25 May 2007

First Communion

I’ll have to check the date on my confirmation Bible, but I believe that it was twenty-seven years ago today, the 25th of May, when I received the Holy Communion for the first time. It was at the end of eighth grade, and I was fourteen years old. As far as I was aware at that point in my life, that was the way it had always been done. I knew my catechism well, and all the basic Bible stories, as well as a lot of hymns. My confirmation verse was the Word of Jesus, "Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid" (St. John 14:27). My Dad was my pastor, the one who chose that verse for me, and for that reason among others it has always meant a great deal to me. It was also the verse I chose for my Zachary when I confirmed him as his pastor.

I don’t remember if my heart was strangely warmed by the experience, but I do vividly recall that my mind was thoroughly engaged by the doctrine of the "real presence," which had fascinated me already for years. I was glad to begin receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus, and have been grateful to do so ever since. In fact, my understanding and appreciation of that Holy Sacrament have only increased with time, as I have grown older and continued to study the Word of the Lord. Yet, the straightforward essentials were already clear to me long before my First Communion. "It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ Himself for us Christians to eat and to drink," for the forgiveness of all our sins. After all, Jesus said so, and I can’t honestly say that I ever doubted the simple truth of His Word.

My youngest daughter, Oly’anna, will be seven years old on Monday. She’ll receive her First Communion the day before that, on Pentecost Day. The Holy Gospel appointed for that Feast includes my confirmation verse from St. John 14, but Oly’anna and the other first communicants will not be confirmed this week. That won’t happen for at least another four or five years; and, frankly, if I had my druthers, I’d wait until eighteen or twenty-one years of age before the rite of confirmation. But seven years old is not too early to begin receiving the Body and Blood of Christ.

What I discovered in my seminary studies of the Reformation and the Lutheran Confessions, is that children of evangelical parents and parishes in the sixteenth century were simply taught the basic chief parts of the Catechism and admitted to the Holy Communion by their pastors, usually at seven or eight years of age. The Lutherans at that time had no use for the man-made rite of confirmation. Ongoing catechesis, that was fundamental; it was to be the warp and woof of household life. As Dr. Luther understood so well, it was essential to teach the faith, the Word of God, the Law and the Gospel, and the means of grace to the children, because it becomes all but impossible to teach the adults any of this if they haven’t already learned it. Well, let us not underestimate what the Word and Spirit of God can do, even with recalcitrant grown-ups. But let us all the more take to heart the Word of Jesus, that we must all become like the little children in receiving the gifts of His Kingdom.

Dr. Luther concludes his discussion of the Lord’s Supper, in his Large Catechism, by stating that the little children should be catechized and admitted to this Sacrament, since they also are the baptized faithful, and we need them to assist us in praying and fighting the devil. Not "cute little poopsies," but courageous young Davids with five smooth stones and hearts of faith in the Lord of hosts, who is more than able to slay an army of Goliaths. But recent generations have been more inclined, like King Saul, to encumber the little shepherd boy with a grown man’s bulky armor. As though the accumulated burdens and weight of life in this sinful world were better able than Yahweh Sabaoth to defend the lambs and sheep of His pasture.

When I was called and ordained to the Office of the Ministry at Emmaus eleven years ago, there weren’t really any catechumens to speak of, and only a handful of children in the congregation. The oldest of those children were my own DoRena and Zachary, and the firstborn daughter of a former pastor who had become a lay member of Emmaus around the same time that we arrived. Those three children ranged in age from seven to nine years old, and they were each being catechized by their fathers at home. There wouldn’t be any traditional "confirmands" in sight for several years, but there had been one case of a catechumen being admitted to the Holy Communion prior to the completion of confirmation instruction. So I offered to the Elders that I would just as soon do things according to the model that I had found in the Large Catechism and in the history of the Lutheran Reformation. There were no objections to that proposal, which is what I then proceeded to follow. DoRena was ten years old when she received her First Communion; Zachary was eight; their fellow first communicant, Lizzy, was nine.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about this whole process of admittance to the Holy Communion in the decade that has passed since then. I believe that I have gotten better at catechesis, and that I have a better understanding of what it means that Jesus gives His Body and His Blood to His disciples. There are various ways in which I have modified the procedure and the method of catechesis and examination, depending largely on the circumstances of each individual catechumen. I’ve come to approach all of this as pastoral care, more so than pedagogy. I make every effort to be both objective and evangelical. What has never wavered, but only intensified, is my conviction that children ought to be catechized and admitted to the Holy Communion much earlier than they typically have been.

I’ve heard the argument, over and over again, that we have to maintain a standard practice for admission to the Sacrament. I agree that we should have a standard, but I don’t agree that it is or ought to be a standard of age or grade level; nor that a man-made rite of confirmation provides an acceptable or salutary criteria. "Confirmation" at any given congregation can mean almost anything, ranging from a three-hour Saturday morning shotgun blast to a four-year program of intensive academic instruction. The real standard, I believe, which we don’t have to invent, is the one identified in Dr. Luther’s Preface to the Large Catechism, namely, catechesis in the basic texts of the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Our Father, and the evangelical Sacraments.

Parents and pastors, within their respective offices, ought to be teaching these chief parts of the Christian faith and life all the time, to everyone under their authority and care. The little children ought to be brought to Holy Baptism, and they ought to be hearing the basic Christian catechism before, during, and after the fact, from the womb to the tomb. As soon as they are able, according to the abilities with which they are endowed by their Creator, they ought to be taught to confess that same faith; which they will do in much the same way as they learn to talk at all. Having thus been baptized, and continuing to be catechized (until they die), they ought also to be given the gifts Christ freely gives to His disciples, that is, His holy Body and precious Blood.

The question in my mind, as both a pastor and a father, is not whether seven years old is too early to begin receiving the Sacrament of the Altar, but whether First Communion ought to happen even earlier in many cases. Actually, I don’t believe that any particular age should be determined as a criteria for admittance to the Sacrament. As much as I advocate and appreciate an objective criteria and approach, I am more and more convinced that a responsible and evangelical practice requires pastoral discernment and care on a case-by-case basis. A child who is born into an environment of daily catechesis and prayer in the home, and who is faithfully brought to the Lord’s House to be regularly immersed in the preaching of God’s Word, is surely a different case than a child who is rarely exposed to the Word.

A well-catechized child knows what the Lord's Supper is, and what it is for, and hungers for the forgiveness and life and salvation that it offers and bestows. I see the evidence of that all the time, often in the youngest of children. One of my most precious memories of my Zach is from the night before his First Communion, ten years ago. When I went to say his prayers with him and tuck him into bed for the night, I discovered that he had an awful lot on his eight-year-old mind. We spent the next hour or so having one of the more profound theological discussions I have ever had. He asked questions that demonstrated both a knowledge and a keen understanding of the Scriptures. And at the heart of it all was his concern that he might not be ready to begin receiving the Lord's Supper; he wasn't sure that he had it all figured out just yet. He knew and believed his Catechism, but he couldn't fathom all the mysteries of the faith. I assured him that I couldn't, either, and that I didn't know anyone who could! I asked him if he trusted the Word of Jesus, and most assuredly he did. He confessed his sin, and confessed the faith, both in the words of the Catechism and in his own words. His fears did not stem from ignorance or doubt, but from a heart of humble repentance. All I could think of was that this Sacrament has been instituted for the special comfort of those who recognize their sin and weakness and desire to be strengthened and served by Christ, their Savior. That was my Zach, both then and now.

My Oly'anna is a couple years younger than Zach was then, and she is different in demeanor and personality. But she has such an eager desire for the Sacrament, I would be hard-pressed to question her readiness for it. She knows that she is a sinner, and that what she needs most is the forgiveness of her sins. And she knows that the Lord's Supper is the Body and Blood of Jesus, which He gives to His Christians to eat and to drink for the forgiveness of sins. It's all pretty simple from that perspective, and I can't see why it ought to be any more complicated. Oly'anna has been asking me, almost on a daily basis since January, how long it would be until her First Communion. For the past couple of months, she has often dreamed about that day, and nothing has caused her greater joy or delight than anticipating it. My Ariksander was much the same way, though he was quieter about it. He did tell my wife, the night before his First Communion, that it was the best weekend of his life, because he would be receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus the next day. He was seven years old then.

My wife overheard Oly'anna talking to her friend, Martin, who will also be receiving his First Communion this week. Martin and his family are out of town for Memorial Day weekend, so his big day will be next Thursday, the Feast of the Visitation of Our Lord, which also happens to be his ninth birthday. Oly'anna was rejoicing in the fact that she'll be receiving her First Communion the day before her birthday, and that her Godfamily, the Schlueter's, are coming from St. Louis to be here with her. This is almost more excitement than one little girl can contain! Dear Martin's reply was that he would be receiving the Holy Communion on his birthday; and so, he went on to explain, he would be receiving the forgiveness of sins for his birthday. He reasoned that this was the very best present of all, and he was happy with that. I could not have said it any better myself.

"Do you hear what these children are saying?" And Jesus said, "Yes; have you never read, 'Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies You have prepared praise for Yourself?'" (St. Matthew 21:16) "I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, for this was well-pleasing in Your sight." (St. Matthew 11:25-26)


Zaripest said...

Please extend my sincerest congratulations to all of the new communicants! It is truly among the most joyous occasions when a new person is welcomed to the Lord's Table, to be regularly united with the whole church in Christ's holy Body.

Closely related to the confirmation verse that we share, one of my favorite moments of every divine service has become the Word of "Peace" in the rite of holy communion. I had been aware, but not very keenly, that the peace of God, which passes all understanding, is not what it is commonly understood to be by many people--a mere shaking of hands and friendly gestures of non-violence--but an astounding proclamation that, through the reconciliation accomplished by Christ, we are at peace with God. Without that peace, we, as the miserable sinners that we are, would certainly have no right to receive the very Body and Blood of our Lord; rather we would likely be cast into the abyss for arrogantly daring to stand in such presence!

I am very glad that I have been blessed with catechesis through you. I already miss the opportunities I had to be catechized in your Bible studies and frequent weekly services. I give hearty thanks for the many years of catechesis that I have already received, and for the fact that I am still able to be gathered at the Lord's Supper with you and the rest of the family--especially, on this day, with Oly'anna!

May the Peace of the Lord be with us always! Amen.

RPW said...

Congratulations to your daughter and other first communicants, and to the congregation that will be strengthened by them.

As this is a topic very close to my heart, I hope you don't mind that I link to it on my blog.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

No, I don't mind at all that you would make such a link on your blog. I appreciate your kind words. Thanks. I'm especially glad if my "thinking out loud" is in some way helpful to the thinking of others, as well.