Dr. Horace Hummel has this story in his wonderful commentary on Ezekiel. He tells of the church in Nebraska where he spent his childhood. He describes the reredos having a statue of Christ flanked by Peter and Paul and accompanied by a lion and ox respectively reflecting the early association of Peter with Mark the Evangelists and Paul with Luke. He had many childish fantasies about those animals, but no one ever explained to him what those two animals were doing above the altar. Much later his own studies informed him.
This was a failure to teach the rich things behind our liturgy, art, and the Divine Service. Historically, Christians didn’t pull things out of popular culture and place them before the people. This was what the Banner Theology of the 1970’s did for us or more aptly to us. But this failure to teach, of which I too am guilty, leads to a side darker than childhood fantasies of what a lion and an ox have to do with the Lord. Dr. Hummel tells us this too. He says, long after he left home “the church underwent what I can only label a Protestantizing, iconoclastic ‘renovation,’ and today nothing but a bare cross stands above the altar. The worship life of the church is poorer for the loss” (Ezekiel, I, Hummel, 18).
And the Protestantizing has gone on unabated. In Law and Gospel, Walther points out that Protestants point to Lutheranism as the least-reformed: “for they say, it still retains much of the leaven of the Romish Church. For proof they cite the gown worn by the our ministers when officiating, the wafers used by us instead of ordinary bread at Communion, the crucifix, and the lights on our altars, the liturgical chanting of our ministers at the altar, signing persons with the holy cross, and bowing at the mention of the name of Jesus” (167 Dau, 184 Harrison).
Walther points out that these are innocent ceremonies which our Church doesn’t condition or connect to man’s salvation, “but which it will not permit to be pronounced sin” (Ibid.). Then he says the Protestants mentioned in this context “go a step farther when they assert that the worst papistic leaven and the most abominable remnant of the Papacy in the Lutheran Church is absolution” (Ibid.).
My real point is this final warning. Absolution has disappeared from contemporary Lutheran churches, but what proceeded its going were the loss of vestments, crucifixes, chanting, the sign of the cross, and bowing at the name of Jesus. The disappearing of these one by one is a bellwether of which way the wind is blowing. And they start disappearing when we fail to teach not only that we are free to have (or not) but why we historically did have them.
They don’t consecrate our worship; this is the error you have to teach against. But they do concretize our worship. Jesus’ real presence in both Word and Sacraments in our space time affects what we do to our bodies (vestments) and what we do with them (liturgical gestures).