals like this occur with sufficient frequency to merit a gentle caution. For example, at least prior to the most recent hymnal issued by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2006), the presiding minister greeted the people before the Prayer of the Day with the Salutation, “The Lord be with you,” to which the congregation would respond, “And also with you.” (The new hymnal of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, Lutheran Service Book [Concordia, 2006], retains this practice.) The purpose of the exchange is that before taking on the first task in the traditional order of the mass in which the presiding minister approaches the holy God on behalf of the congregation, the pastor shares a greeting with the people in which they endorse the pastor’s intercession in their name.
Well and good. But quite some while back now (I recall it popping up already when I was in seminary, over thirty years ago), some congregations began offering the Prayer of the Day in unison. The change was explained to me at the time as reflecting the Lutheran teaching that no one need come between the individual Christian and God; we all have direct access in prayer. Whatever the rationale, when the practice of praying in unison was adopted, the Salutation was generally retained. The upshot was that the people would assure the presiding minister of their endorsement and blessing as he prepared to come before God on their behalf, and then they would all pray together anyway.
This liturgical muddle occurred to me recently, as I thought about another change that has, in my fallible view, left many a pastor and congregation “caught between two stools,” to cite a favorite Briticism. This is the matter of the manner of administering communion to the presiding minister. The historic practice of the presiding minister was to self-commune, then to commune any who were assisting with the administration of the Eucharist, then to join such assistants in sharing the bread (the pastor) and the wine (the assistants) with the people. The rationale for this approach was that it falls to the forgiven to share the things of forgiveness, viz., the means of grace, much in the manner of John 20:22–23, where Jesus first breathes the Spirit on the Apostles and then grants them the authority to forgive (or not) with the Spirit’s power (cf. Matt 16:19; 18:18). The presiding minister, then, is simply starting the process in the only possible way, acting as both giver (in the stead of Christ) and recipient (as a sinful human).
Still, there has long been significant discomfort with the practice of self-communion among both clergy and laity. One can cite Luther, but his concerns had to do primarily with private masses and the “merits” claimed for the “sacrifice of the mass.” More to the point, many a pastor has felt mightily strange in the dual role described, and some laity have discerned clericalism gone amuck, as if the message being sent is that the sacrament does not “count” somehow (or at the very least that things are not being done “decently and in order”), unless the hands administering at least the bread to all present—pastor included—are ordained.
This long-term dis-ease has recently been joined by the emergence of “hospitality” as a cardinal virtue in the theology of the sacrament (to the point that The Christian Century recently featured a cover article concerning whether the sacrament should be offered to all who desire it, baptized or not, but that is a topic for another day). Taken all together, the upshot has been a steep increase in the number of presiding ministers who both decline to commune themselves and see their role, above all, as host at the Christian family table.
To my mind, there is nothing problematic either about pastors’ scruples over communing themselves or about the rise of the value of hospitality vis-à-vis the sacrament. Depending on one’s cultural context, some historic practices can simply never be explained satisfactorily or are at least not worth the required effort, so letting go of self-communion and the rationale behind it may be the responsible, pastoral thing to do. And for my money, at least, the conversation and conceptualization of the Eucharist have only been enriched by the metaphors of hospitality, so long as one doesn’t imagine that the metaphor encompasses the referent (such that hospitality becomes the only value at issue in discussions of right teaching about Holy Communion and good practice).
What does bother me is that after getting rid of the objectionable practice of self-communing, efforts are then made to retain the rationale of the forgiven sharing the means of forgiveness, usually by means of a quick mutual communion at the outset of the meal by the presiding and one assisting minister (followed then by their communion of other assisting ministers). Rather, if the model is to be hospitality and the home dinner table, we need to ask: what host serves him- or herself first, or, stranger still, exchanges servings with the person seated to their right, before passing out the food to anyone else? (Yes, I am aware of the ancient custom of taking a bite to assure guests of the absence of spoilage or poison, but today?) Far better, it seems to me, is a bit of thoughtful consistency here. If one wants to do away with self-communion, fine. But then let those who are serving the meal eat last—and last of all the host, the presiding minister.
When Moses passed along God’s instructions for the celebration of the Passover, year-by-year, for all time to come, he concluded by mentally staring off into the far distance, when God’s people would be settled in the Land. Surely, he foresaw, that the day would come when a child would ask his or her parent, “What do you mean by this service?” (Exod 12:26 RSV), and Moses saw to it that parents would be prepared with a meaningful answer. That, at the end of the proverbial day, is my concern with our liturgical practice. Let it be rich; let it be multisensory; let it both teach and delight. But above all, let it be consistent and explainable to any and all who would ask the Israelite child’s question.
George C. Heider is Chair and Associate Professor of Theology at Valparaiso University.