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The Mass is the Heart and Life of the Church
A dedication by Peter M. Berg
+ In the Name of Jesus +
The Mass is the heart and life of the Church, and the Holy Supper is the heart and life of the Evangelical Mass. For centuries the Mass, and its apex, the Supper, have been the center of Christian life, for the Supper is Jesus and he is the Life of the Church. All of God's graces are poured out in the preaching and in the Supper, because Jesus, who is Grace, is Word and Meal. All Christian verity and all heresy are revealed in one's understanding of the Supper. All ecclesiastical structures, church programs, and cutting-edge ideas may cease to be, but as long as the Church has the Mass with its Supper it has Jesus, and Jesus is the heart and life of the Church. Jesus, the Incarnate God, is truly and really present with His Church in the Mass. Preaching and the Sacrament are the new "signs and wonders" of the New Testament, and how wondrous they are! The incarnation of the Son of God was so stunning to the ancient world, and the Real Presence so mystical, that the pagan Romans accused the early Christians of secretly devouring their deity. There is often a bit of truth in every calumny. The Mass is the heart and life of the church because here the incarnate Son of God comes to his mortal - flesh and blood - people, giving them his immortal flesh and blood to eat and to drink, saving them, body and soul. We know of no other Son of God than the incarnate Jesus, and apart from him, God is an unknown horror. No flesh and blood Jesus, no God. In the Mass this God comes in all his humanity and sinful human beings can approach him without fear. "The glory and mystery of the incarnation combine there (in the Supper) as they combine nowhere else."¹ Therefore the Mass is finally all that matters. Indeed, all other sacred things, whether Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, preaching, catechesis, the daily office, the occasional services, etc. only have their full relevance in their relation to the Mass. This is the conviction of those who publish this modest journal, and this is what we teach. However, before this conviction is brushed aside as the ramblings of some fussy high-church types well on their way to crossing the Tiber, we would ask you, dear reader, to give us a hearing. Before you write off what is written in these pages, please read what is written.
The Manner of our Lord's Coming
The Mass is not important because it happens to be a part of our Lutheran culture, just one culture among many other equally valid Christian cultures. The Mass is important because it is the way in which God comes to his people. How does he come? It goes in the way of incarnation and it follows the pattern of speak and eat. It is the visible Lord visiting and eating with Abraham as he reaffirmed the Promise of the Savior and announced his intentions for the Sodomites. It is the Passover meal with its annual rehearsal of God's saving presence and act. It is the Lord speaking and eating with the elders of Israel on the mountaintop. It is Jesus teaching and miraculously feeding the multitudes. It is the Savior eating at table in fellowship with tax collectors and sinners. It is the institution and celebration of the Supper on the night of the Lord's betrayal. It is the revelation of the Lord as he opened the scriptures and broke bread at Emmaus. It is the early Christians devoting themselves to the apostles' didache and the breaking of bread (the koinwniva). The Mass is speak and eat, the only two things that matter - the words of the Word Incarnate poured into our ears and the pouring of the Incarnate Word into our mouths. As the Son of God was conceived in the hearing of the Virgin Mary, and the finite contained the infinite, so through their hearing and their eating the Incarnate One dwells within the entire being of his people in a way beyond comprehension. Christ's Christians become His body, and they are nourished by his body.
These two things - speaking and eating - are bound together in the Mass and one without the other leaves something missing. The Supper without preaching can lead to mindless mysticism. The preaching without the Supper can lead to pedantic moralism. Without the Supper, Herman Sasse once observed, "the proclamation of the Gospel could be understood as just one of the many religious messages in the world." And all we preachers can claim a mea culpa when it comes to short-changing our listeners. The Supper must, at times, save the preacher's neck, just as it saves the communicant in body and soul. Yet, astonishingly, the "dry mass" is still the common practice in all too many churches of the Augsburg Confession, in spite of the confessors' steadfast assertion that the Mass was retained for the consolation of troubled souls (AC XXIV.7). "We have preaching, that's the Gospel, that's enough. We'll have the Supper another time." But isn't that our very own version of concomitance - If you have one thing (e.g. preaching) you pretty much have the rest. Yet the Lord did not come only in word, but in word and deed. He came not only in water, but in water and blood (1 Jn. 5:6). Word and deed. Promise and Body and Blood. The mysteries of God - preaching, Absolution, Baptism, the Eucharist - share things in common, but they also have things unique to each. To omit one is to omit what is unique to it.
The Mass is Heaven on Earth
Preaching is many things, and some of these things are what the Supper is and some are what it is not. Unlike the Supper, preaching is Law, it must be. The sinner is to be convicted. Like the Supper preaching is Gospel, it must be. The sinner is to be consoled with the forgiveness of sins. Preaching is didactic, it must be. Christians are to be instructed in true doctrine, warned about heresy, and urged to be helpful to their neighbors in every need. But most of all, the preacher preaches his people to Heaven; therefore, he preaches to the Supper, he preaches sacramentally (not just about the sacraments, but sacramentally), for the Supper is Heaven on earth. The Supper is the parousia of our Lord now - just as it shall be - only then with the scales fallen from our eyes. Therefore, the Supper is the apex of the Mass, for Heaven is the consummation of the believer's life. We confess this, not because the Holy Communion conveys a better Gospel than preaching, but because preaching is not only about the things to come, but also about the things that are passing. "And now abide faith, hope and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love" (1 Co. 13:13). Preaching, and the faith and hope which it instills, will one day pass away, but Jesus (who is Love) and His feast of love will never pass away.
There is something more. Consider how wonderfully the Holy Liturgy on each Lord's Day tells the story of how our Lord came to us in Word and deed. Whether by Divine providence or happy coincidence, the western rite tells the story of Jesus. In the Gloria in Excelsis we have the song of the Christmas angels, "God incarnate! Peace on earth!" Through the reading and preaching of the scriptures, the Liturgy of the Catechumens tells us about Jesus' ministry of spoken word and miraculous deed as he journeyed to his destiny in Jerusalem. To this we say, Credo. As the gospels are Passion narratives with long prologues (thus, Martin Koehler), so the Liturgy of the Faithful takes us to Holy Week. In the Sanctus/Benedictus we join the Palm Sunday throng and sing, "Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord."² As He came upon a lowly donkey, so He also comes now in the lowly species of bread and wine. The Words of Institution take us to Maundy Thursday, and the Agnus Dei to Good Friday. In the elevation, the Son of Man is lifted up as Moses lifted the serpent in the wilderness and all who behold him in faith are healed. In the consumption, doubting Thomases and weeping Marys actually get to touch their risen, flesh and blood Lord, for the Mass is the continuation of our Lord's post-resurrection appearances. And then, together with aged Simeon, the faithful are ready to "depart in peace." Listen to old Simeon, he's got it right. In the Mass, we achieve the hope of all Christians: We go to heaven. For the Mass is heaven on earth - and not just a foretaste of the Feast to come - but the Feast itself right here on earth! Here, the whole Christian Church on earth and the saints of Heaven are joined together spiritually, sacramentally, Christologically, and mystically. In the Lamb's high feast, the grateful dead, your grateful dead (!), are in communion with those yet on earth. Indeed, we become the "one bread" of which the Apostle Paul speaks (1 Co 10.17). If you don't have the Supper, you can't attend the Feast, for the Body and the Blood of our Lord are the Feast. He is host and meal.
The glory of the Supper is that it is purest Gospel, the very forgiveness of sins. Here, as noted above, preaching and the Supper differ. Preaching must be Law and Gospel. Yet, how many times haven't we preachers slighted our people with one or the other, or even both. It must be noted that Law and Gospel are not on even footing. Both are the Word of God and are to be believed as such, but the Law is God's alien work, the Gospel is His proprium. Even in the best-crafted sermon, with the proper distinction between Law and Gospel observed, there is no guarantee that our hearers will hear it that way. No matter how clearly we preach the Gospel, some weary saints will hear only the Law on any given Sunday. The Supper is the safety net, which catches them before they leave church, and before they fall into despair. The Supper (like the liturgy and pericope) is the layman's protection against his own poor hearing and against the preacher, in spite of the preacher's best intentions.
"We must never regard the sacrament as a harmful thing from which we should flee, but as pure, wholesome, soothing medicine that aids you and gives life in both soul and body."³ Here is our "daily food and sustenance,"4 our "Tree of Life," our "divine Armory,"5 and "the medicine of immortality, the remedy against having to die." (Ignatius of Antioch) Until we end our earthly trek and join in the Feast of the Lamb in heaven (Rev 19), this Supper is our viaticum, our provision along the way. With St. Ambrose we say, "Because I always sin, I ought always to take the medicine."6 Here also is our guarantee of "the resurrection of our entire frame."7 In the Supper, the Savior comes to his own in the manner in which He came to earth: Incarnate, in flesh and blood. And now he gives that divine flesh and blood to His own to eat and to drink, vivifying them in body and soul. Whatever role we give John 6 in the discussion of the Eucharist, it still remains true that Christ's "flesh is food indeed, and (Christ's) blood is drink indeed." (v 55) No Supper, no holy flesh and blood to eat and to drink. Then with Zwingli, we must by faith fly up into the "fiery heavens" and somehow apprehend Jesus, seated on his throne. "No!" the earth-bound, sin-laden, flesh and blood Christian cries out, "Come from on high to me; I cannot rise to Thee" (CW 34).
The Current State of Affairs
In view of this great gift, how do we account for the current state of affairs? The truncated service continues to claim half of the Sundays during the year in a majority of our churches; also serving to truncate the Holy Ministry. One can give a historical explanation for the situation. The list of suspects is well known: Melancthonianism, Pietism, Rationalism, Prussianism, the frontier experience of North America, etc. However, permit this author to propose another idea. There seems to be a concern within our clerical ranks that preaching in our midst is not what it could be. The publication Preach seems to be directed to this need. There have been murmurs for some time now, that there is too much emphasis on sanctification in WELS preaching, on the pages of Forward in Christ, and in our educational materials. The editors of this journal believe that this is definitely the case, and they also believe that the heart of the problem is the status given the so-called Third Use of the Law, or to state it in a slightly different way, the problem lies in the goal which we have established for preaching. It seems to us that our shared goal has become growth: growth in Bible knowledge, growth in holiness of living, growth in stewardship, and quantifiable, numerical growth of new members. The means to attain this goal? Is it an over-simplification to say that the way to attain this goal is revealed in this paradigm: Law/Gospel/Law. The Third Use of the Law in the minds of some, in one way or another, seems to be key to this growth, and the final step in the process of preaching.8 Many will cry foul, but listen carefully to our preaching and to what we publish. The result of all this is that an almost imperceptible transformation takes place, with up-beat exhortations to busyness around the church and the affirmation of everybody's ministries to the church are now seen as the proclamation of the Gospel, when in reality, it is the Law. However, this goal and these means to attain the goal are wrong. We must never forget that the "Law always accuses." The preacher may think that he is using only the Third Use of the Law, but lex semper accusat, and some, even many, may be crushed, and without the Supper, may remain so. We must also remember that the Christian's goal is not the well-ordered life, but to go to heaven, period. The forgiveness of sins, distributed in Gospel and Sacrament, assure him of his salvation, and they are powerful pardons which move him to help his neighbor in every bodily need. Indeed, the believer consumes the Supper that he might be consumed in service to his fellow man. Good deeds follow as a matter of course, for faith is a living and active thing, and the Christ, who lives within, continues to carry out his ministry of compassion here on earth through His believers.
Still, the Savior suffered just as much for our righteousnesses as He did for our sins. When the true goal of the Christian faith and the means to attain the goal are not properly understood, then the life of the church is fundamentally affected, and this is especially true of the Mass. When the goal is wrong, the Sunday service easily becomes a quasi Bible class, a casual, warm, friendly time for sharing, caring, and dealing with "managerial and therapeutic concerns" which become the new sacraments by default. In this environment, preaching and imparting information will be seen as the most "effective" tools and the Supper will continue to be a bi-monthly addendum and incongruities will abound. When the sacred Body and Blood are not on the altar and in the minister's hands, because it is a "non-communion Sunday", and when the goal is information for godly living, then, I suppose, some won't see it as an incongruity when the power point screen scrolls down from the ceiling at the end of the service (or in the middle!) and strains of "Come to the WELS" begin to meddle into Divinum Mysterium (CW 35) or Herzlich Lieb Hab' Ich Dich, O Herr (CW 434). If the sermon is seen as an inspirational talk, then there is no incongruity between it and the upbeat "WELS Connection" piece on the success stories of other franchises of McChurch. However, there are those who see the incongruity and they cry out, Kyrie elieson!
It is the Real Presence which sets the stage on Sunday morning. When Christ is upon the Lord's Table, which incidentally assures that bread will be on our tables at home, then the entire atmosphere is changed. This is sensed even by those who never seem to tire of creating new "liturgies," which bring their people something new (and mediocre) every Sunday. Yet, even these folks have never been known to insert the "children's application" or the WELS Connection between the Sanctus and Verba. At least here they demonstrate a measure of propriety. Why they can't demonstrate it elsewhere is a mystery. The Real Presence carries the freight. It is the Gospel. It is the manner in which the Savior came and comes to His own.
Reformation and Restoration
With this in mind, one is compelled to ask is there an appreciable difference on a "non-communion Sunday" between the average WELS church (or any Lutheran church for that matter) and the conservative Presbyterian church down the block when it comes to what is heard in the way of preaching and hymnody and what is seen with the eye? If they are not appreciably different (granted, that's an "if"), then why should visitors "come to the WELS", especially when the minister down the block probably does the children's sermon and the power point presentation better? There is much hand-wringing in our circles today about growth; a kind of Arminian angst fills our hearts when it comes to assessing how we're doing in "sharing the Gospel." If evangelism techniques are all the rage, then let us consider the winsome force of the Holy Liturgy and the Real Presence of Christ in the Supper. When the conduct of the Holy Liturgy transcends the mundane of everyday life and the pallid commonness of Protestantism, when Sunday morning is an encounter with the divine, then those we seek to reach will say, "I've never witnessed anything like this before, I've truly entered the House of God." Unless we reconsider the Real Presence of the Incarnate Son of God in the Mass and see the Mass as the heart and life of the Church, I'm afraid that we will continue to morph into a general kind of Protestantism. We have noted and eschewed our Pietist roots, or at least we think we have. Could it be that we've taken more with us from the past into the present than we would care to admit? Could it be that we are the way that we are, because we were the way that we were? From the time of the Lutheranism's betrayal by Philippism, to this day, the drift of the Lutheran Church has not been toward Rome, but to Geneva, with side trips to Herrnhut and Gettysburg. The solution to our problem has been under our noses since the night our Lord was betrayed: Gospel, Mass, Real Presence, Jesus.
What is the point of all this? This: The Mass is the heart and life of the Church, for Jesus is the Mass and He is the Church's Breath and Life-Blood. This is the reformation of the Church. The reformation of our little bit of Holy Church will not come about by a top-down edict, but with a bottom-up reformation of Sunday morning. The restoration of the Supper to the weekly life of the Church, and the appropriate ceremonia which support it, will not be accomplished by legalistic dictates, or appeals to historic Apostolic and Lutheran practice, or to matters pertaining to liturgical aesthetics, but rather to what the Lord Himself has said about His Supper and what He has said about His people. When we see our great need, and the Savior's great aid in preaching and the Supper, then the unfortunate discussions which have attended this issue will be moot. There will be no more talk about our "glorious gospel freedom" to withhold the Supper, which is purest Gospel, from our people. Every Sunday there will be those in attendance who are "weak and heavy laden" (which is everyone) and who are in need of preaching and Jesus' true Body and Blood. These people do not schedule their guilt, woes, fears, and hopes for heaven to align with the off-and-on again schedule of "communion Sundays" and "non-communion Sundays." As the old rule goes: Where there are communicants, there is the Mass, there is the Supper, and there is the Heart and Life of the Church. And there will be communicants if our preachers preach about the Blessed Supper and preach their people to the Supper. Then the dream of Doctor Luther will come true for the people of God: ".they would come on their own, rushing and running to it; they would compel themselves to come and would insist that you give them the sacrament."9 §
The Reverend Peter M. Berg is senior pastor of Saint Peter Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Plymouth, Michigan. He also serves on the Board of Directors of Lutheran Liturgical Renewal, Inc. which publishes The Bride of Christ: The Journal of Lutheran Liturgical Renewal. He has also contributed to the journals Gottesdienst and Logia.
1 Charles Porterfield Krauth, The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology Philadelphia: General Council Publication Board, 1871, p. 655.
2 This nuance is lost in the treatment of the Sanctus in the "Service of Word and Sacrament" (Christian Worship, p. 34) where the Benedictus has been replaced with the work of the communicants. This, together with the loss of the Gloria in Excelsis and the misplacement of the Kyrie and the Lord's Prayer, lessens the appeal of this liturgy.
3 Large Catechism, V 68, The Book of Concord, Kolb-Wengert, Augsburg Press, 2000, p. 474.
4 Ibid, V.24, p. 469.
5 C.F.W. Walther, Gnadenjahr Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1890, pp. 209f; quoted in Marquart, "The Word As Life," pp. 51-52.
6 Augsburg Confession XXIV.33, The Book of Concord, Kolb-Wengert, Augsburg Press, 2000, p. 71.
7 Coxe, Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries, p. 566.
8 We would be better served if we remained with Luther's two-fold use of the Law.
9 Small Catechism, Introduction, The Book of Concord, Kolb-Wengert, Augsburg Press, 2000, p. 351.