I recently re-read “On Liturgical Theology,” by Aiden Kavanagh, a noted Catholic liturgical theologian. I’m sure I thought about it back when I read it, but I enjoyed his main point just as much the second time around. His basic thrust is that all of the discussion we do about theology is secondary to the liturgical activity itself. An in-depth discussion about communion is useful and important, but it is no substitute to the actual celebration of the Lord’s Supper where we come face to face with our gracious and merciful God.
This idea had been floating around in my head for a bit when I went back to do some further study and led me to revisit the situation St. Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians 11. Reading the passage, divisions are clearly a big problem in the Corinthian church. You have many members mistreating the precious gift God had given them. This is not some common meal, but a meal shared with God Himself.
St. Paul seeks to rectify that problem by directing them to fully realize the magnitude of the gift they’ve been given. “Discerning the body…” is something so important and so necessary that doing it improperly can mean death. If this truly is the gracious gift of God, then trusting that He is at work through the bread and wine is a requirement for that grace to reach its goal. Luther expresses repeatedly how faith in Christ’s promise that His Body and Blood are truly present for the forgiveness of sins is what constitutes eating worthily. We participate in the Body and Blood of Christ, as he says in 1 Corinthians 10.
However, the context also presents a further nuance. In 1 Corinthians 12, St. Paul uses “the Body” to refer not to the presence of Christ in the meal but to the people who constitute the church. Since division is the ultimate issue he is speaking out against in chapter 11, both meanings are valid. A Christian must understand he is receiving the gracious gift of Christ’s Body and Blood, but also that he is not celebrating this meal in a vacuum. He shares the meal with everyone else who comes by the Lord’s invitation to the table. Beyond any other act, the Lord’s Supper is what brings Christians together to make them into the Body of Christ.
But, St. Paul also mentions proclamation as part of the meal. This is where Kavanagh’s notion of theology comes into play. The very act of celebrating the meal is a public declaration by those gathered as to who God is and what He doing. Missouri Synod congregations have as standard in their constitutions that they hold the Holy Scriptures to be the inspired Word of God and the only rule and norm for Christian faith and life, and that the three Ecumenical Creeds, and the Lutheran Confessions are true expositions of God’s Word. That is a proclamation made by the Church in that place as it gathers in worship around Word and Sacrament. It isn’t simply a matter of accepting the truth of Christ’s presence in the meal, but joining in with the whole body of teaching and belief espoused by this congregation. Anyone who does not mesh with the Body of Christ in this place is introducing divisions into the meal, which goes right back to why St. Paul brings up the issue to begin with.
I think of the example of “A Mighty Fortress.” In the Lutheran Service Book there are two arrangements of the hymn: Luther’s traditional arrangement and Bach’s newer version. Both are essentially the same hymn, but the words are slightly different and the flow of the melody is slightly different. If you’ve grown up knowing Bach’s version and come to a place that sings Luther’s original, then trying to sing your version while everyone else is singing Luther’s version creates dissonance ruins the song both for you and for everyone around you. This is why, even when an individual who asserts that Christ is present in the meal for the forgiveness of sins, as a Catholic might, and comes into a Lutheran church (or vice versa) they don’t commune. The proclamation of the church in that place is different and creating a division in the meal is antithetical to the purpose of the meal.
The current issue I’m mulling over is to how to make that proclamation more explicit and help Christians understand that this meal extends far beyond the individual, even to the point of making individuals into one Body.