Reformation And Ritual Question: What attitude or attitudes did the Reformations take towards popular religious forms? And how did the Reformations themselves come to embody ritual elements? The Reformation was a period of much social unrest. Whilst there existed a physical struggle evident upon the surface, underneath lie an intense philosophical and religious debate that served to test and question the values of Catholicism and the reasons for the need for change argued by the Protestant.
The Reformation movement challenged the Catholic belief system. It argued against the praising and worshipping of icons and other such relics and argued that all praise and worship should be reserved for the Word of God and God alone. However, there is evidence to suggest that early Protestants felt a need for the reassurance offered by such icons and further, it has been argued, that the Protestant Reformers, in attempting to destroy ritual, actually served to strengthen Catholic belief in same. The irony is, in that attempting to destroy such rituals, the movement actually served to embody ritual elements.
The methods by which it attempted to destroy ritual, can actually be interpreted as being ritualistic in and of themselves. The Christian Sacraments were and are an important part of Catholic life. In understanding the significance of such sacraments to the Catholic and the theoretical arguments against same put forward by the Protestant Reformer, the need for the Reformer to extinguish such importance, becomes evident. For both the Catholic and the Orthodox the Eucharist represented and represents the body of Christ. It is believed that initially, the Eucharist is simply unleavened bread, however upon being blessed such bread actually turns into the body of Christ, a metaphysical transformation occurs that remains unexplained except by reference to a miracle and a blessing.
Conversely the wine is believed to become the blood of Christ. It is believed that both serve to work towards granting the believer remission from sin and everlasting life1. The host and the sharing of same was not only believed to relieve the sinner of the burden of his sins but further had a social function. The sharing of the Eucharist worked to achieve a sense of social cohesion, a sense of unity and togetherness within a society where conflict and turmoil was a part of daily life2. However, Antoine Marcourt, a French Protestant Reformer, like many reformers of her period, argued that the Eucharistic rite was merely a materialistic ceremony and served to distract followers from the true faith. It was argued that the rite was merely an empty performance with little true significance.
In Marcourt’s own words It is an over dulling and darkening of the spirit and understanding of the people to cause them to . . . stare at a little bread, at a visible and corruptible thing3.
For the reformers the host was a physical object, nothing more, that served to detract from the importance of the fundamental Word of God. For the Reformist, the physical act of eating and drinking was less significant than the actual words used during the Eucharistic ceremony. Whilst physical preparation for the rite, such as fasting, were useful in achieving a certain level of focus necessary to receive Communion, these acts alone were not fundamental to the Sacrament. What was fundamental was an unwavering belief in the promise by God to ‘forgive sins’ upon receiving the sacrament. As Martin Luther writes in his ‘The Small Catechism of Martin Luther’, Of course, eating and drinking do not do these things.
These words, written here, do them: given for you and shed for you to forgive sins4. During this period it was not considered necessary for the masses to understand the processes of transubstantiation that turned the unleavened bread into the body of Christ. More truthfully, it was considered beyond the possible comprehension of the masses. As such, the Reformist argument is that the congregation became a part of an empty ritual. Taught when to kneel and when to stand and what to say without actually understanding same.
The laity were advised that understanding was not important, that actions were paramount5. For the Reformist, such ceremony become fraud and was deemed illusory6. Various Reformists throughout time have argued that the Last Supper has been misinterpreted. Andreas Karlstadt has argued that when Jesus said this is my body he was not referring to the piece of bread in his hands but rather was pointing to his actual body. Ulrich Zwingli argued that when Jesus said this is my body the use of ‘is’ was actually equivalent to the term ‘signifies’ and thus meant that the bread served to signify his body7.
Interpreting the Last Supper as above mentioned served to rid the event and strip the event of much of its spiritual and miraculous character, thus rationalising the Last Supper and shifting its significance from being a miracle, to being simply symbolic. The Reformists attempted to shift the focus of the Eucharistic Rite from being a physical rite to a wholly spiritual and intellectual experience. It was not in the taking and digesting of the bread that was the primary focus and offered God’s blessing, but rather the full understanding and comprehension of the Word’s used that were central and fundamental to the sacrament. Baptism is the first Christian Sacrament. It is believed that the sacrament of baptism serves to incorporate the newly born child into the community and church and further to redeem the child from original sin, that is, his/her conception8.
Radical Reformists such as Andreas Karlstadt argued that reserving the rite of baptism for newly born children was a contradiction. Karlstadt questioned: how is it that a child has the need to be baptized when the same child has no ability to comprehend sin nor is that child able to formulate the mal-intent necessary to perform a sinful act? Further the radical Reformists again relied upon the words of the Bible and argued that nowhere in the Bible was it specified that children should be baptized. Furthermore, Jesus himself was a mature adult when baptized9. For the Reformist Baptism had little to do with blessed water and much more to do with God’s Word. It was not in the actions of dipping the individual in Holy Water that served to grant the forgiveness of sins, redemption from death and eternal salvation, but rather the power of the words of God combined with such water.
As Martin Luther articulates it; Water doesn’t make these things happen, of course. It is God’s Word . . .
Because, without God’s Word, the water is plain water and not baptism10. Thus, for the Reformer, whilst water was a significant aspect of the sacrament of Baptism, the sacrament as a rite of passage could not be performed without an understanding, an appreciation of and a belief in the promises made by Jesus in the Bible. By attempting to understand the Reformists attitudes toward the sacraments of Holy Communion and Baptism it becomes apparent that the Reformation was an attempt to move away from the physical and move towards a more intellectual and rational foundation for spirituality. Mental devotion was deemed to be of greater importance and able to achieve a greater level of faith than physical devotion11. The Catholic and Orthodox faiths relied much upon the sense of sight in understanding the scriptures.
Paintings, sculptures, stained glass windows, and other small icons served to illustrate the teachings of the Bible in a society where illiteracy was the norm. For the Reformer however, such visual stimuli served to distract the individual from the truth of God’s message12. The Reformists pointed to the hypocrisy that lie behind the visual experience, the money and materials used in creating these icons could be better spent on aiding the needy of society, and this was deemed to be representative of the true image of God13. Piety and pious behaviour was thus promoted as not being the worship of images and icons but rather the practice of charity14.
For the Reformer, faith was about loving and fearing God alone; To love or trust other beings or things was idolatry, to fear them led to superstition15. Both Catholic and Protestant faith centered around the individual working to imitate Jesus Christ. For the Catholic much of this was a purely physical experience and involved such activities as fasting. Pain became the individual Catholic’s means of offering a sacrifice to God.
For the Reformer, the physical sacrifice was deemed mostly irrelevant. The Reformer believed that an imitation of Christ w …