It was 1985 and I was chatting with the pastor of Lutheran congregation located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The congregation he served had a long and once distinguished history but neighborhood change, Lutherans dying off with no replacements, and other factors had brought about a long, sad decline in the fortunes of both neighborhood and church. I was there to interview on becoming his successor. I had four children to that point, all towheaded. He called them “street bait.” That dampened things a bit.
In the 1970’s the church building had been condemned and the congregation, what was left of it, was worshiping in the rectory’s first floor. The pastor lived upstairs. The neighborhood then was noted mostly for drunks, drugs, street people, illiterates, and prostitution. For all that, they maintained an overnight shelter for the homeless, a daily lunch program, and they held mass—they called it mass—every day.
The pastor mentioned in passing that he always gave Holy Communion by placing the host on the communicant’s tongue. He never distributed Holy Communion in the hand. I thought this practice was kind of medieval and unprogressive. I said so. “Well,” he replied, “we had to do something. We found that some of our ‘visitors’ were palming the host, carrying it away, and profaning it in satanic rites
I tell this story because following a piece a short while back I got some private emails asking just what Lutherans did believe about the Sacrament. If you don’t mind, I’ll go into it here. Lutherans teach and confess, officially anyway, that the true body and blood of Jesus Christ is received in Holy Communion. What Lutherans (or Catholics, for that matter) individually may believe is one thing. What is formally taught is another. An amazing number Lutherans along with an amazing number of Catholics believe the bread and wine are at best symbolic of Christ. Yet we both teach the Real Presence. Some of us may not be certain exactly what that means or how deep it goes, but at least we say it is so in our catechisms, new member classes, and doctrinal statements.
But the reality of the Real Presence of Christ in Holy Communion has never struck me as vividly as on that New York street corner. Even if we sometimes find ourselves fudging on the Real Presence, the satanists around Ninth Street on the Lower East Side sure didn’t.
“Real Presence” is the term Lutherans use to describe the doctrine that says the body and blood of Jesus is received in Holy Communion. We describe the location of the Real Presence as being the bread and the wine. We say this presence is an “objective” presence. It is there because of Christ’s promise to us and not because of anything we do. Christ's presence does not depend upon what we feel or don’t feel. Christ is present in the Sacrament whether we believe it or feel it or not.
But isn’t communion bread and wine? Sure, you bet, said Martin Luther in his Large Catechism. But it is bread and wine, he stressed, “comprehended in God’s Word and connected with it.” [Emphasis added] “It is the Word which distinguishes [the meal] from mere bread and wine.” The Word creates the Sacrament that “is rightly called Christ’s body and blood.”
He was blunt about it, too. Even if a “knave” should administer it or receive it, “it is the true Sacrament—that is, Christ’s body and blood—just as truly as when one uses [the Sacrament] most worthily.”
By bread and wine the Word of God brings us into the presence of Christ. The liturgical actions of “taking,” “blessing,” “breaking,” “giving” are done in relation to this bread and this wine at this time among these people, all for the purpose of memorializing the Father for the remembrance of his Son, so that that the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice will become ours.
The Lutheran Confessions hold to an intimate union in describing the connection between bread and wine, body and blood by calling it a “Sacramental union.” The Word and the bread and the wine are so tightly entwined that the one becomes indistinguishable from the other. Lutherans carefully erect a fence around all this with terms like “true” body, “true” blood, “truly” received and eaten.
Just to pin the matter down, Lutherans have insisted upon two largely obscure Latin phrases to drive the point home. Manducatio impiorum (“impious eating”) emphasizes that even the ungodly and the non-believing receive Christ in Holy Communion. The other, manducatio oralis (“eating by mouth”) explains, somewhat graphically, how Christ is received by communicants. Lutherans of course didn’t invent these phrases. They have been used in the Church for centuries before to define exactly how real the Real Presence is, and in those terms it’s a real as reality.
Thirty-plus years of inter-church dialogue on the doctrine of Holy Communion, however, pretty much has convinced me that no single vocabulary or conceptual framework is adequate to explain what is properly called “the Eucharistic Mystery.” Like Luther, in a pinch I could accept transubstantiation as a description of the mystery yet Lutherans generally prefer to say it is what it is and not fuss too much with the particulars of how God might care to bring it about.
That’s because the essential thing about the Lutheran view of the Real Presence is one of a dynamic between the Word and the elements. We don’t bother with how it becomes what it does, so terms like transubstantiation or consubstantiation do not finally fit our vocabulary. What does fit our lexicon is why God has done this, summarized in Luther’s Small Catechism:
Question: What benefits do we receive from this Sacrament?
Answer: The benefits are pointed out by the words, ‘given and shed for you for the remission of sins.’ These words assure us that in the Sacrament we receive forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.
If the Sacrament bestows what we say—forgiveness, life, and salvation—No wonder the satanists hate it so.
Russell E. Saltzman is the development pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Gothenburg, Nebraska. His previous On the Square articles can be found here.
The Small Catechism
Gallup Poll on Catholic lay views of Holy Communion
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