Administration of the Sacrament
Welcome to session 02 of our workshop covering the Sacrament of the Altar. The focus of this workshop to remind ourselves of what the Scriptures teach and what we, as Lutherans, believe about the Lord’s Supper. It’s my opinion and, I think, the Lutheran one, that what we believe should be reflected in how we act/practice our faith. But, as a reminder, what do we believe about the Lord’s Supper; what is it? We believe that the Lord’s Supper is Christ’s true, real, and very body and blood. The same body which was broken for us and the blood which was shed for us on the cross are given to us beneath the forms of bread and wine. We commonly use the phrase, “in, with, and under the bread and wine,” to describe how, though we see with our eyes only bread and wine, yet our Lord says, “This is My body, this is My blood.” By the power of His Word, Christ joins Himself to the earthly elements. This is called the Sacramental Union.
For what purpose does our Lord give us this meal? We confess each week in the Post-Communion Collect that it is for the forgiveness of our sins, the strengthening of our faith, and the increase of our love – both for God and each other. Or, as the Catechism says, the Supper is for the forgiveness of our sins, life, and salvation. We receive these good things not simply by eating and drinking, but by faith in Christ’s Word, along with the eating and drinking. When we eat and drink trusting in Christ and desiring what He gives to us here, we receive exactly what He says, “forgiveness of sins.” In short, the Lord’s Supper is Christ’s body and blood for us, for the forgiveness of our sins. Last week we learned some Latin, a phrase: lex orandi lex credendi. Loosely translated: how you worship reflects how and what you believe. Our faith should have a bearing on and be reflected in how we receive the Lord’s Supper. But, how do we receive it?
Let’s start with the basics and work our way on up. When it comes down to it, what do we need in order to have a celebration of the Lord’s Supper – from a physical perspective? We need the elements, don’t we? St. Augustine said that a Sacrament has an earthly element and a heavenly one. In Baptism, the earthly element is water and the heavenly is Christ’s Word. Without water, you don’t have Baptism; right? In a similar way, there is an earthly element to the Lord’s Supper. Or, maybe we should say, elements. In Baptism, Christ joins His Word to water. In the Lord’s Supper, what does He join His Word to? Bread and wine. In the most basic sense, in order to have the Lord’s Supper we need bread and wine. These are the elements. That’s the technical term. There will be a test.
I realize that this can be a topic of some contention at this point. In various quarters of the Church, certain innovations have taken place that have seen different elements being used or substituted or removed. Well, we call it the Lord’s Supper because it is His Supper. It’s His to change or not; we simply receive. Our Lord’s Evangelists and Apostles are clear and in agreement that our Lord, on the night He was betrayed took bread and He took wine. Now, within these categories there is some acceptable latitude. For example, we do not know what sort of bread our Lord had available to Him at the Last Supper. The Last Supper was a Passover meal, so it is possible that it was unleavened bread – but the Gospel doesn’t explicitly say. Our congregations do use what are called hosts – which are little unleavened disks of bread. Other congregations do things differently. In the Orthodox Church they use leavened bread almost exclusively, and many bake the loaves themselves on Saturdays. Some church bodies allow for rice-based bread. Here we may err on the side of grace. But the Word says and what Christ used is bread and, hence, what we should use, is bread.
Since the setting of the Lord’s Supper was in the context of a Passover meal, what was in our Lord’s cup was wine. He Himself said, “fruit of the vine,” which is another way of saying wine. We could delve into the historical reasons why alcoholic drinks were consumed more frequently than water, but that would push us beyond our time limits. We might also note that what we know as grape juice simply didn’t exist in our Lord’s time, therefore it would not have been available to Him at the Last Supper. Just as we have some freedom over what sort of bread is served – since the Scriptures don’t specify – so we also have freedom with the wine. It should be wine, but there is freedom in whether it’s red, white, or rose. Congregations that offer substitutes for wine – even with good intentions – do depart from our Lord’s institution. Where we depart from our Lord’s institution, there uncertainty reigns. Jesus doesn’t want us to be unsure of whether we’re forgiven, but to be joyfully confident.
Out from the elements, which are the most basic items needed for the Lord’s Supper and, alone, are necessary (without them it isn’t the Supper), the next most basic items are the things the elements are in. At home we put our bread on plates and wine in glasses; same with the elements of the Lord’s Supper. Let’s start with the bread. Present in most Lutheran congregations is an item called the paten. Paten is Latin for “plate,” and it is the plate used in the distribution of the Sacrament. There are a few variations on the paten. In some congregations, the paten is simply a plate. In other congregations, the plate will have a deeper portion in the center which also serves as a storage vessel for the hosts. This is common, especially, where there may be large numbers communing at one time. In congregations where the paten is simply a plate, it will usually be accompanied by either a ciborium or a pyx. At St. John’s we use a ciborium, which looks like a chalice but holds the hosts. The ciborium is also used to distribute from. If a congregation doesn’t have a ciborium, it may have a pyx which is a small, round box for housing the hosts. The celebrant takes hosts from the pyx and places them on the paten for the distribution. So, we have three items for housing the hosts: the paten, the ciborium, or the pyx. What about the wine?
In many congregations, upon the altar you’ll find a large metal container. This container is most often made of sterling silver or maybe gold, and is called the flagon. The flagon holds the wine before it is poured into a vessel for the distribution. In some congregations, you may find that, instead of a metal container, there is a glass one. The glass container for holding wine is called a cruet. Where there is a cruet, there may be a second one holding water. In some areas, it is traditional to mix a little water into the wine. The water cruet may also be used for the celebrant to wash his hands. From the flagon, wine is poured into another metal item, the chalice. This is otherwise known as the “common cup.” In Church history, these have almost always been metal and, often, of precious metal. Besides the common cup, most congregations – if not all – have available what are called individual cups. They are carried around in metal trays. Often the cups themselves are made of plastic, but they are also available (preferably) in glass or, even, as miniature chalices.
These are the items for the celebration and distribution of the Lord’s Supper. Among Christian congregations, you will find various shapes, sizes, and materials, but most congregations have and use these same things. One item that we have at St. John’s that is becoming less frequent is a spoon with holes in it. This is used in the event something should fall into chalice. In Eastern Orthodox church bodies, they practice infant communion, and the spoon is also used for that. One last item, which you may see at a Roman Catholic Church or perhaps an ELCA congregation, is silver or glass bowl called the lavabo. This is used by the celebrant to wash his hands before continuing with the service of the Sacrament. All of these things are placed on or near the altar in the fashion we’ll learn next week.