Holy Communion is the Church’s central act of worship. It is the time when we “proclaim the Lord’s death” to the world until he comes again in glory. It is a time to commemorate Jesus’ sacrifice for us by offering our own sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. And it is a place where we meet Christ in the bread and the cup, who is present there through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The only real preparation we expect persons to receive before coming to the Lord’s table is initiation into the body of Christ in baptism. In our invitation, we imply such a commitment when we say that “Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin, and seek to live in peace with God and one another.” The initial act of repentance for a Christian is always that repentance that leads into the baptismal waters. When we find an unbaptized person desiring to receive the Lord’s Supper, it is a sure sign that he or she wants to be united with Christ. And thus it is important to counsel that person about the deep sacramental significance of being joined with Christ in baptism.
But in the case of children who are baptized as infants, how early should we allow them to receive Holy Communion?
It’s an important question, and it is important for me personally because my daughter Alice received Communion for the first time this morning — and from my own hand, no less!
There is no point of canon law that I am aware of on the point of how early children can commune. In the Wesleyan tradition, we do not have any tradition of a ritual “first Communion.” And we certainly do not expect children to wait until their Confirmation, which usually happens around the age of 12 or 13.
I think it is a serious question to consider even in the absence of official teaching on it by the Church. The reason is that our practice of Holy Communion should reflect our belief about the sacrament’s meaning.
Here’s what I believe to be the case: We should exercise prudence in how and when we introduce children to the Lord’s Supper. The bread and the cup are not magic; no one receives a kind of talismanic protection by virtue of having eaten the elements. But it is a real means of grace, and Christ is really present there. So children should have some rudimentary idea that what they are doing is a profound act of worship by the community. They should be able to act appropriately in the moment of worship, receiving the elements for themselves and consuming them without assistance. They need not be able to recite the creed or explain why we do what we do, but they should know that what they are doing is important and that Jesus is at the center of it.
My brother (also a pastor) suggested to me once that he thinks it is appropriate for children to receive once they can look around, see that the rest of the community is going forward, and desire to be a part of that great liturgical movement to the altar as a part of the same family. I think that’s a great way to think about it.
In the case of my daughter, I had no idea she was going to come forward today. (She is 2 1/2 years old.) I was on the chancel assisting the presiding minister during the Eucharistic service. As we were serving the elements, I saw my wife Emily bring Alice down in her arms. Alice looked at me and the other pastor with a smile on her face. She reached out and took the bread that we offered her, and then she dipped it into the wine. She consumed the elements along with my wife — in a moment that almost brought tears to my eyes. After the service, Emily told me that she had been saying that she wanted to “go down and get some bread” for several minutes.
Does Alice understand the basics of the liturgy or the story of the Last Supper? No, not really. But she is at the point where she realizes that Holy Communion is a very special, very important moment in the life of our church. And she has expressed a desire to be a part of that when all the rest of us are. To me, that is a sure sign that she was ready to be introduced to this most important means of grace.
I’ll admit my thinking on this is a matter of ongoing reflection. I am trying to think about how to go about this topic with prudence — between an antinomian view of “oh, it doesn’t matter” and a rigid view of setting a particular age or moment when access to the table is granted. Do you have thoughts one way or the other? I’d love to hear them.