In Defense of Paedocommunion
You can find my previous “In Defense of…” post on passing the collection plate here.
As a deacon in a small Anglican parish in Lynchburg, Virginia, one of the highlights of my week is getting to serve Communion to those who are sojourning with us. Serving people the Blood of Christ while pronouncing, “The Blood of Christ, the Cup of Salvation” is an immense privilege. In some Anglican circles, ours included, there is no First Communion for children as in Roman Catholicism. Instead, some parishes choose to allow any and all baptized members of the Family of God to partake in Communion on a weekly basis. If serving Communion is one of my favorite moments, the pinnacle is when I get to give the Cup to a the younger members of our congregation (the youngest one who receives the Cup is about three years old).
But not everyone sees this as beautiful. In fact, some may find it quite problematic. After all, this three year old girl does not fully understand what’s happening at Communion, which is why some other Sacramental traditions delay First Communion until after some catechetical training. Beyond that, those who may identify with the Baptist tradition may have a problem with her being considered a member of the Church because she has not reached the age of accountability yet. Some of these issues are unresolvable in an article this size but these observations do serve as a springboard to the question: “Why do it?”
In Matthew 19, Jesus is in the midst of preaching when people bring children to him so he can lay hands on them. The disciples rebuked the people, presumably because they thought this task was too menial or time-consuming for Jesus. Instead of condoning their actions, Jesus turned and chastised the disciples, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 19:14; ESV). Jesus has a heart for children. Turning them away from him poses a serious problem because it is contrary to his heart.
To those of us in Sacramental traditions, Communion is not just an intellectual or even simply a contemplative act. It’s consuming the flesh and blood of Christ as a means of receiving the covenantal grace he promised those who would receive it. It is inherently relational. The individual communes with Christ in a special way at the altar as they act out the mystery of Christ-in-us and us-in-Christ. We do it in a corporate environment to remind us that together, we are becoming the Body of the Christ, serving as a vehicle for the Incarnation in our day-to-day lives. Contrary to some misinformed claims, Eucharist is not about “works righteousness.” Quite the opposite: the Communion rail is a place where one receives pure, unmerited grace. It is not about “works” at all.
To insist that a person must understand the intricacies of Communion prior to partaking of it puts up an unwarranted barrier to receiving the grace which the Lord’s Table offers. Indeed, as a group which also practices Open Communion, if understanding becomes the metric by which we admit people to the Table, it seems like that would severely cut down on the number of other Protestants we would allow to partake. For instance, if a Methodist doesn’t accept the Real Presence, then to us, they do not fully understand what is occurring. Why should we allow them to partake if they disagree with us? The simple answer is because the Real Presence at Communion is an objective reality. It is not a subjective experience that is only effectual for those who cognitively assent to a particular doctrinal explanation of it. They can and will benefit from the grace extended at the Lord’s Supper whether they come to recognize the Real Presence or not.
In James K.A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom, he gives a testimony about Communion from a mentally challenged woman named Judy:
“I want to eat Jesus bread…I can’t wait until I can eat Jesus break and drink Jesus juice. People who love Jesus are the ones who eat Jesus bread…Jesus’ skin and meat turned into bread and Jesus’ blood and guts turned into juice—that’s Jesus’ bread and Jesus’ juice, and I want to eat it and drink with all the other Christians at church ‘cause I love him so.”1
There is no way Judy fully understands the many mysteries intertwined in the Lord’s Supper, indeed none of us can! It is precisely this realization that makes it even more beautiful. It does not have to be fully understood to be effectual and that is why this meal is inherently mysterious and keeps us coming back week after week. Pope Benedict once stated, “Christianity is not an intellectual system, a collection of dogmas, or a moralism. Christianity is instead an encounter, a love story; it is an event.”2 If we really, truly believe that, why keep the little children from coming to him?
(1) James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 138.
(2) Tracey Rowland, Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI (Oxford University Press, 2008), 67.