Tuesday, January 11, 2011

High Mass Without Communion?

by Larry Beane

A strange turn of phrase is found in today's devotional reading from To Live With Christ by Bo Giertz (translated from Swedish into English by Richard Wood and Bror Erickson:

"The Divine Service Jesus experienced in the synagogue was the basis for the Swedish high mass without communion" (page 103).

The word commonly translated as "High Mass" from Swedish is actually an amalgamation of "High Mass" and "God's Service" (German: Gottesdienst).  In Swedish the whole word is: Högmässogudstjänst.

But the idea of a "Mass without communion" is not only an oxymoron, it is also a concept as alien to the Lutheran Confessions as the "Non Communion Sunday" - a creature that ought to exist, like the unicorn, only in myth.  But the rarification of the Holy Sacrament among Lutherans is not limited to Americans and Germans, as it also infected the Nordic churches as well - in spite of their overall greater emphasis on the catholic tradition of Lutheran ceremony and rite.

Our own American version, of course, comes from The Lutheran Hymnal, page 5, a service known officially as "The Order of Morning Service Without Communion," but also bearing the affectionate unofficial moniker: "The Dry Mass."  

But how can it be a Mass when there is no Mass?

I can't read the words "High Mass without Communion" without calling to mind Uncle Remus's paradox: "How can there be a tale, when there ain't no tail?"


  1. The historical explanation I've heard for Sundays without communion in the American West was the paucity of pastors. I'm sure that at least strengthened the tendency even if it did not create it.

    What's the story in Sweden, though? What's the cause of a massless Sunday up North?


  2. While I don't have a Swedish edition of To Live with Christ, I suspect that the word being translated is actually Högmässa (high mass), which is the common term in Sweden for the sung service on Sunday. As with us Lutherans in the US, the weekly eucharist as norm is something that has only been restored in the last couple of generations, having pretty much universally disappeared in Lutheranism by the mid-18th century. Still today a "dry mass" of some sort remains all too typical in Lutheran churches. Communion was dropped (Rationalism and Pietism are among the culprits, though the admonitions of Luther himself suggest that the Reformation may not have increased the frequency with which most people actually partook of the Sacrament, so unlike the Roman Mass, if no laity presented themselves the Communion part of the "mass" was just skipped over) but the language for the service didn't.

    Indeed, the term is literally nonsense. As is the LBW's "Holy Communion" without Communion (and the Gottesdienst [or the LW/LSB "Divine Service"] without Communion). Nevertheless, that's how the language has been actually used among Lutherans for many generations in all our native languages -- to the annoyance of wooden literalists who want language and grammar to be consistent like arithmetic. ;-)

    Pax, Steven+

  3. Since the synagogue would not have had "communion," I don't think the sentence quoted is referring to a "dry mass." It is quoted as a single sentence out of context, so I can't tell what Giertz's point is. But it need not say any more than the service of the Word in the Swedish High Mass (ie sung liturgy) is essentially what Jesus experienced in the synagogue without (of course!) communion.

    It's helpful always to read things in their best light as well as their worst.

  4. And that from our resident pessimist. I LOVE it!

  5. I came here to say what Cwirla said. But then I saw he already said it. So, what he said.

  6. The whole devotion is on the Divine Service. Giertz is defending tradition and seeking to restore meaning to the rites which are seen as being empty. He is not defending a "dry mass", but simply saying that the Swedish high mass without communion has roots in the synagogue service, which Jesus Himself would have known well. I guess this is just the Service of the Word?

    It was a good reading, but this strange note did catch my attention as well.

  7. Pr. Cwirla writes:

    "Since the synagogue would not have had "communion," I don't think the sentence quoted is referring to a "dry mass.'"

    Actually, that's how the footnote explains it. The "without communion" *means* the Swedish Mass without communion.

    In other words, the Swedish "Page 5."

  8. You won't find many folks with more knowledge of or respect for the Rt. Rev. Gierz than our own Fr. Beane. I didn't take his comments as being directed against the sainted bishop or as derogatory in any other way. He's just noting the oddity: a Mass that isn't a Mass.

    We are quite blessed in how far so many of our parishes have come in the past 50 years in reestablishing a healthy emphasis on the Lord's Supper.


  9. It is somewhat ironic that so many people - on Facebook and here - jumped all over Rev. Beane for putting things in a negative light when that is exactly what they did with his post. Strange...

  10. I just checked the Swedish, (page 69 of Att Tro på Kristus) and it reads: "Högmässa utan nattvard" (High Mass without Communion) - which is a particular service in the 1937 Swedish hymnal of Bo Giertz's day.

    In the edition that I have (Melodi Psalmbok), a gracious gift from Rev. Hans Andrae, the "Högmässa utan nattvard" is found on Page 3 of the back part of the hymnal (Den Svenska Kyrkohandboken och Den Svenska Evangelieboken).

    So, just as our '41 hymnal had its "Dry Mass" on Page 5, the Swedish '37 hymnal had its version on Page 3.

    I don't know for sure, but I suspect it is a phenomenon of the times.

  11. I'd like to hear Bror Erickson's take on this since he is the translator of this work and is quite well read in the works of Bo Giertz. I'm glad to know that the footnote supports the premise of the original post. It would have been nice to indicate such.

    To put things in a more positive light, I am also quite pleased to note that the service without communion was not a TLH innovation.

  12. I've never run across any description of Page 5 as a "TLH innovation" (which is by no means to say that nobody ever said it!). Rather than see it as a "TLH innovation" I think it's safe to say that Page 5 was more a reflection of what was already going on (infrequency of communion) well before 1941.

    And obviously, it was going on elsewhere besides the U.S.

  13. Weed: Not a pessimist. Just a realist.

    Remember the old Nagel axiom of best light / worst light? Giertz neither approves nor disapproves of the "dry mass." He is simply noting that Jesus would have recognized the service of the Word from its synagogue roots. Giertz is saying nothing more. It's unfortunate to take this quote, which makes an important historical point, and use it as a platform for a rant against the evils of the "dry mass." Bo Giertz was one of the greatest proponents of the liturgy in the renewal of the church as there was in the 20th century. I'm really pleased to see this great book of his devotions come to English speaking Lutheranism. Bror Erickson continues to do a great service.

  14. TLH p. 5 was an innovation for English-speaking Lutheranism. The prior Evangelical Lutheran Hymnbook did have a provision for an exit when there were no communicants ( Lutherans in general did not commune every Sunday even when the Supper was offered every Sunday), but no hymnal had a specific service that was essentially the Mass without communion (p. 5). TLH page 5 was indeed a novelty that drew much criticism when it was introduced in 1941. I am gratified to know that there was a precedent in the Swedish Lutheran churches.

  15. "I am gratified to know that there was a precedent in the Swedish Lutheran churches."

    Why be gratified that it happened already to another church?

  16. "It's unfortunate to take this quote, which makes an important historical point, and use it as a platform for a rant against the evils of the "dry mass." "

    1. Really? it is unfortunate to take an opportunity whenever one finds one, to rant against the dry mass? The Church needs men who will seize opportunities to speak, to stand up, and take risks for the glory of Christ and the integrity of His Sacrament, all while, let's face it, being rather mild and respectful.

    2. Interesting to see you going after a man's treatment of another man's words, when you yourself exhibited childish name calling toward me when I merely mentioned certain celebrant's rubrics on the former Wittenberg Trail. (By the way, to be clear, I am not "hurt" by what happened in past interactions, or any such thing. If aything, I am amused. I will not let pass without notice, however, the hypocrisy.)

  17. Dear William:

    I'm sorry that I was unclear. I didn't mean to be.

    Giertz gave no "approval" of the Mass Without Communion. It was just a reality of life in his church. Of course, Giertz was a proponent of both liturgy and sacrament, and I am a big proponent of Giertz's writings.

    I believe Bp. Giertz is one of the greatest Lutheran theologians of our time, and am gratified at the ongoing translation projects of his work.

    I hope that clears things up...

  18. It does clear things up considerably. I'm a huge fan of Giertz's writings. Thanks for the clarification!

    Latif: What name did I call you on the old WT? I honestly don't recall. Shoot me a reminder and I'll be glad to apologize. As for hypocrisy, what does that have to do with anything? Beane and I have been sparring for years. We have an understanding. ;)

  19. "I honestly don't recall. Shoot me a reminder and I'll be glad to apologize."

    As I say, I don't personally need it. The good that a sincere statement of contrition in this matter would accomplish would be for yourself, and for the sake of the truth, and for the sake of those potentially misled by the initial behavior, which I can only describe as McCainesque. It's in the public record. Maybe if you really do want to rehash it some time, and I have the energy, I'll oblige you.

  20. By the way, you have a history of claiming that I have no business bringing this up unless I first "shoot" you an email about it. I decline to buy into the premise of that line of thought. Thanks but no thanks.

  21. Didn't say that, Latif. My history notwithstanding (whatever that means) I read my email on a daily basis. I rarely read Gottesdienst unless someone points something of interest out to me. Suit yourself.

  22. "I am gratified to know that there was a precedent [for the "dry" Mass] in the Swedish Lutheran churches." -- Rev. Cwirla

    I would caution the gentle reader not to be hastily or overly gratified, by a precedent for our sins which occurred in a Garden.

    And I'm not talking about a garden and maybe four surounding rivers, in Malmo.


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