There are certain topics of discussion / debate that tend never to go away among confessional Lutherans. One of them is the age of first communion. In almost all Lutheran churches, first communion is linked closely or inextricably to confirmation—for what can only be described as pragmatic rather than dogmatic reasons. After all, confirmation is a churchly rite, not a biblical one. Tradition dictates that confirmation is preceded by detailed instruction, often lasting up to two years, in the early years of secondary education. I was confirmed at 15. In my church body, 13-14 is more common. Now, there are all sorts of historical, theological and especially pastoral issues linked to delaying (yes, I mean that) first communion to the teenage years.

Now, as I said, this debate is probably here to stay. Both sides of the argument make a fine showing in this Cyberbrethen blog post. To cut a long story short, I align myself with Pastors McCain and Cwirla in this particular debate.

I was confronted by this question in a very practical way yesterday. About half-an-hour after the last of my young children had gone to bed and grown-up time was about to start, my wife and I heard a familiar pitter-patter of little feet coming down the stairs. Yet again, my eldest daughter couldn’t get to sleep. A common occurrence, usually for no particular reason.

Well, this time it was different. H (age 7) was visibly upset, with tears flooding down her cheeks. What on earth was the matter?

“I have been asking Jesus into my heart, but nothing seems to happen, and it makes me really sad.”

Turns out, she has been reading the books of Patricia St.John, one of her favourite authors. And in almost every book, some child or another gets to the point of asking Jesus into its heart, with wonderful transforming consequences. And now little H was desperate for the same experience, and was desperately disappointed, and a little worried, that nothing was happening, despite her prayers.

As is often the way with God’s children, this misunderstanding led to a wonderful conversation about what makes us Christian. As the opening of Olaus Svebilius’ Explanation of the Small Catechism puts it so simply:

Q1: Are you a Christian?
A: Yes, I am.

Q2: Why are you called a Christian?
A: Because I have been baptised in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and in baptism I have put on Christ. I believe and confess Him to be my Saviour and my Redeemer.

There. It’s that simple. Turns out, H has had Jesus “in her heart” for over 7 years already. No need to ask for anything more, except faith to see what she already has.

Except one thing. There will come a day when she will not only have Jesus in her heart but also on her tongue and in her stomach. And she can’t wait! She knows what she needs, she knows that she wants it, and she knows where to get it from—but for the time being, she can’t have it, because she is not yet in secondary school and so can’t go through secondary-school-style instruction. She’s missing out, and she knows it, and you can tell.

Let the little children come—let’s not hinder them.

God has many ways to create, support, and increase faith in us: when we hear the Word, either publicly or privately; when we are baptized; when we are fed with the body of our Lord  . . .  He himself know what is good and profitable for us. (Martin Luther at the Margburg Colloquy, 1529. H. Sasse, This Is My Body, 201.)


3 thoughts on “Let the little children…

  1. I completely agree! Is this not an adiaphora question in the ELCE? Is it not up to each individual pastor to decide whether or not children can be admitted to communion? The Rev’d Petri Hiltunen’s PhD dissertation might be of use in convincing the ELCE to change its policy, if needed. I was fortunate enough to be communing at a very young age onwards – so young that I don’t even remember. I’m sure I didn’t understand it right, but I knew it was some kind of special meal in which I could meet Jesus. Even though I think this could have been taught to me more thoroughly, I still believe it is one of the reasons why I’m still Christian. The Eucharist has become the centre of my Christian life, and it has been so since very early on.

  2. Samuli,

    There is no official ELCE ‘policy’ on the age of first communion, or even of confirmation. However, as in Finland, practice varies between different congregations.

    With the still-new Lutheran Service Book, we now have a rite of First Communion, distinct from Confirmation. I’m not convinced that this is the perfect solution either, but it opens the door to a new way of looking at, and doing, things.

    There are many issues that need to be dealt with together. At the heart of it, I suggest, is catechesis. If we live within a system where catechesis is done between the ages of 12-14, followed by Confirmation—or, worse still, for a couple of weeks in the summer at 15—then we are onto such a loser to start with that I don’t know what. However, if catechesis is a life-long process, starting pre-language and finishing at death, then the whole thing appears in a very different light. Confirmation instruction then becomes a proper in-depth course in Christian dogma for the youth—but having been catechised from early childhood, many children will have an understanding, appreciation and, let’s be frank, need of communion well before that.

    As for your experience, I do hope that you understood the Lord’s Supper right when you received it as a child. You won’t have understood it fully, or even nearly. But you still don’t. That’s not the point. The fundamental questions are: “What’s being offered at the Supper? For what purpose? What are you going to the Supper to receive?” Those questions can be answered in a sentence or less, or in a multi-volume monograph. Right reception, as the Lutheran church teaches, is receiving in faith that which is being offered. Which any [well taught] 7-year-old is capable of, as Luther might have put it.

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