30 May 2008

Pastor Why? - Elevating the Host and the Chalice

Why do you elevate the bread and the chalice above your head when you say the Words of Institution in the Holy Communion?

First, let’s remember that all words and actions in the liturgy are intended to focus our attention on Christ Jesus and His saving deeds for us. Basically, we want to ask how and what the words and actions of the liturgy say about Jesus Christ in one way or another.

Second, let me say what is not happening when I elevate the host and the chalice during the Words of Institution. It does not mean that we are offering some kind of “unbloody sacrifice” of the Body and Blood of Jesus to God the Father. That went out with the Reformation.

So, what does the elevation mean? Here’s the third and main point to answer the question. The elevation of the host and the chalice essentially says, “Look, there He is! There’s the Lord whose glory fills the earth—in that bread and in that cup!” Since I face the altar when I say the Words of Institution (by direction of the LSB Altar Book), elevating the host and the chalice at their respective times gives you, the worshipers, the opportunity to see the elements and say, “That’s the bread that’s been consecrated to be Christ’s Body for us; that’s the cup that carries the consecrated Blood of Christ for us.” It gives you, the worshipers, the chance to appreciate and focus on the gift that our Lord is about to give you at the altar: Himself.

Martin Luther did advise keeping the elevation in his service orders of 1523 and 1526. Here’s what he said in 1526:
“We do not want to abolish the elevation, but retain it because it goes well with the German Sanctus [see LSB 960] and signifies that Christ has commanded us to remember him. For just as the sacrament is bodily elevated, and yet Christ’s body and blood are not seen in it, so he is remembered and elevated by the word of the sermon and is confessed and adored by reception in the sacrament. In each case he is apprehended only by faith; for we cannot see how Christ gives his body and blood for us and even now daily shows and offers it before God to obtain grace for us” (Luther’s Works, vol. 53, p. 82).
Philip Pfatteicher also gives this helpful note in his book, Manual on the Liturgy: “The gestures [of elevating the host and the chalice] are not so much to imitate what Jesus did at the Last Supper as to connect his words of promise visually with this bread and this cup” (p. 239).


  1. Sigh. Well, in this instance, unfortunately, Lutherans and Catholics are still divided.

    During the Mass the chalice is indeed elevated as we plead the merits of the only Sacrifice capable of taking away the sins of the world. Nevertheless the Catholic in the pew also adores the Lamb present in the Host and Precious Blood.

    But, when all is said and done, Catholics and Lutherans can proclaim together that Jesus is truly present for us to feed us with his risen life to prepare us for the life that will never end in the fullness of the Kingdom.

    Pastor Pfatteicher's Manual on the Liturgy is a fine resource for Lutherans. He is an eminent liturgical scholar. He wrote a wonderful little prayerbook called "Foretaste of the Feast to Come" with beautiful meditations on Holy Communion taken from the best of the Lutheran, Anglican, Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. I still use it. He is still, as far as I know, an ELCA pastor (his church in Pittsburgh is just beautiful) but as faithfully Lutheran as they come.

  2. Would you mind explaining what is meant by "plead the merits of the only Sacrifice"? I know it's strange to my Lutheran eyes and ears, and I'm not sure that I could explain it if someone were to ask me about it. Would it be correct to say that it does *not* mean something like "reoffering" the sacrifice of Christ's Body and Blood?

    Pastor, you are absolutely correct, it does not mean a "reoffering" of the sacrifice. A coworker of mine, a good and deeply Christian Baptist lady once told me that she had always been led to believe that Catholics "re-sacrificed" Christ at each Mass.

    Catholics believe that after the consecration we "make present" the one, finished and all-sufficient sacrifice of Christ on our altars throughout space and time, since God is not limited to time as we mortals are. Every generation is able to stand at the foot of Calvary, mystically and sacramentally and "show forth the Lord's death until he comes", in the words of St. Paul.

    Yes, we are forgiven by that one and all sufficient Sacrifice but making present that Sacrifice joins us to Christ, who makes of US living Sacrifices, worthy to stand in the presence of the Father because in Holy Baptism we are one with our Head, whose merits alone are sufficient before the Father.

    How close would it be to our Lutheran way of looking at the "sacrificial victim" on the Altar--Christ in His Body and Blood in the Eucharist--and faithfully thanking God that that one-time sacrifice of Christ is "for us"?

    Sounds pretty close to me !! I've always appreciated Luther's emphasis that all Christ did was "for us." It resounds in his writings.

    That there were liturgical and ecclesiastical distortions in Luther's time is beyond any dispute. Though there were faithful laity and clergy in the Catholic Church there were others who were an absolute disgrace with their worldliness and poor formation.

    Luther's challenges moved the Council of Trent to make sure the clergy received a proper education and catechetical training was renewed. For that all Christians can be grateful.

    But, a the same time, we owe the great monasteries a great debt for preserving Western culture at a time it was threatening to disappear and the beginning and growth of the great European universities.

    Confessional Lutherans, with their Christocentric theology and rich musical heritage (does anyone sing their liturgy quite like Lutherans :)) have much to offer the entire Church catholic.

    Since I have deep affection for both my Catholic and Lutheran family I consider it my mission to gently correct the Catholics when they opine on Lutheran issues because very few of them have actually read Luther.

  3. Christine,

    Thanks a bunch! You're speaking "music to my ears." :-) I've had similar thoughts after reading sections of the Catholic Catechism - namely, that some of the abuses of the Medieval Western Church have indeed been addressed since the Reformation, and that we Lutherans and Catholics may actually be trying to express the same things ... or at least seeing some common ground here and there.

  4. Why do you face the altar when you say the words of consecration? I thought that when a pastor faces the altar he is speaking on behalf of the congregation to God, and when he faces the congregation he is speaking on behalf of God to His Church. Aren't you speaking the words of consecration in the place of Christ on behalf of God to His people?

    Also, I attended one Latin Mass at a grand old Polish Catholic church in Chicago. They handed out translations of the Tridentine Mass so we could follow along, and this translation clearly stated that the Mass was a "re-sacrifice" of Christ. I remember because I discussed this with my Catholic friend, and she said they were wrong to say that. Nonetheless, the Tridentine Mass traces its roots back to the Council of Trent. The new Catholic Catechism says "re-present," but that's not necessarily a repudiation of the old "re-sacrifice."

  5. Turn to the Lord. When a pastor or priest and the congregation face the altar together they are facing in the same direction. This turning towards the Lord (ie, repentance, faith) does not lessen the words of institution. These words are not more or less believable for me if the pastor or priest is facing me instead of facing the altar or vice versa when these words are spoken. Regarding the original point of elevation and connected to the facing of the altar there is an added visual connection when the body is raised then the blood is raised and, in the immediate background, behind the body and blood one sees the body of Christ on the cross with the blood coming from his side. Here is a visual reminder of the Source of these gifts.

  6. The point Rick makes about the direction the pastor faces has caused me to do a lot of thinking recently. The pastor standing behind a free-standing altar while saying the Preface, Sanctus, Lord's Prayer and Agnus Dei is awkward, bizarre, and just feels totally wrong to me. The only excuse I can see for a free-standing altar is for the pastor to face the congregation when speaking Christ's Words of Institution. But I am wondering why some see them as being spoken to the congregation.

    In some churches without a free-standing altar, I have seen pastors stand in front of the altar facing the congregation (or even worse, at the lectern) for the Consecration, with their backs to the elements supposedly being consecrated. I have not communed when visiting these churches because I believe it is the bread and wine that is to be consecrated, not the congregation.

    I have had two thoughts concerning this and was wondering if a pastor (or knowledgeable layman) could comment on them. In his sacramental roles such as the reading of scripture, the sermon, etc., the action of the pastor is directed at the congregation for their instruction and edification. In consecrating the Eucharist, would it not be correct to say that the action of the pastor is directed at the elements, not the people, as I have mentioned above? Would it also be acceptable to see it in terms of the pastor facing the same way as the congregation as they all welcome togther the Presence of Christ in the sacrament?

    One final comment about direction: what is going on with pastors doing that weird standing at a 45 degree angle thing? It makes it look like the pastor is lost and doesn't know which way he should face (which may well be the case). Not only that, to be frank, it simply looks ridiculous.

  7. Rick,

    As for facing the Altar, as I alluded to in my post, that's the instruction (rubric) in the LSB Altar Book--to face the Altar with the elements on it. I take that to mean that the words of institution are indeed directed chiefly to the elements. I also keep in mind Luther's directive that the words of institution should be spoken so that the congregation can hear them, that is, so that the congregation can hear what's actually happening.

    As for the Tridentine Mass and the "re-sacrifice" language, I believe that's one of the changes made at Vatican II. In my limited understanding at this point, it appears that now the "sacrifice" refers to something different than it did before or after Trent. And on the "re-present" language, I'm not sure what exactly is meant there, and we should probably ask our RC friends.

  8. "Anonymous":

    First, we need to be careful about what "feels right" or what "feels funny" (or ridiculous, or whatever). Feelings are hardly ever a good guide for good conduct of or participation in the liturgy.

    I'm not sure that free-standing altar vs. altar against the wall is that big of an issue, as long as the same liturgy, and hence same confession of Christ and reception of His gifts, is taking place. There are certainly pros and cons for both positions of the altar, and there are appropriate ways for conducting the liturgy with either arrangement of the furniture. Also, in the early church I don't think it was that big a deal. After all, they usually had just a simple table on which to place the elements.

    I do think that the direction the pastor faces during the consecration is important. The Verba should be spoken toward the elements, and spoken so that the congregation can clearly hear them. I have no idea why a pastor would turn his back on the elements, or even use the lectern, during the consecration. Not only is that just odd, but it also misses the point of the consecration, namely, to set apart the bread and wine for the sacred use of also delivering Christ's Body and Blood.

    What is the "45 degree angle thing" to which you refer? Is that at the consecration, or at the peace? I have seen a pastor--when he says, "The peace of the Lord be with you always"--keep one hand on the altar and then turn to the congregation and gesture with the other hand while he says it. (It was first and only time I've seen it.) Is that what you're talking about?

  9. Pr. Asburry,

    Thank you for the reminder about feelings. I actually attend one of the two (or three? - I've never been to one) churches with a free-standing altar out of eight LCC/LCMS ones in my town. However, I fail to see the benefits of making the direction the pastor faces meaningless, rather than reflecting the sacramental or sacrificial manner in which he is speaking. What is the rationale for the pastor facing the congregation as he says "...evermore praising You..." "Heav'n and earth are full of Thy glory," "Our Father... Thy name... Thy kingdom... Thy will..." "O Christ, Thou Lamb of God," etc.? Then why not face the congregation for the Gloria in Excelsis, Creed or Prayers? I would say it looks (and feels) odd because it is indeed odd. What is the advantage of being inconsistent here, making the actions essentially meaningless? I see nothing wrong with the pastor facing the congregation for the Words of institution, as long as he is also facing the elements being consecrated, but it throws everything else out of whack.

    Many people already think much of the litury is meaningless, so I don't see why it would be beneficial or even irrelevant not to conduct it in a more meaningful way. I'm not going to go running from a church that does this (there are much bigger reasons to run from some), but without knowing a single reason why it is better, and seeing how it doesn't fit with the rest of the liturgy, I don't understand what the advantage is other than making people feel more special because the pastor faces them more. I probably come across a bit harsher than I mean to, but I really don't get it.

    The "45 degree angle thing" is when a pastor says the Words of Institution from the corner of the altar at an angle, so that he is still facing the elements, but only kind of has his back to the congregation. Two pastors who do this have told me that it also allows the congregation to see the consecrated elements without the pastor risking looking too "Catholic" by elevating them.