Thursday, July 15, 2010

"The Western Rite" - Deutschlander - Part 3

(from Prof. Em. Daniel M. Deutschlander’s essay, “The Western Rite: Its Development and Rich History and Its Relevance for Our Worship Life Today.”)

CONFESSION - (cont.)

I have spent so great a part of the time allotted me on the Confession because it is so pivotal to everything that follows. The Confession is generally missing altogether in sectarian worship. It is missing because the Arminians deny original sin. It is missing in much of Calvinist worship because, while acknowledging the total depravity of man, the need to lament it is obviated by once saved, always saved, or perhaps by the so-called double predestination which leaves God responsible for the damnation of the lost. But for us Confession is crucial because of the seriousness of sin. It is crucial because of our innate resistance to admitting our own desperate and constant, our total and absolute need of grace. It is crucial because without it there will be no real appreciation of the gospel whose promise lured us into making confession and whose absolution will relieve us of the dread burden born by Christ for us on the cross. If you are not convinced of the pivotal nature of confession, read Romans 7 and Ephesians 2. Find yourself in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, in the prayer of the publican in the Temple. Consider again Luther’s description of our need in his explanation to the Second and Third Articles of the Creed in his Small Catechism, in which he piles up terms that describe us in the totality of our need, so that we may see the more joyfully Christ, the answer to our need, our sin, our despair. Read his Heidelberg Disputations, and then read it a second time — in all likelihood you will not be able to wrap your mind around the weighty points he makes there in one reading. Read Art. I and II of the Formula of Concord. The very first thing that is wrong with much that passes for modern worship is the lack of Confession. To omit Confession is to pander to the Methodist in all of us. To omit Confession is to diminish and trivialize not only Law but ultimately and much more importantly the Gospel. For if I have no need, the solution to my need will seem unimportant. Jesus said the same thing to the Pharisees who objected to the time he spent with sinners: Those who do not know that they are sick have little use or appreciation for the physician (Matt. 9:12-13). In place of both Law and Gospel will come usually a trite presentation of the Third Use of the Law, moralizing, legalism.

While minor liturgies of Matins and Vespers do not contain a formal confession of sins, they do to some extent assume its part in the Haupt Gottesdienst by their opening responses: O Lord, open my lips. And my mouth shall declare your praise. Especially in the second set of responses they proclaim in prayer our desperate need: Hasten to save me, O God. O Lord, come quickly to help me.

Historically this vital part of the Lutheran worship service is of late origin. In the liturgy of the Roman Mass the confession really is supposed to be the priest’s own private prayer before the actual liturgy begins. As the Mass is today and as the Anglican Communion observes the Western Rite, neither have the crucial lines by nature sinful and unclean. For reasons already noted, this entire introduction to the worship service is missing altogether in most, if not in all, sectarian services. But during the Reformation Luther and Melanchthon and even more the second generation of Lutherans had to consider that private confession was no longer mandatory and with the passing of time less and less used — and that in spite of Luther’s frequent and fulsome praise of private absolution.

In German Lutheran worship services the Confession became standard by the end of the 16th century. The Confession was spoken in front of the steps of the altar, and the pastor did not go up to the altar until the Confession and Absolution were completed, in order to emphasize that worship needed cleansed souls as a prerequisite of acceptable worship. So important was the Confession that in many places also in this country there was a special Beicht Gottesdienst either the night before a Communion Service or earlier in the morning before the Haupt Gottesdienst, if that was to be a service with the Sacrament.

In our current hymnal there follows the Kyrie. One can argue about the placing of the Kyrie here as the concluding part of Confession. It has moved around over the centuries. In our former hymnal it was not part of Confession but came after Absolution and marked the formal beginning of the Ordinary. It was not a cry for forgiveness. Rather it was an acknowledgment of our total need of and dependence on God’s mercy and grace for all the sorts and conditions of men, for all of our other spiritual and temporal needs.

Its place in other settings of the Liturgy, however, did consider the Kyrie a cry for pardon. Bach seems to see that as its role in his great B Minor Mass. It fits in either place. My own thinking about it has changed over the years. If one leaves prayers for spiritual and temporal blessings to the end of the service in the muted litanies of the General Prayer, then I suppose it is best to leave the Kyrie where we have it now. When it was after the Absolution in the former hymnal, most people thought it redundant to Confession. We didn’t explain it to them. And besides that, the Kyrie in earlier years was really the congregational response to a longer litany for all the sorts and conditions of church and state, house and field.

Now comes the part of the service where, if the holy angels were capable of envy, they would envy us pastors for what we have drawn God’s people to do and for what we are about to say to them in answer to their confession. But the holy angels are not capable of envy. Instead what a racket they must make of praise to God and loud hallelujahs. For they have been watching. They have been listening with greatest intent and interest. And now, if there is joy in the presence of the angels at one sinner who repents, how great must their joy be at all the people of God assembled in this place pouring out their confession to God and trusting in the merit of his Son for their forgiveness! For now we shall see fulfilled the promise of Jesus that “he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).

The lines are so clean and clear, so simple. A mere man, yes himself a sinner, hiding under a robe rises to stand in the place of God and to declare with God’s full authority behind him, the cross towering above him, As a called servant of Christ and by his authority, I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. There it is! The whole definition of the holy office of the ministry: The servant of Christ in the midst of the people of God. He has been sent by Christ through those he serves to do this one great thing: To forgive, forgive, forgive the sins of the penitent. In spirit they are on their knees or prostrate before the altar. And now, now with simple words spoken by a sinful man, they are raised up to the heights of heaven. For Christ has won their pardon! See, here I declare it to you, not by virtue of my merit or yours, but by virtue of my office backed up by Christ’s promise and by his all sufficient merit. See, here I proclaim it to you as the one sent from the heart of God to you; I proclaim it in the name of him whose house you are visiting; I proclaim it in the name of him who has become your Savior-brother; I proclaim it in the name of him who breathes the words that I am speaking! The whole of the undivided, eternal, holy Trinity agrees with himself in the matter. Fully, freely, eagerly, willingly he forgives. See, his Word declares it; his cross has won it; and God is not a man that he should lie or his Word deceive!

I’ve often thought that a great sigh of relief goes up from the hearts of many among those confessing; it goes up to the throne of God at those words of Absolution. My own thought and prayer every time I hear those words is: Can it really be so? You have not yet become bored with my confession or disgusted by it and me? Yes, it is true! You have put the words on the lips of your pastor. He said it because you have said it.

So the redeemed people of God respond with Amen! That’s a confession of faith and a prayer at the same time. It is addressed to God who is speaking behind the pastor and through his words. Amen — It is true, O God, what your pastor has said, and I believe it because your Word has the power not only to wash away and wipe out my sin so great and deep; it has even the power to bring me to trust that you do truly forgive, forgive, forgive. And so I say, Amen!

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