Spring is in the air. The birds are chirping. Flowers are blooming. Skirts are shortening. Children are becoming more listless in class. If that wasn’t enough to tell you that the month of May has arrived, the hundreds of children in their First Communion outfits should. That’s right, hundreds. And I’m just talking about my parish alone. I am proud to tell the world that over two hundred children have already received or will receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ for the first time this month. My parish is huge, and our First Communion numbers definitely reflect that (our Mass attendance, unfortunately does not). There is nothing more wonderful than to see the face of a child who has received Jesus for the first time. Their smiles are radiant. Their joy is contagious. Sure, some of them are more excited about the celebrations that follow the Mass than about the Mass itself, but I really believe that at least half are really excited to receive the Jesus Christ in the form of bread and wine for the first time. I would even venture to say that quite a few of these second graders have a better understanding of the Eucharist than their parents do.
To be perfectly honest, I did not have a huge role in the sacramental preparations of our children. Our families had two options for how they were going to go about their lessons on the Eucharist. The children could either attend three sessions offered by the parish with their parents, or they could be taught by their parents at home using a textbook provided by the Religious Ed office. I visited my students in their classes to talk to them about the sacrament, but we rely very heavily on our parents to help prepare their children to receive Jesus in the most Blessed Sacrament. Because of my personal lack of involvement, I was naturally concerned when the main celebrant began asking my students questions during the homily. I had known that this would probably happen, and I had prayed that my students would be able to answer the questions they’d be asked. I held my breath as Father moved among the students, waiting for the moment of truth. I prayed that regardless of my own poor attempts to prepare these children for this amazing sacrament, their knowledge would be enough to satisfy the priests. I prayed that the Holy Spirit would intervene and inspire my students. I knew that we had reviewed all the essentials many times, but I also knew that many of my students were not getting the reinforcement that they needed at home. Unfortunately, while my catechists and I had worked hard to prepare the children to receive their First Communion, I also knew that many of them were going home to households that were not overly religious. It does not take much to undo what we’ve only had an hour and a half a week to teach these children. I was well aware of the fact that many of my students were not learning their faith at home, and that there was a very good chance that they would forget most of it. Of course, with God all things are possible, and I sat listening to my children answer Father’s questions in absolute amazement. I finally was able to sit back and relax as I gave thanks to God for His infinite mercy.
The first questions Father asked were very easy, and as I listened I tried to figure out where the homily was headed. Father began by asking my children what their favorite foods were.
“Mac and cheese!”
“Sushi!” (This was followed by a brief pause of surprise before moving on.)
After several of my children had responded, Father asked another question- “Does anyone remember the first time they ate their favorite food?”
“My first birthday.” (Cake)
“I was really happy.” (Cookies)
“I was five.” (Sushi)
After a few children answered this question, Father moved on to his next- “Does anyone remember what they were wearing the first time they ate their favorite food?”
It was obvious what Father was expecting at this point. He assumed no one would raise their hand. No one ever did. The chidren never remembered what they had worn the first time they had tried their favorite food. And then it happened- a child raised his hand. It was the little boy who had already told Father that his favorite food was cake, and that he had had it for the first time on his first birthday. Father looked at him questioningly before asking him, “You remember what you were wearing on your first birthday?” The priest was smiling- of course the boy couldn’t have a true recollection of his first birthday- but he was clearly curious about the child’s response as well. The boy beamed up at him, clearly taking pride in the fact that he had stumped an adult, and the pastor at that.
“I was wearing a bib,” the child responded confidently. Immediately, there was laughter, and several nods of approval. Good answer.
Father laughed too, and then cast a glance over the congregation before going on with his homily. In most cases, we don’t remember what we wore the first time we tasted our favorite food, but we all remember what we wore the first time we received Jesus Christ. Parents always fuss over First Communion outfits. They dedicate time to finding the right dress, or the best looking suit. They dress their daughters and sons up not once, but several times- for pictures, for Communion breakfasts, for events that are for all intents and purposes fashion shows. Of course, with such focus placed on the First Communion outfits, we do have to stress that this day is not about what their children wear, but about who they are receiving. Despite this, there is still something significant in the fact that we insist that the children be dressed for the occasion. It is no coincidence that we dress our daughters as little brides and our sons as little grooms. Sure, we might want to discourage parents from spending inordinate amounts of money on First Communion dresses and suits (which I’ve known a few families to be guilty of), but we never want to discourage them from making this day special by gifting our children with a new outfit for the day. We can only receive Jesus Christ for the first time once (and hopefully it won’t be the last time). This is the one day that your typical “Sunday best” will not suffice for our little First Communicants. The occasion demands even more than this.
And for good reason. When we attend a First Communion, we are attending a mystical wedding, and our children are becoming united with Christ for the first time. They are becoming one flesh with the God of the universe, and they will remain so for the rest of our lives. Every subsequent Eucharistic celebration is a reminder of that fact. If marriage celebrates the one flesh union of man and wife, the Eucharist celebrates the one flesh union of man and God. Do you wonder why we dress our children as little brides and grooms? Well, here’s your answer. Whenever we celebrate the Eucharist, we are participating in a mystical marriage ceremony. This union was first celebrated at our First Communion, but it will last forever. Once we have been united with Christ, we will never be separated from Him.
And that’s why we dress our First Communicants as we do. There is a deep symbolism behind our choice of dress, but there is a much more practical and simple reason for this focus on clothing. If we dedicate time to choosing a dress or suit for the occasion (or if we tell our children about the significance of a First Communion outfit that has been passed down through the generations), if we buy a little gift for our child in honor of this momentous occasion, if we follow the celebration of the Mass with another celebration with friends and family, we are communicating something very essential to our children. This moment is important. It has meaning and significance. It deserves to be celebrated. It is not every day that we are united with Christ for the first time (though once we have been, we can celebrate and remember that fact daily in the reception of the Eucharist). On a very basic, human level, a new dress, a meaningful gift, or a small party tells our children that this event is important. Of course, it’s also important to realize that the dress, the gifts, and the party are not the end of this important day. We do not receive our First Communion because we want to wear a pretty dress, receive nice gifts, and have a party thrown in our honor. We wear a pretty dress, receive gifts, and have a party because we have received our First Communion. We do these things because they all communicate to the world (and to our children) that something momentous has occurred. Something has happened that deserves to be celebrated. In this little child, God has united Himself with man once again. God and man have become one. And that is definitely something to be celebrated.
Father gave us all a lot to think about. He finished his homily with a very simple, yet important, point. He had begun his homily by talking about physical food, and he ended in the same way. He once again turned his attention to the children, asking them, “Why do we eat?”
“To live,” one child answered.
“To get stronger,” another student emphatically exclaimed.
“And how often do we eat? Do we eat every couple of months? Can we eat once, and then go the rest of our lives without food?”
The children all giggled as they shook their heads in unison. Of course we don’t eat once every month or so. We don’t eat once and then go the rest of our lives without food. If we did, our lives wouldn’t be very long. We would weaken, and then we would die. Physical food keeps our bodies strong, and gives us bodily life. How much more important is the Bread that came down from heaven, this gift that we call the Bread of Life? Just as surely as our bodies would weaken and die if we did not eat physical food, our souls would likewise weaken and die if we do not consume this spiritual food. The Eucharist gives us eternal life. Even if we ate healthy foods every day of our lives, inevitably our lives would come to an end. But this spiritual food, the Body and Blood of Christ, will give us life that will never end. With the Eucharist, we can live forever. No, we do not need to consume the Eucharist as often as we eat meals, but it is vital to our spiritual lives that we consume this Bread of Life at least a week. Food provides fuel, and fuel allows us to operate until we run out. Then we need to recharge. When we eat, we get energy, which we expend in our daily lives, and when we’re running low, we come back to the dinner table for a refill. The Eucharist works in the same way. It is our fuel, and it gives us the grace to go about our daily lives, but its many trials and tribulations drain us. Before we know it, we need to go back to the heavenly table, where the Supper of the Lord happens. We can return there every day, but at the very least, we should return once a week. Our souls are not equipped to continue without the Bread of Life. We have been created to return to the source of our spiritual life, to turn back to God often to gain strength for the journey. We cannot survive without the Bread of Life. We were never meant to. We were always made for Christ.
As He reminded us while He was here with us on earth, man cannot live on bread alone, but by every Word that comes from the mouth of God. Well, now the Word of God has come down from heaven. First, He took on flesh and became man. He sacrificed His life for us, gave up His Body and Blood for us so that we could have eternal life. But He did not stop there. Christ became man, and then He became bread and wine for us. First God and man became one flesh in the person of the Incarnate Lord, Jesus Christ. But that wasn’t enough for our loving God. If that wasn’t humbling enough, Christ deigned to allow bread and wine to become His very Body and Blood, so that every man has the chance to unite himself with the God of the universe at every Eucharistic celebration. As St. Athanasius wrote, “God became man so that man might become God.” God and man became one flesh in Jesus Christ, but now, because of the gift of that same man, all men can unite themselves with God for all eternity. God is so good.
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!