by Jennifer Mills-Knutsen
My son celebrated his first Communion a few weeks shy of his third birthday. We were visiting a member of my congregation in a nursing home, taking communion for Christmas. As I was setting it up, he got very inquisitive about what I was doing, and he said, “I want to have communion too!” That was enough to make me say yes.
As a child, my parents decided that we should not take communion until after our confirmation, usually around age 12. Because everyone in my home church went forward to kneel at the altar to commune, I remember feeling conspicuous, excluded and isolated sitting alone in the pew. I remember being angry that people thought I wasn’t old enough to understand, and a sense of righteous indignation that anyone would try to deny me access to Jesus’ own body and blood. Clearly, I understood what communion was all about–I should have been able to partake. This experience has given me a passionate commitment to the openness of the communion table to this day. Christ invited everyone to partake at the table–no one should be denied access to Christ’s table, for any reason.
In reaction, I decided I would never deny my child the chance to come to Christ’s table. I also decided that I would not ever allow him to participate without some explanation of what we were doing. It would not simply be “snack time.” In Catholic churches, First Communion is a significant rite of passage, with special classes, dresses, preparation and celebration. In my congregation, we leave the decision about when a child is ready for their first communion up to the parents. Some families choose to wait until confirmation for their children to partake, while others bring them forward as soon as they cut their first teeth. I wonder what those children understand of their experience. Then again, does any of us truly understand the experience of the Eucharist? The sacraments are a mystical encounter that even the wisest know to be filled with mystery.
For me, I wanted my son to know, more than anything, that Christ’s table was open to him, and to everyone. I had planned to spend some time explaining communion ahead of the Christmas Eve Family Service, and for that to be his first experience at the table. But the day he asked to be a part of Christ’s table, and I could not deny him. Prepared or not, that was the day, this nursing home room was the place.
As I filled the tiny cups and stacked the silver platter with wafers, I explained to him that this was very special juice and bread–that we didn’t eat until we heard the story, and that the story was about Jesus. This bread and cup help us remember the story about Jesus. Then I proceeded to perform the short liturgy for home communion. He listened carefully throughout, and paid attention appropriately. He was probably more attentive than the resident we were visiting!
When the time came to serve, I served my parishioner first, then broke my piece in half and gave some to my son. He held it until I said, “take and eat,” and he took and ate. I had to tell him to wait, not to grab the tiny cup of juice that was so tempting, but he waited patiently while I served her and took a sip myself before giving him the rest. Then he drank, and sweetly collected the cups and carried them to the trash.
I know already he no longer remembers his first communion, but I do. I watched him enter the mystery of the sacrament and the circle of Christ’s family table. I pray that the flavor of bread and wine will always taste holy, like love and grace, and that he will always feel welcome at the table. I pray that for your children too—no matter when they have their first communion, may it be the first of many.