As a pastor, I have a front row seat for communion.
We practice intinction at our church, which means that each congregant tears a piece of bread from a common loaf, then dips it in the cup. I get to witness it up close.
That means that I see it when you accidentally rip off an enormous piece of bread, and then decide whether to take it in bites or to try to fit the whole thing in your mouth at once. I see it when you take a tiny piece and then try your best not to get your fingers in the juice. I know that a good number of you don’t know what to say after I say, “The body of Christ, given for you,” or, “The blood of Christ shed for you.” (Let me ease your suffering: you can say, “Thanks be to God,” or “Amen,” or nothing at all.)
I also get to see kids receive the elements, which is something of a different experience. I watch children skip the line to be first. They take big pieces of bread because they want the snack. They dip their fingers knuckle deep in the cup (much to the chagrin of the germ-conscious among us), and when their over-soaked bread drips juice down their arm, they happily lick it clean.
My five-year-old son, Oscar, has interrupted the words of institution, running up while I am still preparing the table. He has gone to multiple stations so that he can get served twice. He has cried over missing the feast.
I commend this to you as yet another way to learn from our children. I’d still like to keep dirty hands out of the communion cup, but otherwise I think they have a lot to offer us.
Of course, Oscar couldn’t articulate exactly what he is receiving. He doesn’t have all his theological ducks in a row quite yet (do any of us?). But he still seems to understand more about the sacrament than many of us adults.
When he comes to the table Oscar is joyful and expectant, like one receiving a gift, and that is first of all what communion is. It is the gift of God for the people of God.
I can get caught up in trying to grasp exactly what that gift is, or trying to feel the right feelings as I partake. But my understanding is really secondary to God’s pursuit of me. Jesus Christ died for me while I was still his enemy. The gift is given before I even knew that I should look for God, let alone before I could make a distinction between a sign and a seal.
I have a hunch that even now my understanding isn’t that much more than Oscar’s. Whatever understanding I have of who God is and what God has done for us, I am still just dabbling in great mystery. Oscar comes to the table as one wholly dependent, as all children are, whereas I come thinking it’s mostly up to me to make the experience meaningful or effective.
Even Oscar’s longing for the table is theologically astute in ways he doesn’t understand yet. He wants to share in the feast largely because he sees his community doing it. He wants to belong. He doesn’t know that as he partakes in the bread and the cup, that belonging is forged through the body and blood of Christ. “We, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.” He couldn’t say it, but, in some way, he understands.
Some people wonder if we should allow kids to come to the table at all.
I wonder if we adults ought to take a step back, so the kids can show us how it’s done.