Monday, May 4, 2015

Sacred experience of sacrement.

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending a First Communion mass for my godson.  I am not Roman Catholic but have enough close associations with Roman Catholicism to understand and appreciate it.  I have always admired the depth and resonance of mass.  There is a deep connection to history.  It is rooted in ancient traditions, millennia old theology and a love for God that transcends into mysticism and untold glory.

As we sat in our pew I was struck by the intense commitment, that went into this hour of sacred time.  I have young children and regularly attend concerts and assemblies, plays and parties.  Generally, these events are expected to be chaotic, disorganized, with minimal preparation.  No one puts out the good china, the good clothes, the good instruments.  Afterall, these are kids.  They won’t know the difference…and they might break something!

Not so for this holy event.  The church was decorated with fresh flowers.  At the end of the pews hung banners, hand made by the children themselves, each bearing the name of a child being inducted into this sacrament of the church that day.  There was a full choir.  Their teachers and school principal were in attendance.  Their families, friends, and godparents were there, too.  All the adults were dressed as if they were attending a wedding.  Siblings younger and older were similarly dolled up and spiffy.  Fancy dresses, fancy hair, fancy suits.  No effort was spared.

The children, known as first communicants, were dressed better than they had ever been in their lives!  The girls traditionally wear white dresses that range in design from elegant simplicity to something that would make any bride green with envy.  Several wore veils and white gloves.  They had their hair done in buns and curls with ribbons and fancy barrettes.  The boys were in perfect little suits, complete with vests and boutonnieres and uncomfortable shoes. 

Before the service began, one of the organizers of the event made some procedural announcements.  Among them, he asked that no photographs be taken during the service.  The reason…because first and foremost this was a time of worship, a time focussed on God, and nothing should distract from that nor from the children’s first experience of this sacred communion. 

After the announcements concluded the children were taken out into the lobby of the church and arranged into a processional.  They marched in behind the priest, music playing, candles burning, banners held high, displaying to all their commitment to this day and this sacrament.  They then danced and marched all around the altar and dais as the church looked on smiling and cheering for them.

The communicants were seated in the first two rows of pews, by themselves.  Parents and families were seated behind.  The focus was wholly on the spiritual experience they were about to undergo; their first grown up act of faith.  After all, there had been weeks, if not months of preparation for this moment.  Catechism had been thorough.  These seven year olds were taught well what it means to partake of the body and blood of Christ.  They had heard what would happen at this mass and what it signified.  They had been watching their families partake for years.  Now, here they were, dressed up physically and spiritually, eager to know the mystery that is the Eucharist.

I would like to note that this was not a special mass for the families.  This was the church’s regular 11 am worship service.  The church had willingly given over its time to disciple these children in the ways of the faith.  It is not seen as detraction, as obligation.  There is no complaining about loss of preaching time or worship band time or the extra work involved.  Celebrating First Communion is seen as a sacred and joyous privilege for the church.  A commitment that they enter into with glad hearts and willing hands.  This is sacrament!

After the opening prayers and songs, the priest began his homily.  It was a sermon for the children.  He preached to them, in terms they would understand.  He also made a call to arms to the parents and families regarding their sacred duty to continue to disciple and uphold these children in their spiritual journey.  His message was strong and direct and full of love and joy and humour and encouragement. 

As we approached Holy Communion, the children began to fidget.  They knew it was almost time!  They were called forward to receive the elements first, as the rest of the assembled church stood and watched and prayed and sang.  Shining faces, shining clothing, shining hair, shining spirits, moving forward and receiving the small, white wafer that is so much more than unleavened bread. 

I could feel the swell of spiritual power as these children joined with the all the saints before them in receiving into themselves the body and blood of Christ, the lamb who was slain, whose blood has washed us clean.  I could feel the movement of the Holy Spirit.  I could feel the joy of God the Father.  I could feel the pleasure of the Son as his command to “do this in remembrance of me” was being honoured by the next generation, two thousand years after he first issued it. 

It was such a powerful experience, that First Communion service.  We joined in a ritual, a tradition, a practice of sacredness that spans thousands of years.  The depth and breadth of the experience was awe inspiring.  And it made me aware of a paucity of sacred time in my own church experience.

Roman Catholics acknowledge seven sacramental life events.  In the Protestant world we know two sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  Given that we have only chosen those two, wouldn’t it make sense to celebrate them more vigorously?  In most Protestant circles, first communion is a non-event, rarely marked.  After seeing the majesty and grandeur and seriousness with which our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters mark the event, I wonder if we aren’t missing out on something wonderful and holy?

A sacramental view of life isn’t for everyone, I know.  But I truly believe that there are some events, some spiritually powerful moments that deserve to be sacraments.  And if they are sacred, then they deserve to be celebrated and honoured in sacred and holy ways.  In the words of Issac Watts, “Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.”

These are not questions with easy answers and I must admit that I tend to enjoy ruminating on the meaning of spiritual things more than most.  I will certainly be considering how to introduce The Lord’s Supper to my own children when it comes their time to partake.

But whatever theological questions it may have raised for me, I am absolutely glad that I was there as a witness.  I am honoured that I took part in this sacred life event with my godson. 

Above all, I am grateful that God gave us His Son, body and blood, and that centuries later, we can still come together in his name and celebrate with our children that we are loved and we are forgiven.  I am so humbled, yet again, by the grace God pours out on me, on our children, on all of us. 

“To Christ, who won for sinners grace
By bitter grief and anguish sore,
Be praise from all the ransomed race
Forever and forevermore.”  –Isaac Watts


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