Thursday, March 11, 2010

Take, eat . . . but not till you're old enough!

I've spent a lot of time the last few days reading and studying.  Not all that uncommon, but with a more focused agenda than usual.  I'm looking at the history of admission to the Holy Sacrament of our Lord's Body and Blood, focusing specifically on how the Church has dealt with children in this regard.  My reason for doing this is because the elders and I are seriously contemplating changing our Communion practice to allow for younger children to receive the benefits of the Sacrament.  Our current practice is consistent with what one would find in the majority of LCMS congregations, namely to withhold the Sacrament from children until after they have completed Confirmation (usually in the 8th grade - around 14 yrs. old).  That has never made much sense to me.  And, studying the history of admitting children to the Sacrament, it is clear that it wouldn't have made much sense to the vast majority of our brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the history of the Church.  When children should be admitted has met with a variety of answers, ranging from allowing infants to commune to withholding the Sacrament until children are in their mid-teens, but for the vast majority of her history, children somewhere between infancy and less than 10 yrs. old have received the Sacrament.  In short, for the vast majority of her history, the Church has heeded our Lord's words to "let the little children come to Him" (Matt. 19:14).

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'.


Logan said...

Good for Peace Lutheran Church. Our congregation has been using this practice (1st communion before being confirmed) for a couple of years.

An observation from a Layman: the children are more focused on participating in the Liturgy, listening to the Word and receiving Sacraments each Sunday than before the practice. A lot better idea than a praise band!

LambertsOnline said...

I'm in complete agreement with Pastor Messer and Logan.

IggyAntiochus said...

I am ok with early communion. I am just wondering what the purpose of confirmation is, then. Even when I was a member of a church with the practice of early communion, I was not given a clear answer.

I have an idea of confirmation's purpose, but would appreciate the feedback from my fellow blogger.

meggers said...

Confirmation, after having received early communion, would be a complete study of the Lutheran Confessions. Confirmation is more than just learning about the Sacrament of the Altar, it's about what we as Lutherans believe, teach and confess.

I love the idea of starting a practice of early communion at Peace. It's hard to see kids who want and understand the Sacrament be denied it because they aren't old enough and haven't passed the test of completing confirmation classes.

Dennis Peskey said...

Holy Communion - very good.
Human confirmation - not so good.
What exactly are we confirming? I certainly don't know all that Jesus taught after six decades. The Lord's Prayer can still vex me when I attempt to understand all that is contained therein. Then there's all those commandments - ten of them! And please don't ask me to speak to the trinitarian creeds (unless I am addressing my local Jehovah Clueless group.) Our confirmation comes at our Baptism and, thank God, blessed be his name, this was nothing we did. From there on, it is just our miserable efforts to do all he has commanded - which, to the credit of Peace Lutheran, should and does include "do this - often" for the remission of sins.

Rev. Thomas C. Messer, SSP said...


Great question. What is the purpose of Confirmation? It's a question we Lutherans have been grappling with since the 16th century. There really is no definitive answer to the question. Luther himself called the practice of Confirmation among the papists "monkey business," since they viewed it as one of the seven sacraments, and were thus confessing it to be a completion of Baptism, as if Baptism merely initiated the Christian, while Confirmation sealed the deal (brought to completion the grace bestowed at Baptism - the current Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church retains this understanding, stating, "It must be explained to the faithful that the reception of the sacrament of Confirmation is necessary for the completion of baptismal grace" [CCC 1285]). This was "monkey business" to Luther because he recognized that Christians receive God's grace in full in Holy Baptism. Further, he rightly noted that there was no mandate from our Lord regarding Confirmation, which clearly rules out the possibility of it being a sacrament.

Nevertheless, Luther was willing to retain the rite of Confirmation, so long as it was nothing more than a rite of passage, wherein catechumens make public profession of the faith. Clearly, though, he was "itchy" about it, as he wanted to steer clear of giving the impression that it was being retained as a sacrament.

Luther's "itchiness" continued to be felt by those who followed him and the history of Confirmation within Lutheranism since the Reformation is just a mess, which lacks any real consistency. Some Lutheran precincts didn't even practice it, and those that did practice it did so in a variety of ways. Unfortunately, as Confirmation made its way through the era of Pietism, it became even messier, as the pietists began to explain it in a way that sounded Romish, and initiated (or, at least, solidified) the practice of withholding the Sacrament from children until they could "prove their faith" by completing Confirmation. Though not exactly intended, this elevated Confirmation back up into the realm of being sacramental, at least in the perception of the people, and strayed far from what Luther and company had in mind.

With all that said, which I realize is an over-simplification of the complexity of this matter, the fact remains that we have inherited the Rite of Confirmation, for better or for worse. And, unfortunately, the practice we have inherited within our own synod is less than salutary since it is more in league with the practice which flowed out of Pietism than with the practice at the time of the Reformation, varied as it may have been. It is perceived as having sacramental significance by most, as if the completion of Confirmation somehow confers whatever grace remains needed in order for the confirmands to be fully included in the Church and able, then, to finally partake as worthy recipients of the Holy Supper. It runs eerily close to being perceived as the equivalent to the Protestants' "age of reason," wherein children are finally able to "make a decision for Jesus." We can deny that these perceptions are not held, but we would be lying. The average layperson looks at our practice and concludes that these "lesser Christians" become "full Christians" by completing Confirmation - and the prize is receiving the Sacrament.

[i]continued in next post[/i]

Rev. Thomas C. Messer, SSP said...

"continued in next post" was supposed to be italicized like this - just wanted to prove I could use basic html :)

Our practice needs reforming, and I believe that reformation can be done, or at least begun, by separating First Communion from Confirmation. That would take away these false perceptions which exist among us today. But, then, as you ask, what would be the purpose of Confirmation?

I say we let it function as nothing more or less than a rite of passage, which I think gets at the heart of the actual Rite contained in our Service Books. It is just a renewal, and public profession, of the baptismal vows made before. Removing First Communion from Confirmation would allow it to function in this way, since the impression that Confirmation makes "fuller" Christians and worthy recipients of our Lord's Body and Blood would be removed. These are Christians in the full sense of the word and now they confirm their baptismal vows in the presence of their fellow Christians, promising to suffer all, even death, rather than to fall away from the faith they've been given.

Furthermore, we believe, teach, and confess that Christians are to be life-long disciples of their Lord. Catechesis in the faith never ends this side of heaven. Confirmation serves to highlight this fact, showing that these Christians have continued as disciples of their Lord. This is a helpful and salutary reminder to all Christians who witness the Rite, putting before them the vows and promises they made as well.

So, I think retaining Confirmation for these purposes is meet, right, and salutary. My $.02 on the matter, anyway! :)

Rev. Thomas C. Messer, SSP said...


Not quite "a complete study of the Lutheran Confessions," more like a complete study of the Small Catechism, along with an introduction to our other Confessions, with a fleshing out of the theology revealed therein. But, you got the gist of it down just fine. :)

Rev. Thomas C. Messer, SSP said...


All points well made. Our true confirmation does take place at our Baptism, and the Rite of Confirmation can be nothing more than a man-made rite. That's what I think we should be trying to emphasize, and as I said in my response to Iggy, I think separating First Communion from Confirmation would go a long way toward accomplishing that.

meggers said...

You meant what I knew. :)

IggyAntiochus said...

Thanks, Rev!

One more question...or two!

Adults are generally taught the entire small catechism prior to full communion membership.

For children, do they get just part of it before communion, then the rest before confirmation?

Rev. Thomas C. Messer, SSP said...

Adults are generally taught the entire small catechism prior to full communion membership.

Yes, but only in a preparatory way, so that they can, in good conscience, make a profession of faith in agreement with ours. In other words, they are catechized in the basic articles of faith as taught in the Small Catechism, but a big part of that catechesis is geared toward teaching them the importance of ongoing catechesis through regular attendance in Divine Service and Bible Study.

Preparing adults is different from preparing children. Adults are not under the guardianship of their parents, but are independent. They speak for themselves. Plus, they often come with false understandings of what Christianity is, based on what they have learned elsewhere. Those false understandings require more time to overcome/replace with the truth before instruction on the Sacraments, etc. can be done. Thus, it stands to reason that they will need more preparation before coming to the Table of our Lord than would children who have been Baptized, regularly attend, and are under the guardianship of their parents.

For children, do they get just part of it before communion, then the rest before confirmation?

Yes. Following Luther, they only need preliminary instruction so that they can recite the Ten Commandments, Creed, and Lord's Prayer, and express their desire to receive the Sacrament before being welcomed to the Table. Why? Because we can be sure that they will continue to receive the ongoing catechesis they need, since their parents (guardians) vow to make sure that is the case.

Whether adults or children, we need to make sure that a) the importance of ongoing catechesis is emphasized and b) that we're careful not to give the impression that the possession of a certain amount of intellectual knowledge is a prerequisite for the Supper, but rather faith in these words, "Given and shed for you."

Dcn Latif Haki Gaba SSP said...

I applaud your move to earlier communion. And you make a good point about the way the history of first communion has shifted back & forth, defying conventional wisdom about either the RC or the Lutheran position. When Pope Pius X in the early 20th cent. lowered the age for first communion, he was restoring his church's practice to that of an earlier era, and in some ways catching up with early Lutheran practice.

When Luther says in the SA, "Thank God, today a child seven years old knows what the church is," whether he intended it or not as a reference to communion practice, I think he is making a brilliant eucharistic statement. For it is in the Holy Supper, on our knees at the altar, that the Church is both hidden and revealed for what she is.

Rev. Thomas C. Messer, SSP said...

Deacon Gaba,

I quite agree about Luther's "7 year old" remark. To know the Church is to know the Lord who gives Himself to His Bride in the Holy Supper.