This Do in Remembrance of Me

In recent conversations concerning the boundaries and parameters within which the Sacrament of the Altar is to be celebrated and administered rightly, “according to the Gospel” (AC VII), I was reminded of a profound point that Dr. Luther makes in his Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper (1528), which the Formula of Concord: Solid Declaration also references and reiterates.

Here we are not addressing matters of adiaphora, nor differences in human ceremony and style, but what it is that Christ our Lord has given and established by and with His Word. This is a case of recognizing and honoring that which actually constitutes the Sacrament of the Altar, and how it is to be handed over to the Church as it has been received from the Lord (1 Corinthians 11:23).

Unsurprisingly, Dr. Luther operates with the premise that the Words of our Lord (Verba Domini) are true and efficacious, that He has the power and authority to do what He says and to give what He promises. “For they are action-words which Christ spoke at the first administration, and He did not lie, when He said, ‘Take, eat, this is My Body.” What is more, “His Word surely is not merely a word of imitation (nachwort), but a word of power (machtwort) which accomplishes what it expresses” (Luther’s Works AE 37, page 181).

Now, the Lord’s original celebration of His Holy Supper was not a one-time isolated historical occurrence, but was indeed His institution of the Sacrament, which He willed and commanded to be celebrated and administered within His Church, as He Himself says, “This do in remembrance of Me” (1 Corinthians 11:24-25). Accordingly, “When we follow His institution and command in the Supper and say, ‘This is My Body,’ then it is His Body, not because of our speaking or our declarative word, but because of His command in which He has told us so to speak and to do and has attached His own command and deed to our speaking” (Luther’s Works AE 37, page 184; see also FC:SD VII.78). Luther emphasizes this point several times, that the “action-words” of Christ Jesus in the Holy Supper “are no longer simple declaratives but imperatives also, for everything that the Words declare does take place, by the power of the divine imperative through which they are spoken” (Luther’s Works AE 37, page 183).

I first became aware of the significant importance of these “command-words,” as Dr. Luther calls them, when Dr. John Kleinig spoke to us at the beginning of the Lutheran Service Book project, way back in early 1998. He encouraged us to compare the different accounts of the Lord’s Supper, as recorded by the Holy Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and St. Paul, rather than considering only the conflation of these four accounts in the Small Catechism. This was no criticism or indictment of the text in the Catechism, which is also what is used in the Liturgy, but only an observation that the actual accounts in the New Testament Scriptures do convey different nuances, which are instructive in our understanding and practice of the Holy Communion.

What I discovered in following Dr. Kleinig’s advice was that St. Matthew and St. Mark include the Words, “Take, eat” and “Drink of it, all of you,” but do not include the Words, “Do this in remembrance of Me,” whereas St. Luke and St. Paul do not include the Words, “Take, eat” and “Drink of it, all of you,” but do include the command-words, “Do this in remembrance of Me” (manuscript variations notwithstanding). All four accounts agree on the central Verba Domini, “This is My Body” and “This is My Blood,” and there is no contradiction among the accounts in any respect. But the point at hand is that “Do this” does not refer to the eating and drinking, as I had always supposed, but to the administration of the Sacrament. St. Matthew and St. Mark give us the Rite, as addressed to the communicant disciples, whereas St. Luke and St. Paul give us the Rubrics, addressed to the Church and Ministers of Christ, the celebrants of the Sacrament.

Dr. Luther highlights this same distinction in his Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper:

Were it not for Luke and Paul we would not have this Sacrament. For Matthew and Mark do not write that Christ commanded us to do this afterward, and so to observe it. Thus we would have had to let it stand like any other story of Christ’s dealings with His disciples which we could not and must not repeat. But Luke and Paul write that Christ also commanded us all to do this. (Luther’s Works AE 37, page 331)

Throughout this discussion, Dr. Luther stresses the necessity of speaking the Verba Domini, just as Christ spoke them in His institution of the Sacrament on that first Maundy Thursday. But he also notes that we are to do what Christ did, as “embraced and embodied in command-words” (Luther’s Works AE 37, page 182). As Dr. Luther describes and expresses the point:

Let us see who would dare to say, “Do not take the bread and bless it,” or, “Do not say, ‘Take and eat’!” Am I really being told that Christ must spell out these words, “Thus shall you say and do,” letter by letter, and that it is not enough that He said in conclusion, “Do this in remembrance of Me”? If we are to do what He did, then indeed we must take the bread and bless it, and break and distribute it, saying, “This is My Body.” For all this is included in the imperative word, “Do this,” and we must not leave out these words. For St. Paul also says that he received from the Lord what he delivered to us. Surely these are words of command, and they do not permit us to tear out or alter a single point. (Luther’s Works AE 37, page 187)

It is this more comprehensive scope that the Formula of Concord describes and briefly spells out in its teaching and confession of the Lord’s Supper, picking up on its quotation from Dr. Luther, as previously noted. To begin with, the Formula asserts, “In the administration of Communion the Words of Institution are to be spoke or sung distinctly and clearly before the congregation and are under no circumstances to be omitted. Thereby we render obedience to the command of Christ, ‘This do’ (VII.79-80). In this way, not only is the faith of the communicants strengthened and sustained through the Word of Christ, but “the elements of bread and wine are hallowed or blessed in this holy use, so that therewith the Body and Blood of Christ are distributed to us to eat and to drink” (VII.81-82).

The Formula then goes on to explain that, in addition to “this blessing or recitation of Christ’s Words of Institution,” it is necessary to observe “the entire action of the Lord’s Supper as Christ ordained it.” For the command of Christ, “Do this,” comprehends the whole administration of the Supper, namely, “that in a Christian assembly we take bread and wine, consecrate it, distribute it, receive it, eat and drink it, and therewith proclaim the Lord’s death” (FC:SD VII.83-84). There is more to say about the proclamation of the Lord’s death as a fundamental and constitutive part of the right administration of the Sacrament, but let us leave that point for another time.

In faithful obedience to our Lord’s Institution, let us therefore be diligent and careful to celebrate and administer His Supper “according to the Gospel.” At its most basic level, to “do this” means that the elements of bread and wine are “taken” by the celebrant; the Words of our Lord are then spoken (or sung) with clear reference to those elements, so that “When the Word is joined to the external element, it becomes a Sacrament” (LC V.10); and those consecrated elements, the Body and Blood of Christ Jesus, are then distributed and “given” to His disciples to eat and to drink.