On a leafy Sunday morning, the girls, adorned in lacy white dresses, and the boys, decked out in immaculate suits and ties, excitedly joined their families in a colorful parade to Our Lady of Grace on Avenue W in Brooklyn, New York. Our son’s second-grade friends and their parents had spent weeks preparing for the big day – First Communion. After the church service, joyous celebrations resounded amidst backyard grape vines, fig trees and colorful lanterns.
The term “first communion” was new to me. I was a young pastor serving a Reformed Church in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn, which at the time in the 1970s was a predominately Italian Roman Catholic community.
I grew up in the Reformed Church in America in a couple of small Midwestern communities. In those years, most Reformed churches limited participation in the Lord’s Supper to confessing members, usually those of high school age or older.
At least eight years of instruction in the Heidelberg Catechism and countless Sunday School classes and church services were considered preparation for becoming a confessing member. Thus when age, faith and courage came together, a gaggle of youth would conspire to appear before the board of elders to be examined, encouraged and, everyone hoped, received. The next Sunday we would be presented before the congregation to publicly affirm our Christian faith, making us now eligible to participate in communion. But because in that era, most Reformed Churches celebrated communion only four times per year, there probably would be a delay before the opportunity to actually participate arrived. My own first experience of communion is not one I can recall.
I do recall however, as a second- or third-grader, my holy participation in what I now think of as my first communion. At the time, we lived in Middleburg, Iowa, a community of a dozen or so homes with one gravel road running through it and no post office, fire department or police force. The homes however, were safely anchored between the Christian Reformed Church on the east end and the Reformed Church on the west, where my father was the pastor.
On the Sunday I have in mind, an older sister and I watched our father prepare the bread for communion as he cut it into bite-sized pieces on our kitchen table. He then carried it across the yard to our church, where he finalized preparations for the service. My sister and I, alone in the kitchen, suddenly found ourselves drawn to the crusts of bread that had been discarded.
Spontaneously, we each reached for a crust and with solemn trepidation reverently chewed and swallowed. I knew that Jesus had died for me and quietly affirmed my love for my savior. About half an hour later, with our hair combed and ears passing inspection, we and our two younger sisters were ushered by my mother into the church pew with the green cushion reserved for the pastor’s family.
After hymns were sung and the Word proclaimed, the communion liturgy was read. I later learned the liturgy used at the time had been approved by the RCA general synod of 1905. Over the years, it been revised, but it still retained echoes of a liturgy approved by the Reformed Church of the Netherland’s National Synod of Dort, 1618–19.
The longest section of the endless liturgy covered in excruciating detail solemn warnings concerning the many reasons why one should refrain from receiving holy communion if living in unrepented sin. Sinners warned away from the table included but were not limited to all
Those who invoke deceased saints, angels, or other creatures
Those who worship images
Enchanters, diviners, charmers and those who confide in such enchantments
Despisers of God and his Word and of the holy sacraments
Those who are given to raise discord, sects and mutiny, in church or state; all perjured persons; all those who are disobedient to their parents and superiors
Murderers and contentious persons and those who live in hatred and envy against their neighbors
Adulterers, whoremongers, drunkards, thieves, usurers, robbers and gamesters and those who are covetous
Who lead offensive lives.
Since the time I started school, my father had engaged me with the Reader’s Digest’s monthly feature “It Pays To Increase Your Word Power.” The communion liturgy of my childhood effortlessly exceeded the Digest’s furthest reach. Many of the words in the little black book in my father’s hands were utterly incomprehensible to me, yet at the same time, they were strangely thrilling. Here was word power that suggested worlds well beyond my limited understanding. Meanwhile the little phrase “all those who are disobedient to their parents,” should have created a small knot in my stomach.
Fortunately, the red flags of the liturgy were lowered to half-staff by this concluding assurance: “Rest assured that no sin or infirmity, which still remaineth against our will in us, can hinder us from being received of God in mercy, and from being made worthy partakers of this heavenly meat and drink.”
After the reading of the liturgy, the elders came forward to remove and ritually fold the snowy white linen covering the communion table. While speaking the words of institution, my father began pouring the deep red wine from a large silver beaker into three simple silver chalices. As he did so, a mysterious, sweet, musty, holy aroma pervaded the sanctuary.
In 1947, our congregation had not yet fallen prey to the thimble-sized communion glasses that later became ubiquitous in Protestant churches. The adults in the congregation received the bread and then sipped the wine from one of the communion chalices. Though as a child I was excluded from going to the table, it was as if the table had come to me. I inhaled deeply the pervasive, heady perfume of the wine and reverently bowed my head to thank Jesus for his sacrifice on my behalf. I had completed my first communion.
Looking back, I think of my experience as a spontaneous living-out of the story of my baptism and an age-appropriate awareness of belonging to God that the covenant theology of my church proclaimed.
Mine was no intentional flouting of the rules, no pioneering move to include children at the Lord’s Table, not even a new and regular practice to be surreptitiously adopted during my growing years. Nor do I recall ever speaking to my parents about my experience at the time. For me, it became a seed, a hint, a whiff of things to come – a promise tucked away in my heart. It is a memory that to this day enriches my participation at the Lord’s Table.