Sunday, September 19, 2010

Who Communicates the Celebrant?

The current issue of The Lutheran Witness gives us the occasion for our poll this week. The Q&A section is from the pen of Dr. Jerald C. Joersz and seeks to answer this query: "...we and other members of our congregation are offended by a practice recently introduced by our pastor. During the Communion, he communes himself. Is this proper?"

From his answer, it is clear that Dr. Joersz is not really a fan of the traditional practice of the Celebrant communicating all the communicants, including himself. I am gratified that he at least notes that this practice is "permissible." However, this is clearly damning with faint praise: according to Dr. Joersz, asking a lay person to communicate the Celebrant is the "preferred option."

Now, what Dr. Joersz means to say is any one of the following: 1) that he prefers this practice; 2) that he thinks the traditional practice is flawed; 3) that this is what the majority of LCMS parishes see on Sunday morning.

But surely, he must know that this deputizing of the laity to perform the Celebrant's duty is not the objectively preferred option since he himself quotes the current convention-approved rubric instructing the exact opposite practice!

Should Doctor Joersz or anyone else wish to argue against the practice of the Celebrant communicating himself, I welcome that debate. But clarity and objectivity are required for a helpful debate. The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod's official rubrics state: The pastor and those who assist him receive the body and blood of Christ first, the presiding minister communing himself and his assistants. I think any fair minded person would have to say that the official rubrics of LSB make this practice "preferred" for the LCMS.

For a host of reasons, I would argue that this traditional practice would be the preferred option even if the LCMS said it wasn't. But, dear reader, I would at the very least try to make clear to you that I was arguing against the LCMS' official position. Indeed, if you wish to send a check for $20 for the support of the journal and an SASE, I will send you the Annotated List of My Disagreements, Great and Small, with the Official Line of the LCMS (please put ALMDGSOLLCMS in the memo line).

But here is why I am most frustrated with this piece. The Rev. Dr. Joersz fumbled a gold-plated chance to Be a Classy Guy (BACG) and Help a Brother Out (HABO). Here's how he could have handled this question, keeping intact all his own scruples on the issue at hand.

The transition to a new pastor can at times be confusing for both pastor and parishioners! I hope you take this as an opportunity to discuss this issue with your new pastor - because, I bet he would be very surprised at your offense. In fact, he is only doing what the instructions in the Synod's hymnal say. . . .

That being said, I for one, prefer a different practice and like to ask a layman to commune me for these reasons. . .

But the point is, both options are good, right, and salutary - I pray that your pastor's ministry will be a blessing to you and that you will be a blessing as a parishioner to him.

More often than you might think we pastors get questions about a neighbor's practice. For example, I might get a question about a guy in my circuit who uses an Entrance Hymn instead of the Introit per the rubrics in LSB. I think this is absolutely daffy: the Introit is really important, it summarizes the theme of the day, and it's, like, you know: THE BIBLE. Why would LSB encourage tossing out a proper for a hymn? And why on earth would any pastor make use of this allowance?

But here's what I would say to that lay person miffed at his pastor: If you look in your hymnal, you'll see that the pastor can either include the Introit, Psalm, or an Entrance Hymn at this point in the service. I would encourage you to talk to your pastor about why he decided to use a hymn instead of the Introit.

A good rule of thumb: if you won't take the time to speak to a brother pastor about your gripe with his practice, you don't get to gripe about his practice to his parishioners when they come itching for ammunition against him. This is especially so if what the pastor is doing is in no way sinful, but simply not what you would do in a similar situation.



  1. Would you please post the entire response to the question? I don't have a subscription to The Lutheran Witness, nor do I have an online subscription.

  2. Reed, Luther D. "The Lutheran Liturgy." Muhlenberg Press: Philadelphia, 1947, 348-349.

    "The ministers at the altar make their communion first. Where there is an assistant minister he may administer to the officiant whose reception of the elements is necessary for the formal, if not for the actual, completion of the ceremony. After his own reception the officiant administers to the assistant minister.

    "Self-communion of the minister has always been an open question in Lutheran liturgics. Luther himself approved it and repeatedly defended it (deinde communicet tum sese, tum populum--Formula Missae). It is quite certain that for a generation or two this liturgical action, which belongs to the integrity of the Rite, was usual in Lutheran services. Later when liturgical knowledge and feeling had declined, dogmatic biblicism and pietistic subjectivism brought about its disuse. The dogmaticians, however, generally allow it, though advising that if another minister be present he should administer to the officiant. The Schmalkald Articles forbid self-communion only when this involves reception apart from the congregation (II:2 R 207). Chemnitz (Ex. Conc. Trid. II: 4, 9), says the minister includes himself in the Confession and Absolution and he may include himself in the Communion. He should not be required to participate at all times, nor should he be prevented from communing if he desires. Seventeenth-century Orders frequently forbade self-communion. Nineteenth-century Agenda generally permit it.

    "Those who object to self-communion base their objections upon the sacramental conception of the Holy Communion (as a divine gift) which dominates Lutheran history and, with its 'disintegrating individualism' (Briloth), emphasizes the personal benefit in the Sacramental almost to the exclusion of other objective and corporate values (such as liturgical completeness, commemoration, fellowship, incorporation with the Church, the Body of Christ, in eucharistic sacrifice to God, etc.). Putting all other considerations aside, the objectors feel that to receive the highest personal values the minister should make his personal confession and receive absolution from another, and that in the Sacrament itself he should hear the assurance of forgiveness pronounced by lips other than his own.

    "Those who believe that when there is no other minister present the officiant should commune himself, urge this as the natural and fitting completion of a liturgical action which has other than purely personal values. They also believe that participation by the minister in the reception is essential to the idea of fellowship inherent in the very nature of the Communion. They regard a communion in which the officiant does not receive as an anomaly, unknown in the Greek, Roman, Anglican, or Lutheran Communion. They believe that the difficulty of reconciling the sacramental function of the minister with his sacrificial attitude as a man is but an intensification of the problem constantly in evidence in the interplay of sacramental and sacrificial elements throughout the entire service. According to their view the officiant should always receive, whether from his own or another's hand, and he should always receive before others."

  3. Since the Witness won't post it online until next month, I'm going to respect their wishes and not post it here. I think insisting on copyright like this is silly in this day and age - but I want to err on the side of charity toward their wishes.

    Thanks for the quotation from Reed!


  4. Pastor C,
    Your timing couldn't be better. We had a mess yesterday at the altar as we had a visiting pastor and the assisting "elder." Everything was about as backwards as it could get. One topic for this evening was the evidence in the Confessions of the presbyter communing himself. Yesterday's occurrence will be added to the stack. Thank you for your references.

    Just a touch of venting. This combined with the PVM are perfect examples of either believing and acting on the Confessions or settling for less. We seriously damage ourselves when we jump from the shoulders of all those giants who went before us. Sure, our minds can be as good as theirs; but is it as good as all of them put together?


  5. There's *ahem* an excellent new book out by the editor of Gottesdienst (see that has this: "It is uniformly traditional and preferable that the celebrant administer the Blessed Sacrament to himself, before he communes the congregation. Certain Lutheran orders arose in the Pietistic era of the seventeenth century which forbad self-communion by the celebrant (see Reed 372f for a brief commentary on this controversy), but the instruction of Luther himself on the matter serves to contradict those proscriptions (see Formula Missae, AE 53:30). Moreover, the chief reason self-communion is salutary and ought to be retained is that the celebrant is here not only receiving the Gifts for himself; he is at the same time serving to signify Christ, who partook with His disciples in the other room. There is no valid reason for the historically novel practice of having someone else commune the celebrant, and it is positively improper that a lay assistant commune him" (105f).

  6. "The ancient canons also indicate that one man officiated and communicated the other priests and deacons, for the words of the Nicene canon read, 'After the priests the deacons shall receive the sacrament in order from the bishop or priest.' Since, therefore, no novelty has been introduced which did not exist in the church from ancient times... this manner of holding Mass ought not in fairness be condemned as heretical or unchristian." (AC 24:37-40).

    In the "church from ancient times" the laity did not commune the clergy. The deacons did not even commune the priests or bishops. Lay communion of the celebrant is the kind of "novelty" that we claim in our confession to distance ourselves from.

    An argument *could* (however weekly) be made from the point of view of Christian liberty - but my goodness! How did this "novelty" suddenly become the "preferred option"?

    Are we all even reading the same Book of Concord?

  7. "Are we all even reading the same Book of Concord?"

    Probably not.

  8. I was once told that monthly winkels in the LCMS grew out of a time when pastors would not commune themselves, and lay people would not commune pastors. In order then that the pastors would somehow receive the Sacrament, they began gathering once a month.

  9. K:

    That does seem to have been the case. And we might draw a lesson from this history. For the Lutherans of that era solved what they wrongly thought was a problem (a pastor with no one but himself from which to get his own communion) with a solution that was in fact a true problem (pastors celebrating Mass without taking communion).

  10. First, it would be helpful to clarify Fr. Petersen's comment on the rubrics. In the LSB Pew addition it simply states, "The pastor and those who assist him receive the body and blood of Christ first and then distribute them to those who come to receive, saying:" this does leave wiggle room to interpret it as assistants commune celebrant and then the other way. However, the altar books states it thus: "The pastor and those who assist him receive the body and blood of Christ first, the presiding minister communing himself and his assistants. Then they distribute the body and blood to those who come to receive, saying:"

    I do think it is also appropriate to ask who has the authority to admit to the Lord's Table. And along with that authority who is accountable before God. And the answer to both question is the pastor alone. And thus only he can admit himself and then he admits all the other guests to the table and that admission comes when he gives to them the body of Christ.

  11. Lay assistance in the giving of the Eucharist and the celebrant's self-communion are distinct issues, yet we might say they are related in a couple of ways.
    1. They sometimes (though not in every case) occur in the same place (as in most modern American Roman Catholic parishes), sometimes even intersecting in that the one giving the sacrament to the celebrant is a layman (as in many Lutheran churches).

    2. They both flow partly from a decay in the modern church's thinking on the Christic nature of what happens at the altar.

    Therefore I suggest that a part of the remedy for the current unhealthfulness in the church's thinking and practice would be to consider afresh the practical and theological genius in some of the church's more traditional rubrics. Just bringing up the fact that there might be something we could learn from such practices has drawn eloquent ridicule from the likes of William Cwirla and erudite accusations of pharisaism from the likes of Paul McCain. But here I go again.

    Before the consecration takes place, the celebrant walks to the epistle corner of the altar, and holds his fingers over a bowl, as an acolyte pours some water over them. The pastor then dries his fingers from a little towel which is conveniently draped over the arm of the acolyte. I have never heard of anyone but the celebrant thus washing his fingers in the Mass. Now consider why he does this, and why only he does this. He is the one who is specifically ordained in part so as to feed others the most blessed Sacrament. His hands are ordained to bless us; his fingers to feed us. His ordination does not make him ontologically holy. For he is a sinful human being (therefore his need to wash his hands is not only physical but also spiritual and metaphorical). Nevertheless, he is the one traditionally who touches with his hand the Body of Christ, and so the ritual of the Mass provides for his fingers to be purified, both before and after the Communion.

    One of the oddest things to see in the Mass of Paul VI, in other words, in the mass celebrated in most modern Catholic churches today, is that the celebrant still practices the lavabo (often leaving out the accompanying prayer), but will then let any number of concelebrants and "eucharistic ministers" handle the Sacrament. Beside the fact that none of them are called by God to fill this office, there is also the obvious incongruity of a church that professes the real and personal Presence of Christ in the Sacrament being no longer all that concerned about how It is handled.

    Likewise with us, it would hardly make sense for the pastor to practive the lavabo washing of his hands, and then hand the paten to someone else for even part of the distribution. On the other hand, if more of our pastors would consider the lavabo, it would prove helpful in ways perhaps unforeseen by us.

  12. Dear Latif:

    This is the "law of unintended consequences." Once certain rituals are deemed obsolete or trite, there may well be an unintended shift in doctrine and/or practice as a result.

    The genius of traditionalism is that it tends to keep us on the right track - even if we're not exactly sure why we do this or that.

    BTW, I don't use a lavabo - but your point is spot on that if we did, it would seem weird to have me wash my hands and then have someone else distribute the body of the Lord.

    It always also struck me as weird to see a vested pastor kneel while a guy in a suit and tie communes him, and in some cases, traces the sign of the cross over the pastor - while the pastor receives this blessing from the layman while crossing himself.

    Something just never looked quite right about that. Of course, if we all just wore jeans and tee shirts regardless of vocation, that incongruity would be covered up.

  13. "Of course, if we all just wore jeans and tee shirts regardless of vocation, that incongruity would be covered up."

    In that case, the church's ministry would be more "relevant" to postmodern man, more "incarnational," so the courageous churches tell us.

  14. I blame Fritz. He screwed up on this royally, and there is a generation of LCMS (and other Synodical Conference offshoots) who follow Fritz religiously (...ahem!), including his bronze-age ministry aberations. Here is Fritz:

    "Rather than to give Communion to himself (which he might legitimately do; of course only in the regular church service and not privately), the pastor should ask the congregation to request a layman (a member of the church council) to administer the Sacrament to him. Under ordinary circumstances this will not have to be done; for pastors, almost without exception, have ample opportunity to receive the Sacrament at the time when conferences and synods are held or by calling in a brother minister for that purpose."

  15. Here is what Walther has in the corresponding section of his Pastorale (This is my translation, since this section is conspicuously missing from the Drickamer translation - my, my, my...):

    "Note 8.

    "Regarding the following question: May a preacher, under certain circumstances, distribute the Lord’s Supper to himself? We answer what we have already advised elsewhere, as follows:

    "Firstly as to our dear Father Luther, he indeed has this to say in his writings: “The manner in which to hold the Christian Mass, and to go to the Table of God” from the year 1523: “After this he distributes the Sacrament, both to himself and to the people, while one is singing the Agnus Dei.” (Opp. X, 2760). This appears to contradict that which the same Luther writes in the Smalcald Articles: “But if any one should advance the pretext that as an act of devotion he wishes to administer the Sacrament, or Communion, to himself, he is not in earnest. For if he wishes to commune in sincerity, the surest and best way for him is in the Sacrament administered according to Christ’s institution. But that one administer communion to himself is a human notion, uncertain, unnecessary, yea, even prohibited. And he does not know what he is doing, because without the Word of God he obeys a false human opinion and invention. So, too, it is not right (even though the matter were otherwise correct) for one to use the common Sacrament of the Church according to his own private devotion, and without God’s Word and apart from the communion of the Church to trifle therewith.” (II, ¶ 8,9) This later statement, however, only appears to contradict the first one. The prior refers to the self-communion of the preacher with the congregation, the latter of the alleged self-communion excluding the congregation in the so called privately spoken or sacrificial mass (“Still- order Opfer-Messe die Rede”). Regarding such, Luther concludes rightly, partly because one will only suppose to confess to Christ those things that he is ashamed enough to admit to himself, and partly because Holy Communion is a Sacrament which is given to the Church as the communion of saints, and therefore it presupposes several participants. The former self-communion encounters none of these objections and reproaches; in no way, therefore, as some have allowed themselves to think, is it explained here in Luther and also in our Confessions as something inadmissible in itself.

    "To be sure, the later Lutheran theologians are far removed from declaring the self-communion of the pastor to be the normal manner of dispensation, however in the above-noted cases of necessity, they declare the same to be undoubtedly allowed. *)

    "*) Namely if, as is not so rare here, a preacher is so alone and isolated from his fellow ministers, that if he would not administer Holy Communion to himself, he would have to deprive himself for a very long time (oft über Jahr und Tag). Naturally, the congregation is always first to be instructed about the lawfulness of self communion, that they may be thereby prepared, so that this practice does not become a source of strife.

  16. "Johann Benedict Carzov, concerning the place in the Schmalkald Articles which has been mentioned several times, writes the following: “Concerning the practice of communing one-self, this must be properly understood. 1. Although the fifth Canon of the Council of Toledo has not been approved by our church, in it it became established as absolutely necessarily, that the presbyter who administers Holy Communion to others, must also administer the Eucharist to himself, and always together with the communicants; 2. Although it is also not true what the Council of Trent, Session 13, Chap. 8 maintains, namely, that it has always been the custom in the church of God that the priest who distributes the Eucharist also communes himself, and that this custom has come down as an apostolic tradition, and according to the law it must be retained: and so we come to 3. in our churches this custom is not absolutely disapproved, such as when they argue concerning the nature of the institution of the Lord’s Supper; regarding which Chemnitz has spoken in the second part of his Examination of the Council of Trent, page 296, as one can read for himself. 4. And hence this word of Luther in the Schmalkald Articles must only apply to the particular example which he has has given, as you will understand, namely of the communion or any such Lord’s Supper in which the administrant of the mass is engaged in a private Lord’s Supper which is not held in common with others, so that he, the consecrator, is the only receiver. Hence these are two different things: to administer Holy Communion to himself also, if is also to be administered and distributed to others; and on the contrary: to take and administer Holy Communion to himself alone, to the exclusion of others. Not the former, but rather the later has Luther here opposed, which also we presently oppose.” (Isagog. in libb. symb. p. 794.) For further resolute discussion on the right of the pastor to commune himself, see Casp. Erasmus Brochmand, the renowned Danish dogmatician, System. Th. Loc. de Coen. f. 485. Also, Quenstedt in his Theologia didactico-polem. P. IV. c. 3 fol. 1033. and all of our casuistry."

    So far, Walther and friends.

  17. What is noteable in this entire section is the footnote where Walther concludes that if a Pastor who is isolated does NOT commune himself: "he would have to deprive himself for a very long time." It never enters Walther's mind that a layman can step in and commune the pastor.

  18. I read this post and was taken back to my vicarage. There, my supervising pastor would not commune himself. Instead, the pastor was the last to commune, with his WIFE! It threw me for a loop the first time I saw this, and had to participate in this. I was asked by members why my wife didn't do the same thing. (She was much smarter than that.) I think Philipp Jakob Spener would have been proud.

    Now, having brought up such a disturbing memory, I need to go and medicate myself.

  19. There's another response to the LW article by Pr Larry Peters here:

    This was one of the first things to change at my congregation. In preparing for my ordination service I asked about the current communion protocol. To that point the previous pastors had been communed last by an elder. I simply informed the Chairman of the congregation that we would be changing and the reasons for the change, and there were no issues.

  20. Fr. Birkholz,

    Thanks for your anecdote. I think it's a good idea for a new pastor to at least try exactly what you did try: forthright honesty about what you think is the best practice. Of course, your mile may vary, but among my classmates, it's worked more often than not.


  21. "I blame Fritz. He screwed up on this royally"

    Pastor Diers:

    For a second I thought you had a beef with Fritz Eckardt. I'm glad I kept reading.

  22. Deacan Gaba,

    Whoops! Yeah, I should have been more specific. Sorry, Fritz. Love ya' man.

  23. We would not even have this question if we truly followed AP XIV:

    "Vom Kirchenregiment wird gelehrt, daß niemand in der Kirche öffentlich lehren oder predigen oder Sakramente reichen soll ohne ordentlichen Beruf."

    Reichen means to reach, hand out, or DISTRIBUTE. There should be no laymen participating in the distribution of the Lord's body and blood.

    AC XIV was most likely a response to Eck's accusation that Luther said laymen could distribute the sacraments.

    What Luther actually said is:

    "Even so one should observe, and not despise, the established orders of authority. Only make no mistake about the sacrament and its effect, as if it counted for more when given by a bishop or pope than when given by a priest or a layman. As the priest's mass and baptism and distribution of the holy body of Christ is just as valid if the pope or bishop were doing it, so it is with absolution, that is, the sacrament of penance." (LW 35:12).

    He obviously was not suggesting laymen should do these things.

    Modern Lutherans interpret AC XIV to be speaking about consecrating and being the "administrator" or supervisor over the whole supper. This probably stems from the fact that the English translators of the Book of Concord chose "administer" as the translation here, based on the Latin of AP XIV "administrare." This would be a faithful translation if the older, more Latin meaning of the word were maintained, as in "to give or apply" as a remedy or relief (e.g. "the nurse administered 2cc of morphine to the patient).

    The common modern understanding of "administer" is "to be in charge of" or "manage" something, and is completely inconsistent with the meaning intended in AC XIV. This interpretation is also completely untenable given the specific use of language seen in the Apology.

    Earlier in the Apology it is stated:

    "Nun lehren die unsern also, daß die Gewalt der Schlüssel oder der Bischöfe sei laut des Evangeliums eine Gewalt und Befehl Gottes, das Evangelium zu predigen, die Sünde zu vergeben und zu behalten und die Sakramente zu reichen und zu handeln." [AC, art. XXVIII, par. 5]

    And again in the Formula, this distinction is also made, utilizing a similar word for the act of distribution:

    “Daher ist nun leicht zu antworten aus allerlei Fragen, damit man sich jetzt bekümmert, als diese ist: ob auch ein böser Priester könne das Sakrament handeln und geben, und was mehr dergleichen ist." [FC, SD, art. VII, par. 24]

    zu reichen = to distribute (literally to reach, hand, or hold out; as it is common in German to say, "please reach me the potatoes").

    zu handeln = to act or do business - in which it can be assumed the confessors were referring the "act" of being the "celebrant" - especially when there was more than one pastor (which was common, especially in large parishes). Hence, one priest would "handeln" and they both would "reichen" the Sacrament - which explains why the FC and AC quotations above mention both.

    I hope you can see that if AC XIV entailed only what defenders of our modern practice of having lay communion assistants would wish it to mean, the word "handeln" would have been used, not "reichen."

    There should be no laymen distributing communion according to AC XIV, and that would include communing the pastor. If Luther had introduced the practice of laymen distributing the Sacrament, even if only to the pastor, his accusers would have been correct.

    This is just the type of thing Loehe feared would happen if we lost German as our theological language. He was right.

  24. Also, Nicea I (AD 325) took distribution of Holy Communion very seriously in canon 18:

    It has come to the attention of this holy and great synod that in some places and cities deacons give communion to presbyters, although neither canon nor custom allows this, namely that those who have no authority to offer should give the body of Christ to those who do offer. Moreover it has become known that some of the deacons now receive the eucharist even before the bishops. All these practices must be suppressed. Deacons must remain within their own limits, knowing that they are the ministers of the bishop and subordinate to the presbyters. Let them receive the eucharist according to their order after the presbyters from the hands of the bishop or the presbyter. Nor shall permission be given for the deacons to sit among the presbyters, for such an arrangement is contrary to the canon and to rank. If anyone refuses to comply even after these decrees, he is to be suspended from the diaconate.

  25. My thoughts exactly... check out my blog for the full deal...

  26. The whole thing is silly. It is adequately answered theologically by asking: who is called and ordained to administer the Sacrament in that place. It is answered liturgically by just doing what the red in the LSB. "I'm just doing what the book says to do and it make sense since you all called ME here to do this among you."

  27. Pr. Weedon,

    I totally agree. However, the rite vocatus of Augustana XIV has been contradicted by two generations of aberrant practice, and a tacit denial of the clear doctrine of that article. I have been told, to my face, that elders have a divine call to administer communion to the pastor, and that furthermore it is sin for a pastor to administer it to himself. Even Fritz's pastoral theology admits the legitimacy of self-communing, but at the same time gives the horrendous advice that a layman should be appointed to do it instead. For goodness sakes, Walther himself is much to blame for his own wishy-washy concept of "auxiliary offices" that in the end means whatever you want it to mean.

    The practice was further confused by the LCMS practice of having pastors commune at pastoral conferences instead of with their own congregations. I believe this practice was inherited from the state ordinances in Saxony that prohibited pastoral self-communion.

    The rest is all cargo cult. A congregation does it because they have "always done it" and various apocryphal explanations are invented to justify the practice. We see much the same in the writings of Gerhard on the subject.

    And now we are left trying to pick up the pieces and correct and aberrant practice.

  28. Amazingly, when this issues arises many well-intentioned, devout Lutherans will state that a pastor administering the Lord's Body and Blood to himself in the congregation is "Roman Catholic." I always point out that since Vatican II lay people regularly distribute the hosts in the R. C. Church and I say, "We shouldn't have that either, right?" It's usually the same people who don't like crucifixes or chanting.

    A question: since the pastor acts in his office, is he really "communing himself?"

    My thoughts: I know he's physically giving himself that Lord's Body and Blood, but he does not do so as William Weedon (*I'm using Pr Weedon as an example) the saint and sinner. The celebrant, Pastor Weedon, one called and ordained to the Office of the Holy Ministry, gives the sinner/saint (Willliam Weedon) the Lord's Body and Blood. Again, it's about officium and vocatus. Since the Word is added to the element via the called and ordained Minister, it's not an act of self communion as if the individual (Willam Weedon) had some indelible character or power within himself. Like the other sinners in the congregation, he receives the gifts that Christ gives through the Office of the Holy Ministry.


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