SMC 13 January 2019
A few months ago I was visiting some of my godchildren and the five year old sat me down in front of her chalk board and wanted us to play “Schools.” She was the teacher, of course, and I was sat crossed legged on the floor pretending to be a child. She would sit there, cross-legged in a deliberately adult way, taking a register, and then dismiss me so I could take the register to reception. She would start writing on the chalk board and so I decided I would be a mischievous child - you may be surprised to hear - and so pretended to be whispering to my imaginary next door neighbour. “No, no, no talking,” exclaimed the five year old teacher, wagging a finger, no talking in class. Bossy madam, I thought.
Children’s games have two things that teach us something about what we do whenever we come to Church, the liturgy. I’ll tell you what they are once I’ve defined what liturgy is. The word liturgy comes from the Greek word used in the Bible to describe the public acts of worship, the choosing of Barnabas and Saul in Acts 13, for example, takes place in the context of leitourgia, liturgy, or “worshipping the Lord” as it’s translated. Indeed many of our Orthodox brethren refer to the Mass as the Divine Liturgy. It is a duty that we perform because of who we are. Before the New Testament it had a secular meaning that was very much about doing something practical for the benefit of the community, like paying for a choir or a public performance of a play. The liturgy of the Christian Church, primarily the Mass, is our public expression of our duty to God.
I should say that I’m taking this bit of thinking from Pope Benedict’s excellent book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, where he is glad to make the comparison between the liturgy and children’s games. First, because children play games that reflect their experience of the world, just like my godchild was happy to play at being at school, something I also did with my sister when we were young. So, also with the liturgy, we bring with us something of the world as we know and breathe it. Secondly, children’s games are meant at a fun level to teach them how to live the whole of their life, encouraging responsibility, thinking about rules and using imagination. They work out who they are and how they would respond to adult issues in the context of a game. So again also with the liturgy, we find out who we are in the presence of sacred things preparing ourselves for the day when, God willing, we will see Him face-to-face.
We are given all we need to participate in this liturgy when we are baptised: that gives us the keys to the car. Today we celebrate Jesus’ Baptism, “when the Heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended on Him in bodily shape, like a dove, and a voice came from Heaven.” Jesus is not given an identity at His Baptism, no, but we do have a better sense of who Jesus is because of it. And we also have a clearer sense of who we are through our Baptism, our Christening: we become adopted, the same God says to us, “You are my son, you are my daughter, loved immensely.”
Our primary experience of liturgy is the Mass, where the Body and Blood of the Saviour is offered to our Heavenly Father. And yet the visible participation in the offering, the eating the bread, the Lord’s Body and drinking the wine, His Precious Blood, is denied to our baptised children. So I just want to spend some time thinking a bit about why we don’t give Holy Communion - the Bread and the Wine, the Lord’s Body and Blood - to baptised children. The Church in the West has, certainly for the last eight hundred years, said there should be a cut off from the “age of discretion” as it is called, which has been determined as, give or take, seven years old: the age when you know generally the difference between right and wrong and can be said to be responsible for those actions. With each child, the age will vary, of course. Here at St Mary’s I have continued the tradition of my predecessor in presenting for Confirmation and admission to Holy Communion folk who are in school year 7 and above, so when children are aged about 11. In some ways, it is too old but my hope is that attending Mass becomes part of the life of the teenage individual, rather than left behind when puberty arrives. It also enables to take place what I hope to be proper teaching with young people and adults together. I’m not announcing a change in that policy.
But some of us witness week-by-week children wanting “to take a bit of the bread” with hand outstretched here as people kneel. It’s very good indeed that we see that, it will even shame adults at times that we take it for granted that we can receive Holy Communion and yet those too young to receive remind us what our enthusiasm should look like. As the Psalmist reminds us “out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes to silence the enemy” (Psalm 8). One of the reasons for children waiting is that those who receive Holy Communion are to have a sense in which it is not just “a bit of bread” but that somehow by a wondrous display of God’s power that which continues to look like bread and wine become for us - because of the command of Christ and His Church - the Body and Blood of the Saviour, that flesh that nourishes us to eternal life.
It is therefore wrong for family members to give part of their Holy Communion to children and I thank God I’ve never seen it done in our churches. But just as it is parents’ responsibility to feed children with chips or whatever the children’s favourite food is, and to give them medicine when they are ill, so it is also parents’ responsibility to bring children to Mass. This is, I am sure, a struggle at times but I think there are many good examples here of families who have struggled through it and reveal that it is possible to do it and for the children to be happy and brought up in the faith when they are here. Persevere, my friends! And if we come without children, then we are to support those who do.
And finally I think this analogy of the Mass with games children play reminds us something else about the Liturgy, that sometimes it will feel awkward when we’re not used to it. When we’re doing something like driving on the other side of the road, or when we’re not used to a culture things can be awkward. When we bring friends and loved ones to church, as I hope we all do more and more, they will initially be feel awkward here, and this ought not to surprise, because we are tiptoeing into a different reality, the reality of Christ’s kingdom. That’s a wonderful adventure, a wonderful invitation, a wonderful landscape ahead of us. Such must Christ have felt when He was baptised and began His public ministry, uniting Himself to the Will of the Father and going forth as His Beloved. Let us journey with the Lord. Amen.