adoration, Confessions, Eucharist

Frank Answers About Eucharistic Adoration

Question: Could you say something of Eucharistic Adoration or Solemn Benediction geared towards a Lutheran who finds  a connection to Christ in these practices and wants to be faithful to the Confessions?

Answer: Eucharistic adoration in general and Solemn Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament in particular is a devotion that emerged in the mid-to-late Middle Ages as a form of “ocular communion.”

To summarize a development that occurred over centuries: the dogma of transubstantiation promulgated by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 shored up the belief in the real presence of Christ that was solidly rooted in lay religion. At the words spoken by the priest, “This is my body” (over the bread) and “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (over the chalice of wine), the “substances” (essence) of bread and wine changed into body and blood, leaving the “accidents” (appearances) of bread and wine unchanged. The laity, who were often separated from the high altar by a rood screen in medieval churches and were no longer receiving communion frequently, wanted to see the host at the “moment of consecration.” This prompted the elevation of the host and of the chalice at these words of Christ. The attention of the laity to this “moment” was summoned by the ringing of the Sanctus bells (so-called because the choir was singing the Sanctus while the priest recited the Canon quietly and the words of the priest “This is my body” usually coincided when the choir got to “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”). The elevation of the host became the most popular moment in the late medieval Mass. People looked at the sacrament  but no longer consumed it except, by requirement, once a year at Easter. Ocular communion was an expression of faith in the words of Christ that what they were gazing at was what Christ’s words said: his body.

Following a practice of long standing, the consecrated elements were “reserved” for the communion of the sick and dying. When the sacrament was taken to the house of the sick and dying, there was a little procession with the priest and a server or two who carried torches and rang a little bell. People along the way genuflected in adoration of the real presence of Christ in the sacrament as the procession passed by. It became simply an extension of this ritual practice to form a very long procession involving much of the town accompanying the host on the Feast of Corpus Christi as it was paraded through the town.

By the sixteenth century the custom had emerged of “exposing” the reserved consecrated host after Vespers on Sundays for the faithful to receive the spiritual blessing of gazing on the host and meditating on the body of Christ. This Solemn Benediction or blessing with the reserved sacrament was tied in with Corpus Christi, as is evident in the use of the Tantum ergo stanza (“Therefore we before it bending this great sacrament revere”) of Thomas Aquinas’s Corpus Christi hymn, which was also sung at the stripping of the altar at the end of the Maundy Thursday liturgy when the sacramental elements were carried in procession to an altar of repose, at which the faithful were invited to keep vigil. Solemn Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament became a principal popular devotion of Baroque Catholicism in the seventeenth century. Enormous tabernacles were erected on the altars as throne chambers for Christ the King.

In response to these practices, the Lutheran Formula of Concord (1577) proposed the principle, “nothing has the character of a sacrament apart from the use (usus) instituted by Christ or the divinely instituted action” (actio) (Solid Declaration, Article VII). It goes on to specify that

The usus or actio (that is, the practice or administration) does not refer primarily to faith or to the oral partaking, but to the entire external, visible administration of the Supper, as Christ established the administration of the Supper: the consecration, or Words of Institution, and the distribution and reception or oral partaking of the consecrated bread and wine, Christ’s body and blood. Apart from this practice it is not to be regarded as a sacrament—for example, when in the papistic Mass the bread is not distributed but is made into a sacrifice, or enclosed [e.g., in a tabernacle—a new device for reservation gaining popularity after the Council of Trent], or carried about in a procession, or displayed for adoration” (Book of Concord, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, p. 608).

The true use of the Eucharist is to proclaim the Words of Institution and to eat and drink the consecrated elements…within the Eucharistic liturgy. There doesn’t seem to be much wiggle room for adoration. Yet because of the strong affirmation of the real presence in the Lutheran Confessions, the attitude of adoration is hard to resist. So the Formula later says:

…we reject the teaching that the elements (the visible species, or form, of the consecrated bread and wine) should be adored. Of course, no one—except an Arian heretic—can or will deny that Christ himself, true God and truly human, who is truly and essentially present in the Supper when properly used, should be adored in spirit and truth in all other places, but especially where his community is assembled” (Book of Concord, p. 615).

So, yes, there is some wiggle room for adoration. For this reason it was considered appropriate for Lutherans to kneel when receiving communion; and since Luther was of the strong opinion that the consecrated elements should not be mixed with the unconsecrated, they would need to be stored in a separate place (such as in an ambry—a box in the wall of the sanctuary) for use in the communion of the sick and the dying or to be added to the elements freshly consecrated in a subsequent celebration of the Eucharist for distribution. Adoration just for the purpose of gazing at the host? Probably not. But in terms of connecting with Christ himself, truly present in the bread and wine, how much better to receive the body of Christ into one’s own body and thus to be united body and soul with Christ himself! There’s plenty of opportunity to meditate on Christ’s institution and the gift of communion before and after receiving the body and blood of Christ, even on bended knees.

Consecrated elements should be reverently disposed of after the celebration or taken to the sick in an extended distribution. Luther himself did not accept a practice in which the elements that had been consecrated at the celebration would be mixed with unconsecrated elements. He apparently did not believe that the presence of Christ in, with, and under the bread and wine evaporates after the celebration, and neither do I. However, a practice like Solemn Benediction is not likely to become a Lutheran practice because looking at the sacrament rather than consuming it is not the use for which Christ instituted it. But if I were in a Catholic Church and a priest exposed the sacrament, I would genuflect along with the rest of the faithful.

Pastor Frank Senn

Luther and Hus administering Holy Communion in this 16th century woodcut.


  1. bob rainis

    Very well said…thank you !……

  2. Keith Fry

    Frank, just within the past few weeks, as I was preparing a presentation on Eucharist for our joint Lutheran-Catholic commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I came across a fascinating letter from Martin Luther addressed to the Waldensians in which he addressed the question of Eucharistic adoration. I was particularly struck by the connections with your recent thoughts on embodied prayer, because he’s pretty explicit about that, and how it might be an entirely permissible form of praying. Here’s a link to excerpts:



    • Comment by post author

      Thanks for sharing this, Keith. It is a wonderful example of Luther’s dialectical theology—striving for the unity of the inward and the outward—and his approach to worship in a spirit of evangelical freedom—free to perform outward acts or not perform them.

  3. Ken Ely

    Because you mention ‘transubstantiation’ in this particular forum, I will make my comment here.

    At the words spoken by the priest, “This is my body” (over the bread) and “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (over the chalice of wine), the “substances” (essence) of bread and wine changed into body and blood, leaving the “accidents” (appearances) of bread and wine unchanged.

    I was raised in the Episcopal Church. We were taught that ‘consubstantiation’ occurred when those words were spoken. This meant that the ‘substances’ of the bread and wine remained the substances of bread and wine but that they were infused with and occupied by greater ‘substances,’ those of Jesus’ Body and Blood. Hence, they looked to outward appearances like they were still bread and wine because they were; but they also, not to outward appearances, were the Body and Blood of Jesus.

    Both doctrines may have eschatological significance but not to me. I can go with either. My difficulty is with churches and people (my own, specifically) that celebrate Communion in memoriam. Certainly, Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of Me.” In Memoriam is a term that historically speaks to the dead, since Roman times. I don’t think that, when Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of Me,” He meant, “Do this (after I’m dead) recalling the death I died for you.” I believe He wanted his once-for-all death commemorated in the context that He suffered it, but also in the confidence that He Lives, as well.

    He also said, “This is My Body,” and, “This is My Blood.” He did not say, “This bread will remind you of My broken Body”, and He did not say, “This cup will remind you of My shed Blood”.

    But, my church goes along every other week celebrating Communion in memoriam. And it bugs the hell out of me. My wife does not know why it bothers me. Her argument is that Jesus is alive, He did go through death, and we celebrate Communion to remember that death, His ultimate sacrifice by which we are saved. We celebrate His death and our salvation together, in a symbolic meal that has all the ‘importances’ you sited in your post. She does not understand my dissatisfaction and asks me why in memoriam bothers me.

    I am having a hard time formulating my answer to her. But I’m working on it. Perhaps you have a perspective that might help.

    • Comment by post author

      Ken, the memorialist view of the Eucharist espoused as a default position by most Protestants other than Episcopalians and Lutherans comes from the Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli. It is predicated on the belief that the body of Christ is in heaven at the right hand of God the Father, and therefore is not present on the earthly altar. Behind this is the rationalist view that a body cannot be in two places at the same time. So the command of Christ, “Do this in remembrance of me,” can only mean remembering a past event by reenacting it. This would be “remembrance” as “mimesis”—imitation.

      However, the Greek word “remembrance” in Christ’s command is “anamnesis.” It suggests reactualization in the sense of making present again. By virtue of the words of Christ proclaimed over the bread and wine, the bread and win become the bearers of the body and blood of Christ (however you want to understand that metaphysically). The sacramental union that takes place is not only between the bread and wine and body and blood, but also between the sacramental body and the body of the communicant. We receive the bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ into our very biochemistry. Since other communicants receive the same elements, the whole eucharistic assembly (the church present) becomes the corporate body of Christ. The Christ who is present is the crucified, risen, and ascended One who promises to come again. The memorial acclamation recited within many eucharistic prayers says, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” He is the Christ who lived and died, the Christ who rose from the dead and lives and reigns now in heaven, and the Christ who will come again to judge the living and the dead, and who comes now in this sacramental meal. I hope this helps. These are ideas I explore in my book, Eucharistic Body (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017).

  4. Ken Ely

    That does help, Thank you.
    I will order your book!

  5. Ken Ely

    I told my pastor about your book, that I was going to order a copy of it based on what you said to me in this exchange, and asked if he would like a copy. He declined saying that his reading list was enormous and that he would likely not get to it for a long, long time.
    I countered that the ‘intention’ of the celebrant in our communion services was important to me and that I was not going to let the matter alone, that I had struggled with Eucharistic Ambiguity in this congregation for years under our previous pastor, and that I wanted him, this pastor, to be able to clearly make it understood just what his ‘consecration’ meant.
    He replied that, coming from a Lutheran background, he was more ‘in the line of consubstantiation’, which he understood, but that he did not place himself entirely in that camp. Neither did he place himself in the memorialist camp. To paraphrase him, ‘The bread and the wine are no longer ordinary when we bless them for communion but they’re not actually the Body and Blood of Jesus, they’re still bread and wine. The bread and wine become “special”, though.’ What ‘special’ meant was not stated because it appears to be undefined in his mind. It was for the former pastor, too.
    I told him that I didn’t think that we should be celebrating communions if we didn’t understand what we were doing. If we are going to have a memorialist communion, the celebrant should make that clear to everyone in the congregation; if we are going to have a ‘substantiation’ communion, the celebrant should so state that. I told him that, if I was ever asked to be the celebrant again (I used to be asked to do it occasionally), the communion would definitely be ‘consubstantiative’.
    Justin, the pastor, had made a comment in his sermon that morning to the effect that, in a mystical but very real, physical way, we were united by faith to Jesus in his physical death and his physical resurrection. I asked him why he couldn’t take the next step in faith, and logic, and admit that we were united to Jesus in His physical presence in the Communion. And I paraphrased for him your explanation to me of the rationale for Christ’s Presence in the Eucharist in the transformation of the elements to include His Body and Blood in consubstantiation.
    He asked me to copy your explanation to him and said that he might like to read your book when I was done with it but that I didn’t need to order him his own copy. I sent what you wrote to me to him. I will order him a book, anyway; otherwise, my copy, which I will want to refer to periodically, will not be available to me if I lend it to him.

    • David H

      Hey Ken, what a gift you are to your pastor. Thanks for caring about your faith and practice enough to raise it with him and follow it up.

      And thanks Frank for your helpful explanations.

      God bless you guys.

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