Sunday, August 25, 2013

That All Generations Shall Call the Altar-Guild Blessed

So over at Gottesdienst Online (Thursday August 22, 2013), the Rev. Father Burnell F.  Eckhart, Jr.  stoutly asserts  that the Altar Guild is “the most important group in a Christian congregation.   It is the first group to which any new pastor should pay attention. More important than the board of elders or trustees; even more important than the church council itself is the altar guild.”

At the risk of stirring the progeny of Karlstadt and Vehse to further deeds of historical mayhem, cowardly vigilantism and the counting-of-collars as something of real note, I am convinced that the good father is absolutely correct.  God’s Presence far transcends in importance the work of brushes, hot water boilers, ballots, and certainly of axes taken to church statues.  That Presence may be overlooked within the  modern Lutheran nave by the chatting, the latte-swilling, the snoring and the spiritually arthritic in this our Age of Grace; but this does not in any way negate the Reality of Emmanu-El desiring to come to His sanctuary.  Those who recognize such Reality are blessed beyond measure.  And so, the Lutheran pastors are and will be blessed to help the layfolk to open their eyes and see the Reality there on the Altar; to come to revere, adore and love the Presence who has given us His all, for the forgiveness of our sins and our salvation.   
The duties of the Altar Guild predate the dawn of the Christian Pentecost and a subsequent Voters' Assembly; such Guild’s inspiration and guide were in evidence at the stark foot of the cross on Good Friday, and on early Easter morn (Jn 19:38-42; Mark 16:1-4).  
Often taken for granted as but a kind of "mop-up" expeditionary force, the Altar Guild is a grand thing.  The important task of looking after the saving body and blood of our Lord has kindled a courage and love in men and women to confront the butcher Pilate over a spent and wearied Body; to cradle, cleanse and incense the battered Lord’s Presence, and to focus on Him so very intently that a large stone blockading the sepulcher … not to mention that burly Roman squadron on active duty … was but a forgotten meme, for a while.
If today's Lutherans are actually true to their so easily voiced beliefs, then the fair linens, the Corpora and the Pall must not be taken lightly … for Lord Christ Himself did not do so.  In Mt 23:20ff, He identifies the Altar and “all things thereon (Authorized Version)” with the very God of very God.   Physical materials which touched the body of our Lord could heal; and indeed, many with divers diseases importuned the Christ to simply clutch His garments, for their relief.  Rest assured, this is not the stuff of medieval legend or popish superstition; for inspired Scripture goes on to relate that “and as many as touched [the hem] were made perfectly whole” (Mt 14:38).
The Altar Guild deals with holy things, the touching things which are no more profane than the “handkerchiefs or aprons” secured from the body of St. Paul; the touching things which the cloud of witnesses says dispelled disease and cast out demons (Acts 19:12).  There is, of course, no guarantee that the fair linens will render physical cures to suffering Lutherans.   Scripture is abundantly clear that “God wrought special miracles by the hands of Paul” (Acts 19:12; Authorized Version), through means of his servant's humble apparel.  Special miracles, please note here … events soaring far beyond what was already beyond ordinary expectations.  We beggarly rascals have no right to order God's will to meet our fancies.
It is enough then, perhaps, that the local Altar Guild comes to fully treasure as holy what God Himself treasures … what Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary the mother of James treasured … to honor our gracious Father, through the honoring of His Son’s crucified Presence, so that we His people and Church may live long on this earth. 
And most especially miraculous, to live and commune in that new heaven and new earth which is to come; and to exist perfectly whole and fully embodied throughout all of eternity with our God face-to-face, as Promised.    

Saturday, August 17, 2013

A Synoptic Docs-ology

Gary Ferngren, in his fascinating book Medicine & Health Care in Early Christianity (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009; 246 pages), points out that the ancient Church was not at all adverse to a naturalistic understanding of disease causation, whether the ailment was of body or of mind.  Not every illness was attributed to demons (although demons there were, and are, to harass and combat the Incarnate One and the saving Kingdom of heaven come to earth).    In fact, as Ferngren documents, the compassionate, charitable and selfless Body of our Lord was exceedingly adept in competing with secular physicians inside the community at large ... and the latter guild of professionals, attempting to make a living from the medicinal arts, belly-ached plenty about it.

Perhaps it was the hole in his pockets, or that rust on the stethoscope, which made the arch-critic Celsus especially bitter towards the rising tide of Christianity. 

But God is always gracious, understanding and seemingly bemused towards His creatures.  And He's not above a gentle nudge in the ribs, or all-Fatherly or all-knowing "wink-wink," towards those of high degree. 

Consider the narrative of the woman with a distressing hemorrhage (a case, perhaps, of fulminating menorrhagia?) of 12 years duration, as related to us in the blessed Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke.  The woman was healed of her torment through a faithful encounter with the Lord's hem, as He winds His way to wrest Jairus' daughter from Death's cold grip.

St. Matthew, who knew his way around those earthly accounts with a bottom line, is business-like to the point of brusqueness.   He expends three verses in stating the bare facts:  Jesus heals a woman of a bloody disease, of chronic condition (Mt 9:20-22).  As they say in the waiting room, in a similar nod to terseness:  "Next."

St. Luke, the beloved clinician, is much more detailed than the former tax-collector (Lk 8:43-48), but with the demeanor of one chagrined and  stately apologetic.  The evangelist  acknowledges (v. 43; Authorized Version) that the poor dear "spent all her living upon physicians, but could not be healed by any."  I don't know.  There's probably a reason why, according to tradition, St. Luke is also said to have taken up art as a vocation. You can almost hear him advising the green interns and residents:  "The patient's Prozac may disappoint, fellows; but the palette's red ochre ... like the blood of Jesus ... never will!"

St. Mark's Gospel, some claim, was dictated to the younger man by St. Peter himself; and indeed, it has a certain excited, breathless and quick-moving character to it ... as if the words were issued moments before a martyr's execution.   Here, though, the reportage (Mk 5:25-34) is noteworthy for its extraordinary thoroughness, and it is altogether revealing to the bone:  The woman, we learn (v. 26; Authorized Version), "had suffered many things under many physicians,  and had spent all that she had and was no better, but rather grew worse." 

Grew ... "worse?" 

Speaking as a doctor to all doctors ... including Hippocrates, Galen and the contrarian Celsus ... all I can say is "Stick out your tongues and say 'Ouch;' and then as you kneel,  'Jesus is Lord'!" 

Your (unworthy) servant,
Herr Doktor

Friday, August 9, 2013

Polycarp: Old Hero for Young Christians

By Rev. Larry Beane

I have just ordered a copy of Polycarp: The Crown of Fire, a highly rated book aimed at young people about St. Polycarp.

It is fast-moving historical fiction, and is part of the "torchbearers" series, "Biographies of brave Christian men and women who suffered and even died as martyrs for the cause of Christ and the gospel. Ideal for ages 8-12 to read, or to read aloud to ages 5-7."  They come highly recommended by homeschoolers.

If the book lives up to its reputation, I'm looking forward to reading it to my eight-year old son.

Children need heroes and role models - and not just one more pampered millionaire athlete/felon who can throw a ball and trash-talk.  We need real heroes, real Article 21 heroes, for as we confess, our churches "teach that the memory of saints may be set before us, that we may follow their faith and good works, according to our calling."

St. Polycarp remains a pivotal figure for today, one of the last links to the holy apostles, one of Christendom's first martyrs, one of the apostolic fathers whose writings resonate with the Holy Scriptures that dripped liberally from his pen and preaching.

A teaser from Amazon:

Polycarp, anxiously waited until the sound of marching footsteps faded away. The Praetorian guard were on the move - ready to pounce on Christians or any other 'revolutionaries' that they might find. Papais is ready with his sword but Polycarp has another course in mind. These are the days when the catacombs are the dark shadowy refuges of the Christians and the amphitheatre is the sound of death to the believer. Polycarp though is one of the church leaders called on to give his life for Christ and his Kingdom...and this is something he counts as an honor. To gain the Crown of Fire he must be willing to suffer for Christ. But will his courage hold? Will he give in to the struggle? Accompany Polycarp and his companions as they face up to the Roman enemy and yet still pass on the legacy of truth. The golden chain around Polycarp's neck is a link to the past in more ways than one...the truth with it will be passed onto future generations. To people like you. Included in the book are a time line and further facts about the early church.
I look forward to receiving this retelling of the story of our blessed patron and holy father in the faith.

Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Prehistoric Psychopathology and Its Cure

If there ever was a "spark of goodness" lurking inside a now fatally abscessed and fallen nature of man, it really should have kindled up and come to the fore during the Garden crisis, in an hour of extreme need.  But the Scriptural narrative is crystal clear about it.  There was no spark, beyond that of the crackling motor neurons which triggered a panicked leap into the bushes.

Too bad for man.  Our gracious Lord God, after all, extended an unmerited mercy to the arrogant murderer Cain, when the rascal pathetically whined about his suddenly becoming stalker's meat (Gen 4:13,15).  So who's to say what would have happened, had Adam and Eve simply bent the knee and whispered:  "Against You, You only have I sinned and done evil in Your sight ... Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me (Nota bene:  I deduce here from the tip of St. David's own pen, that he diagnosed that "spark" thing as having gone kaput, with a single bite).  Cast me not away from Your Presence, and take not Your Holy Spirit from me.  Restore to me the Joy of Your Salvation, and uphold me with a willing Spirit." 

Curiously, in sharp contrast to brat Cain, our first parents made no tantrum about their own punishments being altogether tougher than they could possibly bear.  And we're talking a strong dose of reality here:  birthing with pain, pestiferous weeds, sweating sorrows, and an ignominious return to dust ... not some hallucinated victimhood, at the hands of bounty hunters.   Instead, the first couple's  psychological and behavioral instincts were to flee and hide from the Spark (of better, the Light) of Holiness; and in the special case of the Old Man, the floundering leader of the one-flesh unit, to slime God for creating something (i.e., Adam's wife, and a relationship), which had been earlier described  as "good" (Gen 1:31; cf. Gen 2:18) .

So what stopped any self-serving, impulsively kicking ruckus by the 'One-Flesh?'  Ah, well, not the lack of ability, certainly; for Cain's sparkless antics duly establish the heritability of stinking, deeply ingrained and horribly metastasized sin ... embedded in a nature which our Brother, our Lord Jesus Christ, carried absolutely flawlessly for us (see the Book of Concord's just whipping of the Flacian baloney, for details).  Adam murdered his wife, with his cutting remarks; and Cain murdered his brother, maybe with a cutting hoe for all I know.  Like son, like father.  And the latter could whine; this we know, along the paraphrased lines of  "God, it's Your fault.  What'd I ever do, besides maybe take an innocent snooze and then eat some, to deserve this mortifying development?"  The difference from junior's attitude, of course, is that the Old Man is never portrayed by Moses as summing things up as  "AND I JUST CAN'T TAKE IT ANYMORE!" 

No.  I think Adam and Eve were spirit-calmed ... their pitiless demons cast out, like those of an agitated Gadarene... by the healing Promise of an Incarnate Rescuer-God (Gen 3:15), and the forgiving Divine gift of bloodied skins to cover their pock-marked nakedness (Gen 3:21).   For as Lutherans insist (or should), there's nothing like Word and Sacramental Mystery to sooth the savage soul.                   

Monday, August 5, 2013

Every Lord's Day and on the Other Festivals

"At the outset, we must again make this preliminary statement: we do not abolish the Mass, but religiously keep and defend it. Masses are celebrated among us every Lord's Day and on the other festivals" (AC XXIV:1). 

The observant reader of our Society's Rule will notice that the SSP is committed to promoting and encouraging both the weekly (every Lord's Day, i.e., every Sunday) celebration of the Sacrament of the Altar (Rule 4) and the observance and celebration of saints' days and commemorations (Rule 7), which is in line with what we Lutherans confess, as made clear in the quotation above.

As Dean of the SSP, I am engaged in several ongoing conversations with men who are interested in learning more about our Society. A question that keeps popping up within these conversations is: Are weekly Communion and the observance of saints' days prerequisites to joining the SSP?

No. These are not prerequisites. We have members who serve, or belong to, congregations that do not have either weekly Communion or observances of saints' days. Our Rule simply requires that our Society's members will promote and encourage these practices in their congregations. The expectation of our Society's members is that they will work toward restoring these practices, where they are not currently in place, through ongoing catechesis. We readily recognize that the restoration of these practices takes time and patience, varying from congregation to congregation, and so we do not place any time constraints upon our members to restore them, but simply trust that their voluntary commitment to our Rule means that they are promoting and encouraging these practices to the best of their ability and within whatever limitations their particular circumstances place upon them.   

Having hopefully clarified where our Society stands on this, I'd like to add that I do believe that the restoration of observing and celebrating saints' days and commemorations can be accomplished without much opposition by most Lutheran pastors inclined to restore such. Do note that I said, "most." There are certainly some congregations where this might invoke severe opposition, but, in most of our congregations, I doubt that pastors have much to fear in this regard. There is a huge difference between changing what happens every Sunday (e.g., restoring weekly Communion where that is not currently in place) and adding Services during the week to observe and celebrate saints' days. While the former will certainly bring many challenges and some degree of opposition, the latter can usually be done without the raising of too many eyebrows. Do note that I said, "usually."

My advice to my fellow Lutheran pastors who wish to begin observing and celebrating saints' days and commemorations is: Just do it. Well, actually, don't just do it. Let people know you're going to do it. Teach them why you're going to do it. Show them how all our hymnals contain sanctoral calendars, and how the expectation of our Confessions is that we will celebrate Mass "on the other festivals." Then, just do it.

Actually, I should add one more caveat to my "just do it" advice: Don't require anyone else in the congregation to participate in the planning or implementation of these additional Services. In other words, be prepared to unlock the doors, turn up the heat or A/C, prepare the altar, change the paraments, and conduct the Service sans organist or elders or ushers or acolytes, etc. It may be that some of your parishioners will voluntarily step forward and offer their assistance with these additional Services, but, if you are prepared to do everything yourself, no one will be able to argue that these additional Services are placing an additional burden upon members of the congregation.

I have experience with this. I added the regular observance and celebration of saints' days where I serve back in 2006, a little over a year after beginning my service here as pastor, and received no opposition or complaints about it. I did have a couple of parishioners question me about it, as they had never heard of Lutherans observing saints' days (sad, that), but I simply showed them pages x-xiii in our then-new Lutheran Service Book hymnals, which includes a nice summary of why Lutherans observe saints' days on p. xii, and they were fine with it. Besides those couple inquiries, I heard nothing else. The beauty of adding additional Services like this is that those who may be opposed to them, for whatever reason, simply don't have to attend them. These Services are not forced upon anyone, but are simply added for those who wish to receive our Lord's Gifts at them, in addition to their regular reception of His Gifts every Lord's Day.

Our observance of saints' days where I am blessed to serve has evolved over the years. For the first few years, we simply stuck to the list of Feasts and Festivals on p. xi of LSB, and observed them on their actual days. Over time, we began to add some of the Commemorations (pp. xii-xiii), and eventually we went to a regular Wednesday evening schedule for our observance of Feast Days, moving the closest Feast Days/Commemorations to each Wednesday evening, which may not be the liturgical ideal, but has provided a consistency that allows more of our parishioners to attend them. We still observe every Feast and Festival listed on the sanctoral calendar in LSB annually, using not only Wednesday evenings, but also Thursdays at Noon, after our regular weekly Bible Study, when there are more Feasts/Festivals in a month than Wednesdays. But, we have also observed other Feasts/Festivals beyond those listed in LSB, using the sanctoral calendar provided in Daily Divine Service Book: A Lutheran Daily Missal, edited by Fr. Heath Curtis, which I've found to be an invaluable resource, as it provides all the propers one needs for all the Feasts and Festivals found therein. It really is an awesome resource and, as a bonus, you can even design your own custom cover:

Anyway, I really do think that most Lutheran pastors would be pleasantly surprised by the lack of grief they might be worried about getting in beginning the observance and celebration of saints' days. But, again, do note that I said, "most."