Chapter 8: The Ministry as Celebrating

Ferment in the Ministry
by Seward Hiltner

Chapter 8: The Ministry as Celebrating

In Protestantism the central image of celebrating is quite clear. It shows minister standing or sitting at a Communion table, with laymen by his side. The standing or sitting is mostly a matter of which part of the service is being depicted. Clearly, the Communion service, by any of its names — the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper or Table, the Communion Service, the Sacrament of the Altar, or simply the Sacrament — is the paradigm and center of all Christian celebrating.

The Lord’s Supper

In traditional Protestantism three facts have been crucially important about the central image of celebrating. The first has been the presence of a table with the elements upon it. The table represented the meal together that Jesus had had with his disciples in the upper room. The table was not to be construed as an altar in any sense that would imply this service as offering a necessary sacrifice. Whether Protestants were right or wrong in so interpreting the Roman Catholic Mass is of course another question.

The second fact about the image has been the leadership of the minister in the events of the celebration— ". . . as I ministering in his name." Even though wide sections of Protestantism balked on the word "priest," this phrase is as clear a functional conception of priesthood as one could have. No less than in the Catholic Mass, Protestantism required a set-aside minister, by whatever name, to be the principal celebrant.

The third historically important fact about the image is the presence of the laymen. Ordinarily they are "special" laymen, in some churches ordained as elders. They are responsible representatives of the people, just as the ordained minister is supposedly a responsible representative of Jesus Christ. The minister cannot do all the things himself that the service requires. Nor does he merely need technical assistants such as altar boys. Although functionally different roles are assigned, those of the laymen are just as important as that of the ordained minister.

So far as these three crucial elements of the image are seen in terms of what they stand for positively, I see no reason for dissent from the wisdom of our forefathers. They emphasized the table as the fellowship and the communal celebrating. They stressed equally the leadership of the ordained minister and the necessary and responsible participation in that leadership by laymen.

In the background, however, they were frying some polemical fish which, over the centuries, have acquired a bad odor even if not entirely rotten. The most obvious polemic was against sacrifice, altar, and priest. Yet the historical fact is that the Last Supper was set within the context of the Passion as a whole, and at the Supper Jesus looked ahead to the approaching crucifixion. Perhaps Protestants were correct in being against some aspects of the ingenuity with which the Catholic Mass had woven these strands together. But in having no element at all of "altar," they narrowed the context in which the total celebration must be seen and understood. The creation of the term "Sacrament of the Altar" in modern Lutheranism seems a clear and important way of moving beyond the polemics of an earlier time.

Something similar is involved in the aversion to having the ordained minister known as a "priest." My etymological pony explains that most words for "priest" go back to a word for "elder," while others derive from a child’s word for "father." In etymological honesty, it must also be admitted that other words eventually led to "king" or "prince" or "lord" — terms involving authority over rather than wisdom or honor or representativeness. And of course it was this authoritarian connotation of "priest" to which early Protestants objected.

With the concept of the universal priesthood of believers, they almost had it. The boldness of this notion is that it makes priesthood a function and not a status. Had they been wholly consistent, they would have called the ordained minister at a celebration of the Lord’s Supper a "priest" without batting an eye; for he is there performing a function, with assistance. But so great was the fear that doing so would have status implications that it was seldom done in Protestantism except in the Church of England.

Some injustice was also done to "sacrifice." On the positive side, it was good to show that the sacrifice by Jesus Christ was all sufficient for all time. But the grave Protestant suspicion of any kind of theology of works or merit made it difficult for people to participate emotionally and empathetically in the great sacrificial event. The Protestant suspicion about celebrating Good Friday is both a demonstration of this suspicion and a result of it. Psychologically speaking, Catholic practice has been much wiser.

An effective way of retaining our Protestant positive insights about the central celebrating image, and yet to move beyond the "smoke-filled room" aspects that became involved with them, is to take a look at the several terms for this central act of celebrating.

The Communion service emphasizes fellowship and relatedness. It also means "sharing in." But fellowship is either reconciling or it is not fellowship at all. That is, if there were no barriers to positive communality, no service would be needed. Just as did the disciples at the Last Supper, so Christians in all ages bring enmity, strife, party spirit, bitterness, indifference, and hypocrisy to the Communion today. There should be no need to apologize for the fact that things are so bad, within the conflicted psyche of the person and in the interpersonal and group relationships, that the "medicine" of Communion is needed. In the Communion service, the Kingdom begins now.

How does our central image look in the light of Communion? Generally speaking, it looks good. There is the fellowship table, the representativeness of the leader, and the clear and responsible participation by other leaders on behalf of the people. But it does not show that both Judas and Peter are present, the one who is to betray and the other, temporarily, to deny. The danger is that the Communion interpretation of the sacrament will be seen as a fellowship-fixer, rather than just what it was in the instance of the Last Supper, containing and accepting ambiguity.

The Lord’s Supper, or the Lord’s Table, emphasizes that we are being fed. We are being fed with ordinary human food (not a balanced diet, it must be admitted), because we are organic creatures and we need it. But this food was likened by Jesus at the Last Supper to his body and his blood. By his express command we are, as were his disciples, to be symbolically "God-eaters." We are to incorporate — make part of our bodies — the flesh and the blood that he was about to give up at the time of the Last Supper. And we are to have no guilt feelings about this theophagy, i.e., God-eating. It is, to be sure, symbolic. But it should remind us, while at the same time it relieves us, of our perpetual human aggressive and "incorporating" drives, just as the very acts of eating and drinking remind us of our animal and organic nature. We commemorate his Last Supper. In this act we are renewed, and also reminded humbly of our human condition.

How does the central image emerge in light of the Lord’s Supper? The answer is: Pretty well, except that everything has tended to become too neat. The elements, with all those people to feed, look so small that they are unlikely to support anybody even until he gets home for Sunday dinner. And the fact that something of symbolic sacredness is to be incorporated is not wholly clear in the image. We might go off from the service either still feeling guilty or without a new humility about our condition. No image, of course, can do everything. But our central image tends to play down the "body and blood." To be sure, literal body and blood were not present at the Last Supper. Since Jesus himself represented them symbolically, we can do so too. It might help a good deal if we had some real bread and some real wine, and not wafers and grape juice.

The Eucharist puts stress upon thanksgiving and gratitude. True and sustained gratitude, however, is one of the rarest of human feelings. Oscar Wilde caught this very well when he pointed to a certain man and said he did not know why the other was so angry because he, Wilde, had never done anything for him. One cannot feel thanks without having acknowledged the need and the weakness that were met by the act of graciousness. So there is no unadulteratedly pure gratitude. The Eucharist knows all this. It leads to a capacity for genuine thanksgiving, and does not require it as an admission ticket.

Does our central image know it too? Perhaps it does, but the image itself does not make it manifest. The people around the table all look as if they were too well adjusted, including the minister. Perhaps the minister could be shown with a lock of hair out of place, and maybe one lay member could look a bit like a hippie. If, in some symbolic way, a bit of ambivalence could be shown about gratitude, the resulting image would be more true to the actual situation.

The Sacrament of the Altar, or the service seen as the Mass, emphasizes the Lamb of God, the perfect and wholly adequate atoning sacrifice, whose goodness and whose acts blot out the sin of mankind. Since this is so, no further sacrifice by men is needed. But men do need to feel participatively with the enormity and the anguish of the sacrifice. The everyday pathology of sacrifice is that a person "gives up" something and then feels so righteous as a result that his demands become outrageous. His act of sacrifice is a kind of button-pushing device for special favors. The Sacrament of the Altar does not so much repress this human tendency as channel and relocate it. It becomes transformed.

At this point, perhaps above all others, our central image is clearly weak. It contains no hint of participation in sacrifice except in the form of the very symbolic elements. Really red wine that looks like blood and very rough bread that resembles flesh might help. Or it could be that, at the moment the image is snapped, all the participants, even though round the table, could be on their knees. What is needed is the sense of participation in the sacrifice that has been made, and not the smug sense that "that is all over with," although in a sense it is.

There is finally "the Sacrament" in Protestant language, even though baptism is yet another sacrament. The emphasis in this usage has been upon the "sign" or "seal" function, tamping down in human hearts what God has already made known through his Word. Here the worshiper is encouraged to receive and participate at a level deeper than his conscious reasoning; but at the same time he becomes motivated to reflect subsequently upon a better understanding of the Word in the light of his experience of the Sacrament. His obtuseness, defensiveness, and narrow-mindedness are not rejected, but they are in part transformed.

Our central image has nothing to say against this interpretation, and something for it in the form of the visible symbols of bread, wine, and table. But it is not very explicit. How can there be pictorial representation of the closed-mindedness to which the Sacrament addresses itself?

In these considerations of the principal ways in which the sacramental acts shown in the central image are represented, I have tried to show the multidimensional perspective that must be taken in order to grasp the meaning of each and all. The central image comes through pretty well. But it seems clear that it must be supplemented and that it can be made more adequate through a few details like red wine, rough bread, some persons who are less than sartorially perfect, and not unambivalent bliss on the face of the minister.

The Human Function of Celebrating

One of the perils of civilization is that celebrating may be put on a purely private basis for routine use (with a sophisticated denial that it is "solemnizing"), or else it may become ad hoc improvisation in its public character. The latter was well illustrated at the time of President John F. Kennedy’s death. The television and radio newscasters thought, before, that they were merely reporters and commentators. During the critical two or three days they found that they had to become also priests of a kind. Most of them were not up to it. Fortunately, the Roman Catholic funeral service on Monday morning finally appeared to offer some stability and continuity against the well-intentioned but unrehearsed priestly rituals of the preceding days.

The privatizing of celebrating is well demonstrated by the strong shift in privatism about funerals during the past generation. A competent student of mine studied this change in a small but long-established town near Princeton. He found that, even a generation ago, the whole community was involved in several ways when a death took place. Today the death and funeral he found to be strictly a matter of the family, with technical and temporary assistance afforded by the church and the undertaker. Even in the death of persons who have made unusual contributions to society, the family tends to be left alone with its grief except for the funeral or memorial service.

These drifts of the sophisticated toward privatism and opportunism in celebrating may of course contain positive potentialities. People who do not want to be intruded on in time of grief, for instance, may be better protected. A newly married couple may celebrate in their own way and not in that dictated by friends or custom. And the "opportunism" may, for example in worship, be creative, and elaborate the means while being faithfully attentive to the ends. I am not unduly pessimistic about the longer future in these matters. But right now I think celebrating is in bad odor, and this does no good to anybody.

If the mythical observer from Mars were briefed on the concept of celebrating, and then permitted to take his flying saucer to various celebrative events, I believe he might say something like the following concerning what his observations told him about the human race.

1. These are a self-transcendent people. Whether they like it or not, they can do proper forgetting and proper remembering only through celebration. By the same token, they can look ahead only if they celebrate as well as plan.

2. These are a people of feeling. To them, not every event is the same. Some are big and important and must be celebrated — whether through joy or sorrow. Others are small and can be handled privately. The bigger the feeling, the greater the need for celebrating.

3. These are a people trying to combine creative novelty with tradition. Every important celebration contains at least a bit of novelty. But heavy reliance is placed on the celebrations of tradition. Thus, these people believe in continuity and stability; but they are innovators as well.

4. These people use celebrations as a way of obeying but also going beyond the law. They are not lawless although even the most responsible of them takes pride in rejecting a law in which he does not believe. Many celebrations enable them to be for the law but above it, even if the "above" is only temporary.

5. These are a "totemic" people. They have an immense number of taboos, some of which are sensible and some not. But whether through special occasions, like Mardi Gras, or repeated events, like the Mass, they try symbolically to combine the sense of social responsibility represented by taboo with the creative and spontaneous yen toward something beyond.

6. The best celebrations are an extraordinary combination of freedom an restraint. When they are very good, nobody violates the important restraints. When they become eroded, a lot of the participants do not know the difference.

7. Perhaps above all, the celebrations show that human beings are aware of living in both darkness and light. For human well-being, these must be constantly distinguished — even though they are not always apparent to the outside observer.

Our mythical friend from Mars, in his preceding comments, has not so much characterized human celebrations (for they are more varied than he had opportunity to see) as he has said what the fact of human celebrating tells about human beings.

In human evolution the civilizing and moralizing of celebrations was a triumph all the way. We are indeed the kind of people noted by the mythical Martian. But if it were not for the institutions of religion, as we now call them, celebrating anything solemnly and seriously might well be left to privacy or public adventitiousness. I rather think that man from Mars thought celebrating a good thing.

Celebrating Through Ritual

Whatever else ritual may suggest, it means that you do it more than once. Ritual is common agreement about sequence. Ritual is the acknowledgment of chronology. Whether we are celebrating the Lord’s Supper, Christmas, a marriage, or a funeral, ritual tells us in a kindly way that all this has happened before, although it does not need to deny the uniqueness of what is happening now.

Ritual (the same procedures have been used before) both reveals and conceals. That is, it reveals what is going on at various levels, and the participant may enter and understand at these various levels. But any good ritual refrains from clobbering the participant. If he is not prepared to accept deeper levels, he is not penalized thereby. So far as I can see, nobody at any time gets every level of something so celebrative as the Communion service. Even the minds of the greatest Christians have wandered when such and such was mentioned. But ritual is not a clobberer. Even the saint may get it next week or next day. Only out of a climate of familiarity can novelty and insight and true critical acumen develop. To regard ritual, therefore, as only revealing, and not also as concealing, would be false to the facts and an impediment to the growth of Christian vision.

Just as ritual both reveals and conceals in relation to meaning, so it both opens up and protects in regard to feeling. Both during the ritual and in subsequent reflection, this or that phrase may jump out at us as describing either our particular situation or the situation of human beings in general — whether it be "miserable sinners," or "no health," or something else. In the same way, the nature of God as described in vivid phrases of the ritual may hit us at some time — "merciful," for instance. The relation between ourselves and God may also come into highlighted status through our reflection at some point in the ritual. For instance, "while we were sinners," God did such and such. It may strike home. Especially because we are still as much sinners as ever. But God made allowance.

One may of course argue that, in these instances of insight and new positive reflection, it is not ritual but something else — like the Word — that has come through. But how could there be the "build-up," the preparation, and indeed the whole climate and context to make possible both questions and answers, without the repetition of ritual? How can you tell if your new shoes really fit— until a couple of days later?

Ritual is both like common life and unlike it. The modern liturgical movement, Catholic and Protestant, has made the point clearly that ritual and liturgy are not removed from the actual events and decisions and emotions of life, but are representations of precisely those realities. This is very true. Gregory Dix’s analysis of worship through the Mass shows it to be related to actual living at every phase. Even a so-so service of Protestant worship begins with a combination of confession and thanksgiving, proceeds through the Word as guiding and sustaining us, commands our response in the offertory and dedication, and lets us go in peace but not without problems. Thus, Christian worship of any kind is related to life’s actual events and decisions.

But if the creative liturgists will forgive me, liturgy is not life itself. Liturgy is remembrance, recollection, and anticipation. It is typological life. It is "controlled" life. Not all living is controlled. Thus, liturgy is a representation of what life, with all its conflicts and decisions, is. But actual concrete life often seems otherwise, not only as to the decisions but also as to recognizing when a decision should be made.

Tn 1907 Sigmund Freud published an important paper comparing and contrasting the psychic dynamisms he had discovered in dealing with obsessional neuroses and what seemed to him the underlying situation in religious rituals. His paper was descriptive. He did not allege that religious rituals were neurotic. But he found three features that the two kinds of phenomena seemed to have in common.

First, he saw an extraordinary conscientiousness in the performance of the acts. Second, he saw severe pangs of conscience if anything were, however inadvertently, omitted. Third, he saw the ritualistic acts, like the obsessive acts, as being carried on somehow apart from the world of the ordinary — for instance, in buildings of a different type.

There is great insight in Freud’s analysis. It is indeed true that obsessive rituals of the type Freud examined in the individual are carried out without awareness of the deeper forces in his personal history that he is holding at bay through his actions. Insofar as a religious ritual has lost contact with the dynamic forces that brought it into being, it does precisely take on the features noted by Freud. And who could deny the extent to which this is true?

The one way in which a religious group can avoid falling into this trap is to be constant and fearless in its analysis — historical, psychological, and otherwise, as well as theological — about its own ritual, and always bringing multidimensional perspectives to bear. Religious rituals that are authentic bring together in solemn manner many levels of human psychic functioning: aspiration, aggression, gratitude, appeasement, and many others. But as time goes on, they tend to become neat and pretty, and then have a much more difficult time making contact with the several levels of psychic life.

Finally, although our precise knowledge is still small, we now know in a general way that different persons are affected differently by religious rituals. The difference applies not only to types of rituals but also to ritual in itself. Whatever might be the merit on theological grounds, therefore, a single massive form of ritual across Christendom would be likely to lose a lot of customers. Legitimate variation as well as creative novelty seem just as important as awareness of the roots.

Types of Christian Celebrating

The first type is that shown in the central image of the Lord’s Supper. Here the celebrating is regular and rather frequent, and intended for all adults. In the Roman Catholic Church confession is supposedly on the same general basis — for all adults and relatively frequent. Some groups in Christian history used foot-washing in a similar way. And of course in Protestantism there are always "services of worship" of all kinds, as indeed there are in Catholic practice too.

The second type of celebration focuses on one person at one time; and he at that proper time is the focus of the celebrating — although ordinarily a congregation will be present. This is of the general nature of baptism, of confirmation or joining the church, of either marriage or ordination, whichever is chosen, and in the Roman Catholic Church of extreme unction.

A third type of celebration also focuses upon the person, but the acts are performed according to his need and may be repeated under proper conditions. The anointing carried out for healing by the Church of the Brethren is an illustration of this, as are the bedside prayers of the pastor in the hospital. On an informal basis in Protestantism, except for a few wings of Anglicanism and Lutheranism, hearing a confession is of this type. Especially in connection with illness, there is an increasing tendency to bring the Mass or the Lord’s Supper to the person according to his special need. And in those segments of Protestantism in which remarriage after divorce is approved under conditions, then marriage falls into this group.

The fourth type of celebrating is on an annual basis and is ordinarily guided by the church year — at least to the extent of focusing on Advent and Lent, even if Pentecost is often forgotten. And finally there are the great special events and congresses of all kinds, including ecumenical types of celebration.

Perhaps it should be noted, since it is in such vivid contrast to Judaism, that one type of religious celebrating is conspicuously absent from the Christian list. That is holding major religious acts in the home, as do the Jews. The Christmas tree and the Easter bunny may have their points, but they are not solemnizations as are the Jewish home festivals.

What is the point of this typology? It is simply to suggest that, despite the basic adequacy of our central Christian image of celebrating, corollary images will need to be used if the whole network of celebrating is to hang together.

Celebrating and Living

Throughout this discussion it has been argued, in line with the central point of the liturgical movement, that religious celebration is closely related to actual life itself with its conflicts, its variety, its joys, and its sorrows. Religious celebrating that becomes so "apart" that it has lost the connections is simply going through obsessional motions. Live religious ritual is proper adaptation to the deeper things of living.

But celebrating is only a part of actual living even though it solemnizes, honors, praises, commemorates, observes, and is repentant about everything in life that has ultimate meaning and significance. Celebrating, while related to life, is no substitute for living.

Since ministers too have different kinds of responses to celebrating — and to different types of celebrating — they are always in danger of allowing personal preference or antipathy to determine the attention given to their leadership in celebrating. With the relative freedom given to Protestant ministers, it is possible to make so much, or so little, of celebrating that people are either surfeited or short-changed.

It may be argued that in Protestantism there is some check on these tendencies because a minister has to conduct at least one celebration a week; and if his robes become too colorful and dazzling, the committee will speak to him. While there is some truth in this, I find myself equally suspicious of the minister whose delight is in every pew and picture that he personally installed, and of him who uses celebrations only as "the preliminaries" for what he is going to preach.

And so I feel that our central Protestant image of celebrating — minister at table holding the elements, and lay associate leaders by his side — is properly the paradigm of all Christian celebrating. It does, however, need constant rethinking and reinterpretation lest the historically polemic elements it originally implied should make it weak or partly irrelevant. We need additional images of celebrating — in joy as in sorrow, annually as well as weekly — to aid the central image.