Reformation and Ritual Essay

This essay has a total of 2742 words and 13 pages.

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

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 thing"3. 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 sins""4.

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

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 baptism"10. 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 superstition"15.

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 was best performed intellectually rather
than physically16. The rationality behind this is attributable to the Reformations
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