Saturday, August 3, 2013

Meeting the Saints at the Altar

As a pastor, sometimes it is a struggle to come up with the right words to say to someone who has suffered a loss in their lives, particularly the death of a loved one. In seminary and Clinical Pastoral Education ("CPE") we are trained (and rightfully so) to avoid resorting to trite sayings that do more harm than good ("God must have needed another angel in heaven" is just plain wrong for multiple reasons).   So, I know what not to say, but it is still difficult to know what I should say. 

A few months ago, I visited an elderly woman from my congregation whose husband died several years ago.  She shared with me that she was still having great difficulty dealing with losing him and living alone. So, the dilemma of what to say to someone in her situation arose once again. 

The purpose of my visit was to bring her communion, so I remembered something I had read once about how the Eucharist brings us together with the saints who have gone before us, so I mentioned to her that when she received communion that day, she would be joined with him. 

I didn't think much of the conversation afterwards, other than hoping that I didn't say the wrong thing.  Recently, when I visited her again to bring her communion, one of the first things she said was how she had appreciated those words and had thought about them since that first visit. 

So, that prompted me to look up where I had read about meeting the saints at the altar during communion, and I found what I was looking for in a book that is little known outside of "Evangelical Catholic" Lutherans (I still have mixed feelings about that label - called "The Presence - an Approach to Holy Communion." Recently reprinted by the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, the book is a gorgeous reflection on the Eucharist by a Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod pastor named Berthold Von Schenk, who was at the vanguard of the 20th century liturgical movement, as expressed within American Lutheranism.

This was the specific passage from the book that I was thinking of when I attempted to comfort her that day:

"We cannot divide the body of Christ.  The Church militant and the Church triumphant form one Church.  Nothing can separate the members of the Church, neither life nor death, nor powers, nor principalities.  At the altar we have fellowship with our risen and ascended Lord. But there is also a fellowship with all the members of the Church.  At the altar we join hands not only with the great saints in heaven, but also with all our loved ones who have passed within the veil, our faithful departed.


 We must come to a sense of the continuing presence of our loves ones, and we can do this if we realize the presence of our living Lord.  As we seek and find our risen Lord we shall also find our dear departed.  They are with Him, and we find the reality of their continued life through Him. The saints are a part of the Church.  We worship with them. They worship the risen Christ face to face, while we worship the same risen Christ under the veil of bread and wine at the altar.  At the Communion we are linked with heaven, with the Communion of Saints, with our loved ones. Here at the altar, focused to a point, we find our communion with the dead; for the altar is the closest meeting place between us and our Lord.  That place must be the place of closest meeting with our dead who are in His keeping.  The altar is the trysting place where we meet our beloved Lord.  It must, therefore, also be the trysting place where me meet our loved ones, for they are with the Lord."

And then, in a passage that would put a serious dent in the business of flower shops everywhere if his advice was followed, Von Schenk wrote:

"How pathetic it is to see men and women going out to the cemetery, kneeling at the mound, placing little sprays of flowers and wiping their tears from their eyes, and knowing nothing else.  How hopeless they look.  Oh, that we could take them by the hand, away from the grave, out through the cemetery gate, in through the door of the church, and up the nave to the very altar itself, and there put them in touch, not with the dead body of their loved one, but with the living soul who is with Christ at the altar. 

The Blessed Sacrament links us not merely to Bethlehem and Calvary, but to the whole world beyond the grave as well, for at the altar the infinite is shrined in the finite; heaven stoops down to earth; and the seen and the unseen are met."

(pp. 118-121 of the 2010 ALPB printing of "The Presence"). For more information about the book, including how to order it, go here:


  1. This is a beautiful and very Catholic meditation, not unlike the book The Lamb's Supper -- by Scott Hahn, a convert from Protestantism to Catholicism.

    Berthold Von Schenk writes: "We cannot divide the body of Christ. The Church militant and the Church triumphant form one Church."

    It seems that Von Schenk is assuming that the Body of Christ and the Church Militant (the Church on Earth) are the same thing. This is a pious thought, and it is true on one level, but as you and I can plainly see, although we are both part of the Body of Christ, we belong to different churches on Earth. As a pastor ordained in the ELCA -- and please correct me if I am mistaken -- because of recent changes, you have been ordained in the line of the priesthood of the Episcopal Church, the church that broke away from the Catholic Church because of the marital problems of King Henry VIII.

    It is not the will of Christ that we be separated on Earth. In Heaven the Church Triumphant is one. "Thy Kingdom come, on Earth as it is in Heaven."

    "I believe in One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, the Communion of Saints...." Apostolic Church.

  2. Von Schenk's writing on Communion is beautiful, isn't it? I have a feeling I'll be returning to that book many times in the future.

    I was ordained in 2010, and due to the full communion agreement between the ELCA and the Episcopalians in 2001, the bishop who ordained me would have apostolic succession from the Episcopal Church (and also, I believe, from the Church of Sweden).

    Henry VII is a favorite target of those who criticize the separate existence of the Church of England. I think the better historical argument is as follows: Henry VII's schism was a temporary schism borne out of politics and not out of deep theological disagreements - remember that he was declared a "defender of the faith" by the Pope due to being anti-Luther. That schism ended when England was reunited with Rome under his successor, Queen Mary. The permanent schism occurred later due to the so-called "Elizabeth Settlement" under Queen Elizabeth I, which confirmed the "via media" hybrid of Catholicism and Protestantism in the Church of England.

    In any event, in the early post-Vatican II dialogues between Lutherans and Catholics, significant agreement was reached regarding communion and apostolic succession (and tacitly endorsed by then-Cardinal Ratzinger in correspondence with a German Lutheran bishop) which could have been a huge step toward the type of reunion you seek. Events that have occurred since that time have sidetracked those developments. But, I agree, it is a goal toward which we must continue to work.

  3. I see now that for some reason I kept leaving out that last Roman numeral, I do know it was Henry VIII and not Henry VII.

  4. Agreed that we must continue to work for reconciliation.

    Henry VIII was declared "Defender of the Faith" in opposition to Luther during the time in his life when he was being guided by his dear friend, Sir Thomas More. The King later became obsessed with having a male heir -- and obsessed with sex and Anne Boleyn. Was his obsession from God or Satan? King Henry VIII had his friend, Thomas More, beheaded. Appalling. The people -- including More's wife -- were so fearful that they followed the King and split with the Catholic Church. There is no way to paint a happy face on the hundreds of years of bloody religious wars that followed. I don't know about the "hybrid" "via media," but the Church today is split. (Just turn on the television and listen to TBN [Trinity Broadcasting Network] and the pitches for money and the prosperity gospel. Look at "los evangelicos" throughout Latin America.) I don't know how "events" "sidetracked" reconciliation. The "type of reunion" I seek is reunion.

    In 16th century Germany things were not much better. Luther wanted reform, but the German princes wanted autonomy from Rome. Among the people, there was the sense that the proud German race should not be under the thumb of Italians in Rome. German nationalism. Ignorance.

    On my blog, I compare the abuses in the Catholic Church of 1517 -- selling indulgences, worldly Bishops -- to the current abuses in the ELCA -- gay clergy, support for gay marriage, tacit support for abortion, Sophia worship (Megan Rohrer), overt opposition to Israel, obsession with social issues while turning a blind eye to theological issues like Sophia worship. To me, it is the quintessential irony that the abuses in the Lutheran Church of today are much worse than the abuses in the Catholic Church of the 16th century.

    In spite of the colossal ignorance of religion among young people today, many can see what is going on and are leaving the ELCA. Pastors like Geoff Sinibaldo see the numbers dropping but apparently do not see the cause.

    I sincerely hope that you do not take offense at my frank comments. I have been banned from many Lutheran websites, which is one of the reasons I started my own blog.

  5. No offense taken. As long as we are willing to learn from each other, our dialogue may be fruitful.

  6. A fascinating and meaningful post. The history between our ELCA and the Anglican Church should be a source of pride, since the tie between Lutheranism and Anglicanism goes all the way back to Erasmus. Both churches have their problems currently and I suspect we have somewhat similar views of what we need going forward from what I read here. So do many Episcopalians

  7. Dave - thanks for your comment. I have enjoyed worshiping with Episcopalians/Anglicans on many occasions. This weekend, two Anglican bishops (one from the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa, and another from the Anglican Diocese of Swaziland) will participate in the installation of my new bishop here in the Western Iowa Synod of the ELCA.