First Holy Communion
There is a practise in the United States and Canada, usually part of the First Holy Communion experience, recommended by experts in pastoral theology at the Catholic University of America. It is designed to remind the communicants, and their families and friends, of what this coming together is all about. It is a pastoral practise we might want to think about using in India.
Whenever possible, the children come to the altar at the end of the offertory gifts and stand around it as a sign to them of the royal priesthood in which they participate as a result of their baptisms. They are called upon to make all things holy and to bless and praise God for all the goodness they encounter. For many, this is the first time they have been so close to the ritual of the Eucharist and it is a powerful moment for them. After the consecration, when the celebrant asks them to proclaim the mystery of faith, they do so but in a unique and vital way.
The children extend their right hand toward the bread and wine and declare, “This is the Body of Christ.” Then they put that hand onto their own chest and repeat, “This is the Body of Christ.” Then they extend both hands in the direction of each other, of all others, and making eye contact with them, they say, “This is the Body of Christ”, or sometimes, “We are the Body of Christ.” Then, with the children, the whole congregation is invited to repeat this proclamation. Imagine this and think of all that it is intended to convey about why we gather, who we are, and what we are for.
We proclaim that Jesus, who is always with us, is present to us in an intensified way when we gather in his name. It is almost like the difference between having a telephone call from a friend and being with them in person. Putting a hand on our breasts reminds us that we are the ones who must take the Christ event to the whole world, that we must become as incarnated in and concerned about anything that oppresses the human spirit in our time and place as Jesus was in his. The gesture makes clear our great worth and our mission commission. Finally, when we proclaim in faith that all who are in the assembly are the Body of Christ, we celebrate the diversity of God’s creation of us, and we commit ourselves to use each other intelligently and lovingly, to learn from and with each other what we can do to leave the created order better for our having been in it. We join our God in making all things, including ourselves, new and good. We rejoice in the good that we are and pray that that goodness will stay with us and become even greater.
All this we proclaim and pray for in these simple gestures. Jesus did the same in the simple proclamation he made of the goodness of creation when he blessed the staples of bread and wine that were on every Jewish table of his time. The bread would have been much like our chappatis, and the wine was there simply because it was safer to drink than water. The wine on their table would be perhaps like that of the jira water that is on most of our tables in India today. It was ordinary food and drink celebrated in an extraordinary way, that we have come to believe was the first Eucharist. It may have been a Passover meal but it was more like a fellowship meal, actually something like our Rotary Club dinners or Lions Club dinners. It was a meal with a group of people committed to the same things and designed the same good and working for it.
We forget perhaps the intimacy of this kind of meal in ancient times. To be at the same table was to believe that the same blood, the same life force flowed through the veins of all who partook of that same food. It was to effect a band of brothers and sisters and the ultimate evil was to violate that hospitality. To kill an individual with whom one had once sat at table was the ultimate crime. It was equivalent to killing oneself. Eating together was the taking of an oath that all at the table would work toward nothing else but the total well-being of each other.
There was another dimension to this eating and it involved forgiveness. This was especially so among the Jews and continues as a practise among them even to this day. It is hard for most of us to apologize even though we know we were very wrong. We also know that many times, most times, there are two sides to every story where there are conflicts. Without needing to apologize formally to each other, when one Jew invited the other to his or her table, and the other came, it was understood that each forgave the other.
In the early church we are told that in the communities where there were differences, the Eucharist could not proceed until they had been formally resolved, which is from where we get our present emphasis beginning our comings together with a confession of our sins.
We undoubtedly lost something when our Eucharistic gatherings moved from homes into the basilicas, when we went from the dining room table to the altar erected in huge buildings to accommodate the numbers when it became not only acceptable but essential to be a Christian. But no matter the size or location of our gatherings, their purpose must be to celebrate Christ among us, God with us, for us, and in us, and our determination to be a Christ of God for others, all others, for persons of every caste, creed, and community, for those as near and dear to us as family and friends, for those far form us in other places and other lands. If we refuse this, then we are not the Body of Christ.
The readings today remind us of all of this in a special way. The blood that flows through Jesus, that is, his life force, flows also through us. Blood in both testaments represents our very being, that which makes us what we are. The priest Melchizedec, whose ministry changed the blood sacrifices of the Original Testament, and who even today is held out as a model for contemporary priests, blessed the ordinary and saw God’s gifts in it. Hebrews says that what pleased God is the life of Jesus whose whole being [his blood] was God-centred and God-directed. The gospel makes clear to us that sharing what we have is the source of much good and much joy.
Perhaps today is a time to remind us of what miracles are really all about. We may believe them just as they were written. That is our right and our privilege. But we are also urged to look deeper into them and search for the spirit of what is going on in them. In today’s reading we are told of hungry people who, much as we Indians do today, usually carried their own food with them. There were really no fast-food restaurants abounding in ancient times. Maybe, just maybe what happened was that when Jesus insisted his apostles share with others the few things they had, that a momentum built among the people who were listening to Jesus. And please remember that they were the poor and for them to share the pittances they had was truly a miracle. It is possible that they did just this.
Let me make clear to you just how exceptional this would be. When Jean Vanier came to India at the request of some of the bishops to establish a L’Arche programme for mentally challenged adults, he was overwhelmed with the physical poverty and degradation that he saw as he traveled around the country. He had just about made up his mind that his apostolate would make no difference here and was not going to come. Then he saw a poor young boy who had an orange – maybe this happened in Nagpur ? – and a crippled old man on the road. The boy was about to pass the old man when he stopped, broke his orange in half, and with a gracious smile, gave it to the old man. Vanier decided on the spot that India was a country in which he wanted to serve and from which he wanted to learn.
Today sets First Communicants on a glorious path, a life long adventure of being God’s hands and feet and heart and mind in a way that they perhaps have not been up until now. It also reminds the adults in the community to rekindle that desire they brought to their First Communion to live with the love of Jesus. Amen. So be it.