I met with a bright little six-year-old girl this morning, for an hour or two, concerning the chief parts of the Christian faith and life, the Law and the Gospel, and in particular the Sacrament of the Altar. It was a great conversation. We talked about the Ten Commandments and sin, the need for the forgiveness of sins above all else, the love of God in Christ, the way He got forgiveness for her by His death upon the Cross, and the way He gives that forgiveness to her with His Word in the various means of grace. We talked about her Holy Baptism and what that means for her, and what it is that Jesus gives to her in the Holy Communion. We talked about who Jesus is, that He is true God and He became true Man (because He was born of the Virgin Mary), and that His Word is true and does what He says. The bread and wine are His body and blood because He says so. We eat and drink them, in faith, because He says so. With these gifts of Jesus Himself, we receive His forgiveness of all our sins, because He says so. My young catechumen did not doubt or question any of this, because she knows and trusts Jesus, and His Word is sure and certain and sufficient for her: "Take, eat, this is My Body; drink of it, all of you, this cup is the New Testament in My Blood; it is for you, for the forgiveness of sins." Amen.
Where this six-year-old had questions, she asked. If she was confused or uncertain about any of the things we talked about, she told me so, and we clarified things together by considering the Word of Jesus. She's still learning lots of things about life, but she already knows and believes that Jesus loves her and forgives her, and that He would never lie to her, nor trick her, nor deceive her. She is exactly right about all of this. Her faith and her confession are simple and straightforward, and they are all the stronger and steadier for it. She told me the Commandments, understanding them to be the Word of God. She confessed the Creed and prayed the Our Father. She remembered and rejoiced in her Baptism, explaining that it is the Word of God that makes that water special, and grinning ear-to-ear at all that it means for her. She knows and confesses what the Sacrament of the Altar is, what it is for, and what it does.
This dear little catechumen will be admitted to that Sacrament of the Altar for the first time in a few short weeks. She hasn't memorized the entire Catechism, yet, but I know it is only a matter of time. She has been baptized, she is being catechized (as she has been and will continue to be), and she confesses beautifully (to the extent that her present capacity and maturity enable) the same Christian faith of the one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church of our Lord Jesus Christ. I do not have any doubts about her readiness or worthiness for the Holy Communion; my visit with her this morning confirmed that, even as it also contributed to her ongoing catechesis. Nevertheless, her First Communion will be a significant milestone in my pastoral practice.
Admitting a six-year-old to the Holy Communion is not so remarkable in itself. I have had other communicants of this same age; but, then again, I have not regarded age or grade-level to be the standard or criterion for admission to the Sacrament. I have long held, and still maintain, that admission is based upon the catechesis of the Word in the Christian faith and life. By catechesis what I mean is the divine work of the Law and the Gospel, whereby the Lord God puts the sinner to death and raises him (or her) to new life through the forgiveness of sins. It is a divine work that precedes, coincides with, and follows after Holy Baptism. It is always sufficient, but never complete. It is sufficient because it is God's work. It is never complete, because it is the way and means by which we live with Him, both now and forever.
The theology and practice of the Lord's Supper is given to us in the Institution Narratives of the Holy Gospels. All of Holy Scripture informs our understanding of those narratives, which in turn inform our understanding of the Holy Scriptures in their entirety. But all of the essential questions concerning the Sacrament are answered there in the institution of Christ Himself. It is the use of those Words in the Divine Service, according to His divine command, that give the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, under the bread and wine, for us Christians to eat and to drink. It is those same Words that teach us what the Sacrament is, what it is for, and how it is to be administered and received. Jesus gives His body and blood to His disciples; and His disciples are those who are baptized in His Name and catechized in His teaching, which is not a static but living and active Word, a daily and lifelong instruction (and return to Holy Baptism).
In the past, I have always required a memorization of the basic six chief parts of the Catechism prior to First Communion. In this I have included all of the primary texts, as well as many of Dr. Luther's simple explanations. I have not understood this "memory work" to be a function of worthiness for the Sacrament; for that person is truly worthy and well-prepared who has faith in these words: "Given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins." But the fact of the matter is that I have proceeded as though memorization were the criterion of discipleship. Over the past year, I have come to think about this differently, and it is at this point that my practice is changing. Not that I am giving up on memory work as an important part of ongoing catechesis! God forbid! But I understand this memorization to be in service and support of the catechesis that is wrought entirely by the Word and Spirit of God. In other words, it is my aim to treat the active process of catechesis itself as the criterion for First Communion, rather than the cognitive consequence of "memory work."
Here has been my dilemma, as I have been thinking through these things, repeatedly, especially over the past year or two. On the one hand, there are children who are brought to church faithfully and catechized daily in the home; their entire life is immersed in this context of the Word of God and prayer, in which they are always being taught by what they are constantly receiving and experiencing, as well as by the example of their Christian parents (and older siblings). On the other hand, there are children who are brought to the church for Holy Baptism, but only rarely or intermittently exposed to the Word of God beforehand or afterwards; they are "catechized," not so much by the Word of God in the life of the Church, but by the secular culture of the world, exemplified by the preoccupations and priorities of their families. I'm making these comparisons in the extreme in order to illustrate the point. It sometimes happens that the children on the one hand, for whatever reason, are slower in memorizing the Catechism, while the children on the other hand may be able to learn it by rote and repeat it rather quickly. So, the question arises, which of these children are more thoroughly catechized and more readily prepared to receive the body and blood of Christ in repentant faith and with thanksgiving? I'm not suggesting or implying that any of them should ultimately be denied the Sacrament, but it is this very sort of scenario that has emphatically raised the question for me, as to how preparedness for the Holy Communion ought to be determined.
It is quite clear to me that the Catechism is a most beautiful and precious summary of the Word of God, the Law and the Gospel, which powerfully serves the catechetical process and continues to support the Christian faith and life, even unto death. Likewise, the memorization of the Catechism serves catechesis, faith and life, by all the more firmly implanting the Law of God and the Gospel of Christ in the heart and mind of the Christian. The value of these things can hardly be overstated. Yet, the same Law and Gospel can be stated differently, even more simply and straightforwardly, as also at far greater length and with ever-increasing nuance. And memorization, as meet, right and salutary as it is, cannot be equated with the repentance and faith which the Word and Spirit of God effect in the heart of the Christian. The Catechism's summary of the Word, and the cognitive memorization of the Word, rather support the actual catechesis of the Law and the Gospel and so help to sustain the catechumen in the Word. But there remains yet a distinction between these several things, which I believe to be decisive.
My goal is not to dumb-down the catechetical process, nor to short-change that process. In fact, I'm all in favor of a longer and more thorough-going catechetical process, one that would involve an extended number of years of pastoral instruction, as well as daily prayer and catechesis in the home and family. None of us shall ever get too much of this. But my interest is in the faithful stewardship of the Mysteries of God in Christ, including, in this case in particular, the giving of His Body and His Blood to His disciples, even His very young disciples, baptized and catechized, for the forgiveness of their sins and the nourishment of their Christian faith and life.
Those children whose entire life is immersed in a context of catechesis, both at home every day and regularly in church, are going to know the Holy Scriptures and the Small Catechism; it is only a matter of time before they do, and it will normally be far sooner than later. In the meantime, they are already the object of the Word and Spirit of God, of the Law and the Gospel, unto repentant faith in the forgiveness of all their sins. They know and love Jesus, because He is knowing and loving them with His Word (faithfully spoken by their parents and their pastors). They recognize His voice, and they follow Him, because He is their Good Shepherd, and they are the sheep of His pasture. Memorization will come with the repetition of prayer and confession, just as comprehension of the Gospel will broaden and deepen through hearing the preaching of Christ. The ability to confess the faith will increase and become more sophisticated, as these children of God grow in wisdom and stature, in favor with God and man. But they already have the fullness of the faith, because they have Christ Jesus and His Word, and their life is hidden with Christ in God. They are not ill-prepared to eat and drink His Body and His Blood, because He abides in them with His Word and Holy Spirit, and they abide in Him.
Perhaps it is ironic, but it seems to me that those children who are not so immersed in the faith and life of the Church are going to need the greater structure and requirement of formal catechesis and memorization of the Catechism as a prior preparation for the Holy Communion, precisely because they are lacking the support and sustenance of daily catechesis in the home and the regular rhythm of participation in the Divine Service. These "pre-requisites," if you will, become a means of pastoral care and a kind of "church discipline," especially where parental care and responsibility and self-discipline are lacking. In any case, I am more and more convinced that admittance to the Holy Communion has to be a function of active pastoral care, including the conscientious exercise of church discipline across the board. Such pastoral care ought to mean the communing of those who are baptized and being catechized in the one true faith, whereas church discipline should not require the exclusion of those disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ from His Table.