In doing this study, I have to confess that I find the arguments in favor of communing infants compelling, especially in light of the fact that this was the norm in the church catholic for the majority of her history (evidence of the practice first shows up in the third century and continues as the norm in both the East and the West until shortly after the thirteenth century begins when the West stopped - the East continues to commune infants to this day). Now, before anyone freaks out, please note that I said "compelling," not "convincing." I am one with our Lutheran fathers, who refused to condemn the practice, but couldn't adopt it, either.
What I am convinced of is that we have been wrong to withhold the Sacrament from children until they are in their mid-teens. In fact, I would go as far as to say that we have been abusive in this regard. We keep our children from receiving the Sacrament until they're teenagers and then try to convince them that it is the medicine of immortality they need to receive often and regularly. We dangle the Sacrament before them as if it is a prize to be won by jumping through the hoop of Confirmation Class. No wonder most of them get out of dodge shorty after they've "graduated" and received their "prize."
If we believe the Sacrament is what we confess it to be, and that it gives what we confess that it gives, why would we keep it from our children? The "that's the way we've always done things" argument is never a valid argument to employ, but it's especially invalid here, since, well, it's not the way we've always done things, as history reveals quite clearly. Most Lutherans would be surprised to learn that it's not even the way we Lutherans have always done things, either. Our Lutheran fathers didn't put an age requirement on admission to the Sacrament. They didn't commune infants, since they believed children needed to be instructed, examined, and absolved before going to the Lord's Table, but neither did they wait until children were in their teens. Check out this reference from F. Bente's "Historical Introduction to the Symbolic Books" ("Symbolic Books" refers to the Book of Concord):
The tender age at which the young were held to partake of the Lord's Supper appears from Bugenhagen's preface to the Danish Edition of the Enchiridion [Catechism] of 1538, where he says "that after this confession is made, also the little children of about eight years or less should be admitted to the table of Him who says: 'Suffer the little children to come unto Me.'" (Bente, p. 82)What is interesting about the history of this practice during the time of the Reformation is that our Lutheran fathers were communing younger children than the Roman Catholics, who, since Lateran IV in the thirteenth century, were withholding the Sacrament from children until they were 10-12 years old (14 years old in some places). That is interesting and ironic, since, for the most part, the reverse is true today with First Communion taking place in Rome when children are about 7 years old, but not until they are in their mid-teens (for the most part) among Lutherans.
But, things are slowly changing for us. And that is good. With the introduction of Lutheran Service Book, we now have a "First Communion Prior to Confirmation" rite in our Agenda. I saw (or heard - can't remember) a stat recently that 30-35% of LCMS congregations are now practicing Early Communion. I don't know if that's accurate or not, but there does seem to be a renewed interest about this in our synod of late.
In any event, I am ready to introduce this where I serve, which will come as no surprise to the vast majority of our members, since I've been talking about it here and there for over four years. In fact, after a Bible Study a little while back, in which I had talked about this a bit, I was approached by a couple who indicated that they would love to see their ten-year-old daughter receiving the Sacrament. I owe that couple a debt of thanks, since it was the conversation I had with them that motivated me to get off my butt and begin talking with the elders about this. We're still in the process of developing the practice and figuring out how best to introduce it to the congregation, but it won't be too much longer before we make the move.
The finished product will probably look a lot like the practice of our Lutheran fathers during the Reformation. We'll admit a child to the altar when the pastor, parents, and elders all concur that the child is prepared to receive the Sacrament. The child will be prepared when he/she can recite the Ten Commandments, Creed, and Lord's Prayer (per Dr. Luther's admonition in the Large Catechism), expresses the desire to receive the Sacrament for the forgiveness of sins, and has been examined and absolved by the pastor. Instruction leading to such preparation will be done by pastor and parents in consultation with one another.
What will happen to Confirmation? Well, we'll keep that as is - two years of catechesis normally completed in 8th grade. And, of course, the inevitable follow-up question is, "Well, why would they go through Confirmation if they're already receiving the Sacrament?" My response: How sad is it that we even ask that question? By asking it, we're confirming what most of our confirmands already think, that the Sacrament is the "prize" they earn after going through Confirmation. I say we trust our Lord, bring the little children to Him, and have faith that He will do what He promises to do. Maybe, just maybe, their faith will be strengthened by receiving their Lord's Body and Blood and they'll come even more willingly to Confirmation than they do now. And if they don't, well then, we'll deal with that when the time comes. Somehow I doubt, though, that the parents of children who participate in preparing them for First Communion would allow them to skip out on Confirmation Class. Just sayin'.