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.