Catholic Update

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First Communion: Joining the Family Table

by Carol Luebering

A toddler's move from high chair to the family table is a momentous event. A high chair is a throne for a small despot whose demands for another bite take precedence over others' needs. Its tray catches dribbled milk and mushy graham crackers; it provides a safety net for the messy process of learning to use a spoon.

A seat at the table acclaims a new status: big boy or big girl. The move to the table brings new privileges. There a child can share fully in the family fare (even the broccoli!) and in the table conversation. The move also brings new responsibilities. The little one must master the rudiments of table manners. Children who sit at the table are expected to contribute something to the well-—being of the whole family.

First Communion is just such a momentous move. A child, baptized as an infant into the family of God we call Church, at last takes a place at the Lord's Table with the grownups. Grandparents, aunts, friends join the youngster's immediate family in celebrating the event.

The move also has meaning for the rest of us. We smile at the tykes in their First Communion finery—not just because they look cute, but because they are joining us at our family table, too: the table of God's family. This Update will explore what a child's First Communion means to both families—the family of kinship and the family of faith—and how all of us can better celebrate and understand the occasion, as well as the meaning of every Eucharist.

Eucharist is a family meal

All living creatures eat, but only human beings share a meal. A pride of lions dine on the same carcass, but the king gets his share first. Lionesses and cubs must wait their turn to snarl at each other over the leftovers, and the weakest eats last.

ll living creatures eat, but only human beings share a meal.pride of lions dine on the same

Only in the human family is food truly shared. Helpless infant and frail invalid have no less claim to the family fare than breadwinner or cook, whether the table holds supermarket abundance or a subsistence-level helping of beans or rice.

A family meal provides more than physical nourishment. It affirms the sharing of resources, the mutual love and interdependence that is the very essence of family. It is the daily rediscovery and celebration of what it means to be family.

Also uniquely human is the ability to add meaning to a special meal. A birthday dinner, a holiday feast, a picnic outing— very young children know that these are not everyday meals. They are set apart from the ordinary by different foods, seasonal decorations or unusual surroundings, the best china or colorful paper plates, perhaps by special songs and rituals (Christmas carols, carving the bird, blowing out the birthday candles). And they often include guests: extended family, neighbors, friends, co-workers.

Celebrating who we are

Such special meals celebrate who we are. They emphasize our connections with one another even beyond the boundaries of immediate family. A kindergartner can retell the story of the first Thanksgiving. Young children already know that Thanksgiving is not just for their families, but a celebration with many others.

For countless generations, the Jews have annually celebrated the beginnings of their national identity—their flight from Egypt and their adoption as God's people— with a feast at the family table: the seder or Passover meal. It remains a family meal, celebrated at home.

Jesus celebrated the Passover meal as he grew up in Nazareth. On the night before he died, he celebrated it with his adopted family, his closest followers. Departing from the familiar ritual, he broke the unleavened bread for them and passed a cup of wine, declaring this food his body and blood given for the life of the world. In this action, he gave us the Eucharist, the family meal that unites believers all around the world at one table.

The first Christians, still rooted in Judaism, went to synagogues to pray and hear God's word, but they celebrated Eucharist in homes with those who had become family through Jesus.

Changing family traditions

The family grew. It outgrew Jewish houses and Roman villas; it grew into public buildings— churches. Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist were still one celebration of welcome to newcomers of any age, as they are again today when the Rite of Christian Initiation is celebrated at the Easter Vigil. Babies born into Christian families were baptized at Easter with the other newcomers to faith, and given a sip of the consecrated wine.

Family traditions change, even though slowly. As the Church grew, the sacraments of initiation became separate moments. Confirmation and Eucharist were gradually postponed until children, like adult catechumens, were schooled in the faith by lesson and by example. By the 10th century, the three sacraments of initiation had become separated. First communicants were 12 to 14 years old— nearly adults—until 1910, when Pope Pius X lowered the age for first reception to six or seven, "the age of reason." By then First Communion had become a "class" event.

Vestiges of earlier traditions still cling. Special occasions require special clothing, and first communicants dess up for the occasion. Wise parents keep the emphasis on the occasion, not the clothing! These children also dressed up for Baptism, putting on the white garment that represented the risen Christ living in them, as newly baptized adults do today. Heirloom christening dress or simple white cloth, the fundamental meaning is the same.

In some parishes, First Communion is still a class event—and fittingly so, for these youngsters have made the journey toward the Lord's table together; the class is a child's first faith community outside the family circle. More and more parishioners today see children receiving their First Communion with their families at a regular Sunday liturgy (also fittingly, for they first learned faith at home). Many parishes do both, scheduling a Eucharist for the whole class after each child has already received with family.

In the early Church, new members wore their white garments throughout the seven weeks of the Easter season, and the whole assembly took care to extend special attention to the newcomers. First communicants are still easy to spot. They're the kids in new finery. White garb is still the most popular for little girls, as it once was for their brothers. And these kids still merit special attention and congratulations from the rest of us.

Telling the family story

At the Passover meal, the smallest child at the table has an important role to play: to ask, "Why is this night different from all others?" Then the adults retell the story of how God freed their ancestors and made them God's own people.

No first communicant needs to ask that question at Mass. The Eucharistic Prayer retells for the whole gathered family the story of Jesus' Passover from death to life, of our escape from sin and death and our adoption as God's sons and daughters. We repeat it because Christians of all ages need to remember it—not just once a year, not even once a week, but every day of our lives. Jesus' story is our story. His victory over sin and death makes us who we are. We died with him in the waters of Baptism and rose with him to new and tasting life.

Baptism gave US a new identity. It brought us into the family of the Church as birth or adoption brings a child into a family. But Baptism, like birth, is only a beginning. It takes a long time to grow into our identity. Discovering who we are as Catholic Christians is like acquiring a sense of personal and family identity: It takes both time and intimacy with others.

Much of a child's learning occurs at mealtime, beginning with the cuddling that makes warm milk taste sweeter. It grows by leaps and bounds when the child takes a seat at the family table. Sharing the day's happenings gives a little one a keener sense of what is important to this family. Older members add family history—memories of that unimaginable time when Mommy was a little girl, how grandparents met, fond anecdotes.

The same is true of God's table. There all God's children not only repeat Jesus' story, they also express in their conversations with God and with one another what is important to this Church family, this parish family. Children may find a homily directed at adults hard to follow, but they pick up a sense of family from announcements of parish happenings, food collections for the poor, the way people greet each other, the news they exchange at the church door. Slowly, children get to know the folks at Mass and hear their personal expression of baptismal faith.

A first communicant has all along been learning the meaning of Christian identity from others—lisping prayers with parents and helping to set up the Christmas creche. Very young children catch a high-chair glimpse of the parish family at prayer and gain an impression of the eucharistic meal. The shushing finger on a parent's lips conveys that something important is happening here; people's reverence at Communion tells that what is dispensed from those shiny dishes is special indeed.

Children's preparation for First Communion begins with early visits to Sunday Mass, where they absorb the sights and smells and sounds of Catholic worship. And all of us take part in teaching what Eucharist is all about, whether we realize it or not. We welcome them with friendly smiles—or, less happily, threatening scowls. We convey with our whole selves the many meanings Eucharist has for us.

Eucharist is a nourishing meal

In the world of fantasy, food has an instant effect. Popeye's muscles swell with the magic contained in a can of spinach; Alice nibbles her way through Wonderland, changing size in seconds.

In real life, nourishment is a daily process. This morning's orange juice, for example, provides only enough vitamin C for today; tomorrow will require more. Just so, the life of the risen Lord is nurtured in his people by a consistent lifetime diet of his flesh and blood. A child's First Communion is but the first taste of this food.

First tastes can be wonderful. Watching the face of a tot trying a first spoonful of ice cream is fun: shock at the coldness followed by delight. The first bite of spinach or beets is another matter; some folks never acquire the taste.

The physical taste of Eucharist does little to please the palate, and the portions are skimpier than those from the pot on a Third World hearth! The sweetness of Eucharist stems from the intimacy of the table, from union with the Lord.

Relationships also have magic moments. The first step toward new intimacy—exchanging wedding vows, holding a newborn infant, falling into friendship—these are precious and memorable moments. But the real depth of intimacy unfolds over the years.

First Communion is just such a step into new intimacy. From Baptism a first communicant has been one with Jesus, filled with the risen Lord's indestructible life as part of his very Body, the Church. Taking a place at his table marks a new stage in the relationship with Christ, a conscious willingness to let the Lord nourish and nurture what began at Baptism. All of —us can help first communicants appreciate this truth. We are all part of this nourishing.

Eucharist is a sacrificial meal

This meal is, of course, a sacrificial meal. We are fed by the flesh and blood of the Lamb slain for us.

In a sense, every family meal is sacrificial. No food appears on a family table without cost. Someone's time and labor must provide the food; someone's time and labor goes into preparing it. A family meal always contains sacrifice, a gift of love freely given for the family's welfare.

No one knows more about sacrifice than parents. From the first night they rise from slumber to answer an infant's cries, they reshape their entire lives—personal, social, economic—around the needs of a child. It can be no other way: Their love for a child makes it nearly impossible for them to distinguish between their needs and their child's. What a youngster needs, a parent needs to give. The sacrifices they make are expressions of the unity that exists between them and their children.

Christians speak of God as a parent, using the intimate word Jesus used: Abba, Father. The history of God's relationship with the children of our race echoes many parental concerns: attentiveness, tenderness, discipline, exasperation, patient explanation. God from the beginning has wanted nothing but intimacy with us.

But God's unruly children refused the invitation so often that God made an extraordinary move. And a child was born in an insignificant village—a child who in his flesh was the perfect unity of humanity and divinity, Jesus Christ.

That child learned and developed as all human children must. He gained a sense of family at the table in a Nazareth home. There too he learned of his larger family, celebrating Israel's history in the Passover meal. He listened for God's whispers in the words his Jewish family cherished as God's own and made his own God's dream for the whole human family.

And what he learned he lived. He left Nazareth for the highways and byways of Israel, where he extended love to the unlovable, forgiveness to the sinful, healing to the suffering and friendship even to enemies. He became a threat to those who believed sacrifice should be measured by regulation. By human standards, he was careless in his definition of family, making family larger than the small private circle determined by blood ties. Thus he was handed over to death by his own people.

God affirmed Jesus' willing sacrifice of his life on Easter morning. At last the earth welcomed the footprints of one who was all the Creator had planned: human flesh endowed with indestructible life.

The life of every believer is lived in the context of Jesus' sacrifice. Because Jesus died for us, we are able to die for one another. We offer with him our lives of love. We offer with him the life he laid down out of love for us.

The child who approaches the Lord's table for the first time stands at the foot of the cross with all who believe in Jesus. The child does not yet understand the meaning of such a sacrifice. At six or seven, it is all a person can do to share toys or play quietly when a parent has a headache. The total surrender of a life is beyond grasp. The very concept of death is still fuzzy in the child's mind.

An imperfect family

Neither have the rest of us fully grasped the meaning of the cross. Most of us struggle daily against the pull of our own concerns. The sacrifices we gladly make for others mostly reflect our love within the small circles of family and friendship. Unlike Jesus, we still draw lines against those who are different or unknown; we still pass judgment as he warned us not to, labeling other members of the human family "other," "sinner," "enemy." We are far from the unity with God and all humanity that Jesus' sacrifice expresses.

There are rocky moments at the family table, too. Had parents the power, they would erase from a child's memory all traces of tension around the table, all recollection of cruelly teasing siblings and overreaction to spilled milk. But those memories are also part of the family story. Over the years a child perceives the balance and learns that clumsiness, misunderstanding and disagreement matter less than forgiveness and acceptance.

The family that gathers at the Lord's table is as unruly as any other, noted for bickering and clumsiness—even cruelty. Precious few of its members can boast of genuine holiness; most of us manage to be wise, loving and forgiving only on occasion. That is why we keep coming to the Lord's table for nourishment. There we receive a vitality of mind, heart and spirit that even death cannot destroy.

Like children receiving Eucharist for the first time, all of us are still growing, nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ. Our Eucharist is a foretaste of the heavenly feast that is even now being prepared for us.

Welcoming Children to the
Lord's Table

Suggestions for Parents

Keep the first in First Communion. Talk about the many future occasions when your child will take Communion with you.

Stress the baptismal connection. Get out the scrapbook and recall your child's Baptism. Unpack the christening garment and tell its history: when and where you bought it, who else wore it. Attend the Easter Vigil with your child.

Involve your child in the sacrifices you make. Let the youngster help you fix a meal for a neighbor in need, sort through toys and clothing for gifts to the poor, visit a nursing home, add pennies to a charitable donation.

Explore the family of faith. Visit the parishes where grandparents and friends worship, the oldest chuch in town (learn its history), an ethnic parish, the diocesan cathedral.

Put a little extra effort into family meals. Let your child decorate the table for an evening meal. Talk about special meals your family has shared.

For the Rest of the Parish Family

Be attentive to the "high chair set." Get to know the children who set near you in church. show them that church is a place where people sing and are happy, where a little one is greeted with smiles.

Watch for signs that a child is approaching First Communion, such as greater attentiveness at Mass. In your own way, welcome him, or her to the larger table.

Notice when a child is wearing First Communion finery, using a new prayer book or joining the line for Communion. Express congratulations, your pleasure that the youngster is joining you for Communion.

Carol Luebering is a book editor with St. Anthony Messenger Press and a free-lance writer. Her books include Your Child's First Communion: Handing on the Faith (St. Anthony Messenger Press).

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