In the past I made the claim that the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament has always been practiced among the churches committed to the Lutheran Symbols. But do we really know this to be the case? And isn't the Book of Concord, along with other theological pronouncements, such as Chemnitz' Examination of the Council of Trent, against the practice? Such questions were posed to me on Facebook by a friend from seminary. So I thought I would attempt to make an unscholarly yet relatively reasoned case here.
First, I will directly address those two basic questions. And then, I will try to provide some data, and in that regard I am indebted in large measure to a few sources which conveniently collate much of the known evidence, such as the 1993 doctoral dissertation of Edward F. Peters, The Origin and Meaning of the Axiom: "Nothing Has the Character of A Sacrament Outside of the Use," In Sixteenth-Century and Seventeenth-Century Lutheran Theology.
The first question pertains to the claim that reservation of the Sacrament has a real and documentable history in the Church of the Augsburg Confession. In answer to this I first admit that, indeed, in view of the big picture of Lutheran history, the reservation of the Sacrament seems to be a minority practice. It also seems fair to say that the practice was stronger early on, and declined as time went on, and might even have practically disappeared in many places, especially after the age of Pietism took its hold on the Church in the eighteenth century. However, granting both of those two points, I would nevertheless maintain that it is unfair to claim that it was never practiced among our churches, or that it completely died off soon after the Reformation. In fact, that is the sort of claim that is unreasonable and prejudiced.
The second question has to do with whether reservation, per se, is inherently opposed to Lutheran theology. Does not the argument of Martin Chemnitz, eg., in his Examination of the Council of Trent, preclude the practice? Likewise, is not the Formula of Concord opposed to reservation of the Sacrament? My answer is that the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament is not absolutely condemned, either by the Confessions, or by the Examen, or by Lutheran doctrine. The Formula of Concord does not in fact address the question of the reservation of the Sacrament where it fulfills the institution of Christ, that is, where it is reserved for consumption by the faithful. It does condemn, on the other hand, the reservation of the Sacrament as practiced by the Roman opponents, who argued that the reservation is necessary (eg., Bellarmine). More to the point, the Formula, and the orthodox Lutheran theologians, are opposed to the reservation for the sake of adoration. This is the key qualification, which we see again and again. It must be emphasized and kept in mind as a crucial factor in virtually all instances of orthodox Lutheran condemnation of reservation.
I hasten to add at this point that this proviso does not mean that adoring the Sacrament in the tabernacle is to be condemned per se. Adoration is not the purpose of the reservation, but when one becomes aware, by virtue of, say, the sanctuary lamp (the traditional sign of the reserved Sacrament), that he is in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, and then spots the tabernacle behind the altar or in the chancel, it is not inappropriate to make an act of adoration by bended knee. The very purpose of the sanctuary lamp is to alert people to the presence of the Blessed Sacrament so that they will have the opportunity to adore our Lord's presence, and I fail to see why it would be preferable to just disregard the Sacrament and pretend It isn't there.
What we see, when we look at the record, is that from the earliest stages of the Lutheran Reformation to the seventeenth century and forward, the reservation of the Sacrament was opposed in some places, retained and embraced in some, and in some cases the attitude to this practice is best described as indifferent. Certainly in all places where Lutherans practiced reservation in the age of Lutheran Orthodoxy, it was done with the qualification I mention above, viz., that it be practiced for the sake of giving the Sacrament later to the sick, and not for the sake of adoration per se.
First, what was Luther's position? The Blessed Reformer does not say a lot about the reservation of the Sacrament. In one case he calls for its elimination; in another passage he is in favor of its continuation, as a statement against "several heretics." He says:
Here they are also disputing in the churches, whether or not one should carry the consecrated Sacrament to another altar. I for my part let it happen for the sake of several heretics, to whom one must give an answer. (WATR, V, 55, Nr. 5314)
Peters says that this is a reference to the practice of taking the Sacrament to the sick, as provided in the Brandenburg Church Order of Joachim II, 1540. I anticipate that some will hasten to reply here that this was a case not so much of reservation, but of taking the Sacrament to the sick, perhaps immediately after Mass. I think, however, that it is nonetheless noteworthy, for even taking the Sacrament to the sick right after the Mass involves a sort of reservation of the Sacrament. When we consider that whether the Sacrament is reserved in a tabernacle for six days, or two days, or in a pix for a twenty five minute trip to a man's sick bed, It is still being reserved outside of the Mass, which some therefore mistakenly consider outside the actio of the Sacrament. Further, this taking the Sacrament to the sick or shut-in directly after Mass, though it involve a much shorter reservation than we usually think of, actually involves the priest in something that would seem at first glance to be even more problematic, namely what amounts to a sort of eucharistic procession. In those days the Sacrament was transported with great reverence and solemnity.
Let me now turn for a moment from Peters' dissertation, to Jurgen Diestelemann's book, Usus und Actio. On this count I am indebted to Fr. John Stephenson's review essay. Diestelmann writes:
While polemics against the sacrificial and private mass occupy much space in Luther, nowhere in his writings do we find a demand to do away with tabernacles.
Stephenson relates what amounts to very revealing data in Diestelmann's work. He writes:
He argues that the Reformer's counsel, given in 1522, that hosts not distributed in a given celebration be reserved in a monstrance (!) until they could be administered to sick communicants (20, n. 46, according to which, more than two decades later, George of Anhalt related how he heard the older Luther give similar advice), is to be understood in light of the important distinction between the age-old custom of reserving the consecrated species for this pastoral purpose and the late medieval practice of permanent reservation for the sake of extra-eucharistic adoration...Diestelmann locates directions for such temporary reservation in Sehling's Kirchenordnungen (20, n. 47) and supplies evidence of beautifully decorated pyxes (capsulae) used in 16th century Lutheran churches for the reservation of consecrated hosts (in Augsburg, after 1537, on the altar); one such was made in Coburg in 1607 (23, n. 58; see also 103f.). In the closing pages of his work, Diestelmann underscores how the historic Church of Sweden allowed for reverent reservation for the purpose of communion alongside the practice of consuming the remaining sacrament (305).
Luther's take on the matter is summed up thus by Dr. Peters:
Except for those few instances, Luther does not specifically mention the reservation of the Sacrament. He is evidently not much concerned about the question. In one instance he says it should be abolished, in another he is not concerned whether or not it is abolished, and in a third instance, he reportedly says that it should be retained against certain "heretics." At any rate, Luther nowhere infers that the reservation of the Sacrament is per se or necessarily outside of the use, and therefore not the Body of Christ. (183)
Luther was of course far from the only Lutheran of his time who allowed for the reverent reservation of the Sacrament. From the diet of Ansbach in 1526 we have this:
And if at times something of the Sacrament were left over when the communicants receive the holy and venerable Sacrament, this shall not be contemptuously disposed of, but with the proper reverence shall be kept in the Sacrament houses, to be reserved for those who might accidentally fall sick from day to day or for other communicants. (311)
In the examination prepared for Lutheran priests in Nuremberg in 1528, reservation is treated as an adiaphoron which must be approached as a pastoral question. To the question, "Should one enclose the sacrament?" it teaches that this "is a free matter," though admittedly it expresses a preference for not reserving the Sacrament.
While it is true that consecrating the bread and wine on location for the sick became the general norm in Lutheran churches, there are certainly exceptions to this. Guy Dietrich, of Nuremberg, for example, gives a balanced endorsement of taking the Blessed Sacrament to the sick. Peters quotes him thus:
This too is certain from [the writings of] many Fathers, that, just as among us today, the people went to the Sacrament together every Sunday, and the Supper was held publicly. Then what remained was reserved, partly for the sick who would desire the Sacrament during the week, and partly because one could not distribute everything at once, when the number of communicants was too small...Then the remaining Hosts and also the chalice were reserved, and during the week the sick were communed with it, and what was left was used again during the next Communion or Supper. Here we do not dispute whether such reserved Hosts and chalice were the Body and Blood of Christ. And the reason is that it stayed in its use and was distributed to the Church, and those to whom it was distributed received the Body of Christ in the bread and drank His Blood in the chalice. Here there is no doubt at all, for the institution of Christ remained in its entirety and inviolate. (Peters, 404)
Peters then comments that with these words Dietrich:
...approves not only of carrying the Sacrament to the sick but also of reserving it for the communion of the sick during the week, or for distribution on the following Sunday. This he considers an acceptable practice, in keeping with the practice of the early Church, along with the more recent custom of celebrating at the bedside. He specifically says that such reservation is still "in the use" of the Sacrament, and that such a practice does not violate the institution of Christ. (404-405)
In the Examenation of the Council of Trent, Chemnitz deals at length with the question, too much length to be worth including here. I must say, however, that Chemnitz cannot be used to condemn reservation per se. Admittedly, he prefers not even to reserve It for the sick, yet nowhere does he condemn it. He only says that it is unnecessary. Dr. Peters sums up the evidence from the sixteenth century thus:
Most of the Lutheran theologians of the sixteenth century do not bother to distinguish between reservation for adoration and for the sick. But it is important to note that no sixteenth century Lutheran theologian, in those sources which are available, makes the explicit statement that reservation for the sick or carrying the Sacrament to the sick is wrong or "outside of the use." Guy Dietrich approves the reservation for the sick, and Chemnitz defends the practice as it was done in the ancient Church. It is not until later that Lutheran theologians consider this practice as such "outside of the use of the Sacrament." (413)
Clearly, the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament was both practiced and defended by Lutherans in Luther's own day, as well as later in the century, and in at least one instance it was at Luther's own urging.
While we're still in the sixteenth century I would like to briefly discuss a couple of incidents which veer off the particular question of reservation of the Sacrament. These incidents pertain to what happens after an accident takes place in the administration of the Sacrament, whether innocently, or by carelessness, and thereby shed light on the reverence for the Sacrament evident in the Lutheran Church of that age.
The first incident I would like to share took place on the Third Sunday in Advent, in 1567. A priest by the name of John Musculus, according to the testimony of the church officials whose job it was to hold the houseling cloth, report that Musculus spilled the Blood of Christ onto the houseling cloth, and though there were some conflicting reports in the ensuing investigation, it seems that he also spilled the Blood onto the floor, and may have carelessly stepped on It. Peters writes:
Since Master John Musculus, pastor in the suburb of Lebus, near Frankfurt on the Oder and in the village of Clistow, shortly before last Christmas, in distributing the holy and venerable Sacrament of the Body and Blood of our Savior and Sanctifier Jesus Christ, with vicious and criminal carelessness, swung the Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, in the action itself, and in the distribution, in such a way that a large part of it flowed not only on the communicant's clothing and on the silk houseling cloth which the church officers held, but also on the floor; and since he did not remove it with Christian and fitting reverence, thereby causing it to be stepped on not only by himself but by the communicants who followed...therefore, from now on he shall no longer be tolerated as a minister of the church in our lands; he shall also leave our land immediately and without privilege, shall be completely banned, and shall not enter this land again without our special permission, shall not be found in it, if he would like to avoid a greater and corporal punishment. (Peters 363-364)
The second incident involved Dr. Luther himself, and is from late in his life. He was on the road on business, and in the town of Halle was asked to say Mass at the Church of Our Lady. The Reformer was not altogether well, though it is too easy for us now, who were not there, from the distance of several centuries, to ask why he didn't have help with the distribution, say, from another priest or a deacon. In the end, we must simply accept the fact that this was a small group, who sought the ministry of the Eucharist at the hands of the Reformer, and that he must not have felt so ill at the start of Mass as to conclude that he could not do it without incident. In the course of the administration of the Precious Blood of Christ, his hands were shaking, and he spilled some of the Blood onto the floor. A witness' account reports that "Luther put the chalice down on the altar, fell to his knees, and sucked up the wine with his mouth so that it should not be trodden under foot, whereupon the whole congregation broke out in sobbing and weeping."
Other similar incidents could be brought forth from that period, but we will let these suffice here. They are relevant to the overall discussion for this reason: they show the great seriousness and reverence with which Luther and the Lutherans of that century took the Personal Presence of our Lord in the Most Holy Sacrament. They took it so seriously that when an accident befell the administration of the Eucharist, they had no hesitation or second thought about the belief that It is still the Body and Blood of Christ, and must be treated as such. In the more famous case of Adam Besserer, who mixed unconsumed consecrated Hosts with unconsecrated, Luther said that he was a despiser of both God and man, and the same as a Zwinglian!
The reason I bring these stories up is that they are such a stark contrast to the behavior in most of our churches today, and so they bring this thought to my mind: in an environment in which the conduct toward the Sacred Species even during the Divine Service tends to be so blasé, even irreverent (some even say that a dropped particle is not the Body of Christ, and that if what is in the chalice spills on the altar or floor it is not the Blood of Christ, thereby effectively redefining the Real Presence even more narrowly than within the Mass itself), then such people really intellectually forfeit the right to tell others how to handle or not handle the Sacrament outside the Mass. Let me simply add here that, sadly, the seminaries themselves do a poor job of inculcating reverent treatment of the Sacred Species, and perhaps until that changes, no large scale improvement can be expected in our churches...But I digress.
The definitions by Lutheran theologians of eucharistic terms like Usus and Actio have, the record would seem to suggest, evolved gradually but surely over the course of the centuries since the classic formulations of our doctrine were set down and articulated by Luther and the Symbols of 1580 and 1584. Practice corresponding to these narrowing definitions has evolved with them. I should rather say that our practice, over all, has devolved. It has devolved to the point where even within the Divine Service itself there are examples everywhere of gross irreverence toward the Most Holy Sacrament (this while we sing in our hymns about how reverent we are, eg., "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence"). To be clear, consecrating the bread and wine at the bedside is not in itself offensive, nor the product necessarily of the later definitions to which I refer. The insistence on the part of some, however, that reservation and carrying the Sacrament to the sick are "outside of the use" has led to a real and unfortunate bias against a tradition that has always had a place in our Church. And it has clouded the thinking of many of our teachers and theologians to some of the potential arguments in favor of the practice. On this count, let us hear once more from Edward Peters:
One aspect of the Sacrament which most Lutheran theologians ignore almost completely is the fact that the Sacrament is one of the highest expressions of Christian fellowship that has been given to the Church. The Sacrament is not merely an individual's participating in a gift of God, but it is just as much the participation of Christians in Christ Himself with one another in the Body of Christ. Lutheran theologians condemn the Roman Catholics who forget this principle when they allow priests to celebrate Mass by themselves without the participation of the congregation. However, one might ask if Lutherans are not ignoring the same principle when they express their preference for a clinical celebration at which one person receives the Sacrament by himself. When the Sacrament is carried from a congregation's celebration to the bedside of the sick, this is a laudable expression of the individual's common participation in the Church's celebration, even though he is not able to be present physically in the church building itself. Most Lutheran theologians, however, all but forget this emphasis, which is an important part of the sacramental celebration. (558)