25 May 2008

First Communion Redux: Catechetical Prerequisite or Pervasive Context

It was twenty-eight years ago on this date, the 25th of May, that I underwent the Lutheran rite of confirmation and received my First Communion: at Grace Lutheran Church in Wood River, Nebraska, from my pastor, my father, the Reverend Don Richard Stuckwisch, Sr. Now, on this day in the Year of Our Lord 2008, it has been the occasion of my son Justinian’s First Communion, together with another of my young Emmaus catechumens. Both of them are six years old and have been in formal catechesis classes with me, their pastor, since the beginning of this academic year. They have each been examined and absolved with the Law and the Gospel, and they will continue in formal catechesis with me, God-willing, for another five or six years. It is in such things that I rejoice, both as a pastor and a father.

This past fall, upon the examination and First Communion of another six-year-old, I blogged about my thoughts on catechesis and admittance to the Holy Communion, and that prompted the most vigorous discussion I have yet had in this forum. There were multiple and lengthy exchanges, both here and elsewhere, which continued for the better part of a week or more. I found it very interesting and helpful, and I would like to think that it was so for others, too. Whether it made any difference in anyone else’s thinking or practice, I have no way of knowing. Life has continued, and I have been consumed by the responsibilities of my vocations at home and at church. Prominent among those activities, however, is the actual task of pastoral catechesis and the administration of the Sacrament; which means that, with or without discussions of the topic (whether on blogs or over beer), I have continued to think carefully about the criteria and protocol for admission to the Holy Communion.

I have focused especially, and most concretely, upon the extent and the content of catechesis that may (or may not) be necessary prior to First Communion. How much and what kind of catechesis must take place before a catechumen may become a communicant? How is that to be measured? I’ve been increasingly concerned with these particular questions for several years now. In 2004, there were a number of articles and overtures opposing the "Rite of First Communion" in the proposed LSB Agenda. One of the arguments made against the prospect of First Communion prior to Confirmation was that any would-be communicant should already know (and be able to confess) everything there is to know about the Christian faith and life; and that such knowledge (and confession) was basically not possible prior to or apart from the "traditional" process culminating in eighth-grade confirmation. It should be clear enough that I completely and categorically disagree with the latter proposition. The initial argument is more compelling, but what does it mean or imply? I agree that every communicant should know and confess the Christian faith (and live the Christian life, which belongs to confession). But is this not precisely what it means to be a Christian at all? Is this not precisely what we expect and ask of each and every baptismal candidate? We have not wrestled seriously enough with that.

If what is meant by knowledge is a degree or quantity of intellect and academic achievement, and if confession is reduced and restricted to a particular sort of performance, then I have to disagree. On the one hand, one never knows "enough," and one should never stop learning, as though he (or she) already knew everything there is to know about the Christian faith and life. Yet, on the other hand, the tiniest baptized infant already believes and confesses the Lord Jesus Christ, His Father and the Holy Spirit, and the one, holy, catholic and apostolic faith. They nothing lack if they are Christ’s, and He is theirs forever. He Himself holds up infants and little children as the paradigm, not the exception.

So, back to the questions at hand. I’ve operated with the Six Chief Parts as the basic foundation for catechesis in the Christian faith and life, and as the functional pre-requisite for participation in the Holy Communion. I’ve done so on the basis of the Large Catechism and the historic precedent and practice of the Lutheran Church. And I have no doubts as to the fundamental importance and benefits of those key texts: the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Our Father, and the three evangelical Sacraments of Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and the Holy Communion. Of these, the first three are clearly central, a succinct teaching and confession of the Law and the Gospel and faith in Christ Jesus, the Son of God. It is likewise clear that catechesis in the means of grace should accompany their administration. These Six Chief Parts are not simply (nor primarily) a minimum quantity of information, but a definitive pattern of faith and life and prayer. That is the basis on which I have operated, and I believe that to be sound.

But where do we find this particular measure of catechesis in the Holy Scriptures? How exactly is it to be connected to the process of admission to the Holy Communion? How thoroughly are the Six Chief Parts to be known? And what does it mean, what does it look like or sound like, for someone to "know" these things?

I’m a big believer in memorization, but is memorization equivalent to, or even necessary for, the knowledge and faith of the Six Chief Parts? Certainly, it is possible to memorize something without comprehending it (if that is what knowledge is supposed to mean). It is also quite possible to know and practice something without having it memorized (though a functional memorization will occur with time). Memorization is certainly a fine outward (and inward) training, but that person is truly worthy and well-prepared who has faith in the Words of Christ.

Should it really be the case that each communicant must be capable of confessing the faith with an identical level and sort of competence? Of course, such a thing is preposterous and impossible, but it seems to me that we, as a church collectively in recent centuries, have striven and contrived for precisely that. It doesn’t work. Not only that, but it simultaneously makes admission to the Sacrament a human achievement, and yet reduces catechesis (and discipleship) to a short-lived self-contained program, akin to the factory line of the public school system.

I’ve heard it said that pastors who advocate and practice "early" Communion are really just trying to avoid the hard work of catechesis. Perhaps that has been true in some cases, but as a generalization it is patently false nonsense. To the contrary, it is those pastors who withhold and deny catechesis (and First Communion) until fifth or sixth or seventh or eighth grade — and who then conclude that process of catechesis upon the man-made rite of confirmation, as though it were all said and done — who neglect and short-change the pastoral responsibility and ongoing pastoral care of catechesis.

In my experience and observation, a greater emphasis on catechesis goes hand-in-hand with an earlier admittance to the Holy Communion. As for my own proclivities and pastoral practice, I’m not in favor of less catechesis, but far more. It ought to start earlier than it typically has — much, much earlier — and it ought to continue far longer — until death. It ought to involve the active participation of both parents and pastor, as much as possible along the way. And it ought to be a way of life for the entire congregation, no matter how young or old.

The key, in my opinion, is to focus on the character, the content and continuation of the catechesis, and less so on the confession of the catechumen, as far as a basis for First Communion is concerned. That is not to undermine the importance of confessing the faith, nor is it in any way to suggest or advocate open communion (far from it). It is rather to point out that both faith and confession are dependent upon the preaching and teaching of the Word of Christ; and that, where such catechesis is faithfully happening, then, apart from a denial or rejection of the faith, those who are baptized and being catechized should be communed.

Actually, communing the disciples of Jesus is an important aspect of ongoing catechesis and regular pastoral care; not something that comes only "after the fact," as though there should ever be such an "after." In this life, until death, a pastor should never stop catechizing, and a disciple is always being catechized. Such things are definitive to the pastoral office and the vocation of Christian discipleship.

When it comes to the theology and practice of the Lord’s Supper, I have found it best and most helpful to proceed on the basis of the institution narratives and the Verba Testamenti Christi (the "Words of Institution"). The Lord Jesus gives His body and His blood to His disciples, to eat and to drink for the forgiveness of sins. Elsewhere He tells us quite clearly how such disciples are made: by the way and the means of Holy Baptism and the teaching (catechesis) of His Word.

Therefore, the criteria for admission to the Holy Communion are Baptism and catechesis with the Word of Jesus. That has been the true measure for "First Communion" among Lutherans all along: not age or grade level, but catechesis of the baptized. The big decisive question, though, so far as I have been able to discern, is whether this catechesis should be understood as a pre-requisite to First Communion, or as an ongoing context of pastoral care in which every Holy Communion (of every communicant) occurs. It certainly has functioned as the former (as a pre-requisite), but it seems increasingly clear to me that it must (also? or instead?) be the latter, that is, an ongoing context.

To be a disciple of Jesus — and thus to be a Christian and a communicant — is to be a lifelong follower of this Lord, a lifelong student of this Teacher, a lifelong apprentice of this true Master. One does not graduate from discipleship, but is and remains a disciple in the hearing and learning and following of the Word of Christ. A disciple of Jesus never does become greater than his Lord and Master, but continues to be catechized by Him, to receive His gracious gifts and to live alone by these.

Yet, while discipleship is never mastered or completed in this lifetime, it belongs already even to the little ones and infants who believe in Jesus by His Word and Holy Spirit. Indeed, it belongs especially to these believing babes and children, who are counted among the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. While it is true that we are to grow and mature in our faith and knowledge and life, it is also the case that such growth occurs through repentance, which is to say that we are humbled in order to be exalted. To say it another way, we are daily catechized to become as little children, who come to God as our dear Father.

It’s not only discipleship in general that begins and continues with, and depends upon, the ongoing catechesis of Christ’s Word; but, just as it is to such disciples that Christ Jesus gives His body and blood, so is the entire administration of the Holy Communion set within the context of catechesis, that is, the preaching and teaching of Christ the Crucified. The Apostles and the apostolic Church are to administer the Sacrament "in the remembrance" of Jesus, which I believe has far more to do with the Ministry of the Gospel than with the knowledge or attitude of the communicants. In other words, the "do this" refers to the administration of the Holy Communion, not to the eating and drinking. And doing this "in the remembrance" of Jesus is parallel to Holy Baptism (and Holy Absolution) "in the Name of Jesus," though with an added emphasis on the preaching and teaching of the Gospel. Thus, St. Paul declares, "as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes." Dr. Luther translated and interpreted that passage as an imperative, referring to the necessity of preaching the Gospel in connection with the Holy Communion. I agree (though I also believe that both the proclamation and the remembrance of Jesus extend from the Ministry of the Gospel to the confession and eucharistic sacrifice of the entire congregation).

So, what is my point? It is that each and every Holy Communion is administered with the catechesis of the Word of Christ, and that all of the disciples of Jesus are brought to a worthy reception of that Sacrament (in faith and with thanksgiving) by that ongoing catechesis. In this respect, while it is not identical to the administration of Holy Baptism, it is certainly parallel and similar to the stewardship of that sacred Mystery.

Holy Baptism is also administered with catechesis, and the baptismal candidate is brought to the reception of the that Sacrament by and with catechesis: before, during, and after the washing of water with the Word and Spirit of God. It is precisely in that Sacrament of Holy Baptism, in connection with Christian catechesis, that disciples are made; and, again, it is to such disciples that Jesus gives His body and His blood.

Now, as such catechesis of the Word of Christ creates and nurtures faith in the heart, so does the disciple of Christ Jesus confess Him and His Gospel before the world with his lips and his life. Where there is a persistently false confession, whether in speaking or in living, or a stubborn refusal to confess, then such a person must be called to repentance, put under discipline as needs may be, and excommunicated if necessary. Yet, each disciple of Christ Jesus confesses Him with the abilities and within the limitations of his (or her) finite being and particular station in life. Thus, a four-year-old disciple should not be expected to confess in the same way or manner as a fourteen-year-old or a forty-year-old; nor should a mentally challenged disciple be expected to confess as intellectually and eloquently as a college graduate or a seminary professor. A housewife confesses differently within her vocation than a fireman within his, and gradeschool students confess differently within their vocation than a grocery store manager does in his calling and position.

In truth, the littlest and youngest and simplest disciples of Jesus will confess as they are catechized. They will believe and confess as they have heard and been taught by the Word of Christ, their Lord. Which is to say, again, that the burden of responsibility falls especially upon the parents and the pastor to catechize, according to their respective God-given vocations, and not upon the abilities and achievements of the catechumen.

What is more, as we should expect on the basis of our theology, and as I have consistently observed in the families of my congregation over the past decade, the younger catechumens who are already communing from an earlier age and throughout their years of formal catechesis classes are strengthened and supported and sustained in their faith and faithfulness by that Holy Sacrament. The result, as I have already indicated, is not less catechesis, but far more catechesis; not only through the point of "confirmation," but continuing well beyond that point throughout the Christian life.

So my working hypothesis and contention is, that the Holy Communion should be administered, not on the basis of a theoretically "completed" catechetical pre-requisite, but within the pervasive context of ongoing pastoral catechesis, which takes place in a variety of ways, before, during and after First Communion. This catechesis and the Holy Communion are integral and vital aspects of pastoral care, which ought also to include church discipline and the regular exercise of the Office of the Keys (binding and loosing). But these latter comments introduce larger topics in need of further discussion.

Another related topic is that communicants are to be examined and absolved, as our Confessions state. This is most certainly true. However, this examination belongs to the practice of Individual Confession and Absolution, and to the realm of pastoral care, and should not be equated with a public recitation of the synodical explanation of the Catechism. Likewise, to be examined and absolved is not a once-in-a-lifetime critical event, but an ongoing aspect of the Christian faith and life, a regular return to the significance of Holy Baptism. With that, it should be noted that the baptismal rite is itself an examination and absolution of the candidate. As mentioned above, we need to take seriously the teaching and confession of our baptismal practice. Another topic for another day.

Let me also state, unequivocally and unambiguously, that I am not in favor of open communion, but advocate and follow the historic practice of closed communion. In fact, that is closely tied to my emphasis on the connection between catechesis and the administration of the Holy Communion. Lutheran altars are for Lutheran communicants, as Lutheran pulpits are for Lutheran preachers, because the preaching and the communing belong together. Those who submit themselves to a different preaching, or who refuse to submit themselves to any preaching, should not presume to present themselves at the altar for the Holy Communion.


William Weedon said...

Quite helpful, Dr. Stuckwisch. I'll be recommending it as reading to my elders.

organistsandra said...

Although your topic is first Communion and catechesis, what strikes me just as much is the seriousness of the responsibility given to Pastors. We receive catechesis and Holy Communion through our Pastor. To be sure, parents are given to catechize their children, but that happens only where there is a pastor catechizing and communing them. You are certainly not suggesting an easier route for pastors. Instead, you’re pointing out the responsibility they have towards everyone in their parish. There may be a more focused and intense catechesis leading to First Communion and to Confirmation, but catechesis needs to be a way of life.

Do people talk about the ideal size of a parish? Those of us in smaller parishes have the privilege and advantage of much more individual care from our pastors.

I often feel so awkward at putting into words what I believe, and am afraid that if it’s ever up to me to defend the faith, I’ll blow it. Your conclusion that a key to determining First Communion ought to be a focus on the character, the content and continuation of catechesis more than on the confession of the catechumen is comforting Gospel to me as a Christian also, because it sounds like not just a key to First Communion, but a key to living a life of faith in Christ. My confidence is in the gifts I’m receiving, and in knowing that I just need to be where the catechesis is. I can rest in peace simply by receiving those things. As you so well said: faith and confession are dependent upon the preaching and teaching of the Word of Christ.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Thank you, Pastor Weedon, for your kind words. And thank you, Sandra, for your very eloquent observations. You may not always feel so confident in confessing your faith, but you have made a good point and said it very well here.

Monkey Laughs said...

This is a very fascinating and important topic, and it may not mean much coming from me, because I was catechized most of my life by you, but I have always found that what you have to say on this subject makes good sense.

I don't know if it needs mentioning here or not, but maybe it should be pointed out that catechesis is not confined to the teaching of Martin Luther's catechism, or even the entire body of the Lutheran confessions. I think that it is pretty clear from the way you used the word "catechesis" in your post that you meant it to be inclusive of essentially every sort of teaching of God's Word that takes place, but I think it is very easy for some people (even me, sometimes) to immediately think of the catechism when hearing the word "catechesis," and sometimes that sort of thinking ends up ignoring the great plethora of means in which catechesis really takes place.

Again, I wholeheartedly agree with what you have to say, and I'm eager to read more as you have time to post, or discuss it in person if we have an opportunity sometime!