Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Mark's thoughts: Earlier communion in the Lutheran church? Yes!

Martin Luther said about the Sacrament of the Altar, “This sacrament is the Gospel.”[1]  He meant that in the Sacrament of the Altar we encounter the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for our salvation.  It is the incarnate Lord, true God and true man, who works the miracle of giving us his true body and blood to eat and to drink. In the Sacrament. He gives us his body and blood, given and shed on the cross for us for the forgiveness of our sins.  And it is the risen Lord who continues to do this as He gives us the guarantee of our own resurrection and eternal life with Him in the new creation.

The Divine Service every Sunday reaches its culmination in the celebration of the Sacrament of the Altar.  The entire second half of the service has been constructed in a way that centers on Christ present for us in his body and blood.  Catechesis and preaching regularly call attention to Christ’s gift of the Sacrament.

It is not surprising therefore that children take notice of the Sacrament and want to receive the body and blood of Christ.  Or at least it shouldn’t be.  However, I must confess that this was a realization that dawned on me slowly during my first decade in the ministry.  I have learned that when you teach and preach about the Sacrament, children want to receive it.  It is not as if they are any less able to understand the gift.  It is after all a mystery that we all receive in faith.  Based on what our Lord has said about children and faith, they may even find it easier to believe than adults.

One of the reasons we are slow to think about children receiving the Sacrament is that in our experience of the Lutheran Church, confirmation after eighth grade has marked the time for first communion.  We have been trained to think that elementary school children are not suitable recipients of the Sacrament.

As a pastor I began to sense the awkward situation this creates.  Lutherans teach about and emphasize the Sacrament.  Children learn about the Sacrament and want to receive the body and blood of Christ.  Yet then we turn around and tell children that although they know what the Sacrament is and want to receive it, they won’t be permitted to do so until they are fourteen years old.

I have since learned that the awkward situation exists because it does not reflect the original practice of the churches that confessed Lutheran theology.[2]  During the sixteenth century and most of the seventeenth centuries, there was nothing like what we now know as “confirmation” in the Lutheran Church.  The medieval Church had considered confirmation to be a sacrament which bestowed an additional grace to the baptized to aid them in the Christian life.   Luther and the reformers rejected this view since Scripture nowhere says that Christ instituted confirmation and does not make any promises that grace and forgiveness are received through it.

Catechesis went on in Lutheran congregations through catechetical sermons and catechetical instruction for the young, and through instruction at home.  When a child appeared to have sufficient understanding, the pastor examined the child to determine whether he or she was ready.  Parents and sponsors were often the ones who initiated this step.  Children who began receiving the Sacrament were usually between seven and twelve years old.

There was no “rite of confirmation.”  Confirmation as we know it is the result of later developments that found their origin in the non-Lutheran Martin Bucer. He set in motion a trend in the Lutheran Church that emphasized a personal confession of faith and a vow of obedience to life in the Church.  The trend called Pietism emphasized the individual subjective and emotional commitment.  It was its successor, Rationalism, that made confirmation an established part of the Lutheran Church during the eighteenth century.  Confirmation was tied to the school system and signaled for most children the end of schooling and the eligibility to give an oath, be married in the church or become a sponsor.  A rite that had no biblical mandate or promise became a special family event on par with baptism and marriage.  Confirmation took place at an older age, often between fourteen and sixteen.

Because children often want to receive the Sacrament, and because for almost two hundred years the Lutheran Church did not deny it to them, my congregation has begun the process that will allow children to commune who are prepared to receive it.  When an elementary school age child wishes to receive the Sacrament, and the child’s parents believe he or she is mature enough to do so, they can take steps to prepare them for the Sacrament.  The primary focus of this process is in the home.  Working with their parents, children learn by heart the Catechism (the Ten Commandments, Apostles’ Creed, Lord’s Prayer, and institution texts for Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution and the Sacrament of the Altar).  They learn the basic meaning of the six parts using the Small Catechism.  Parents and children attend “Learn by Heart” on Wednesday nights at 7:00 p.m. so that in the catechetical service (Lutheran Service Book, Service of Prayer and Preaching, pg. 260) they can receive instruction in the basic meaning of the Catechism.  When a child has completed all six parts, if the parents think he or she is ready, we will meet together to examine the child.  If the child demonstrates sufficient preparation, he or she will be acknowledged as ready to receive the Sacrament using the Rite of First Communion Prior to Confirmation which is found in the Lutheran Service Book Agenda.

This does not mean that Catechesis and Confirmation as it has been practiced at Good Shepherd has been changed in any way.  Children who wish to commune are expected to have an understanding that matches their age and ability. Catechesis in seventh and eighth grade continues to be the time when they attain the deeper knowledge and understanding that we expect of confessing congregation members. Youth who began communing as a child but then do not take part in Catechesis are not allowed to continue to commune because they are refusing to learn about the faith confessed by those communing at Good Shepherd’s altar.

In spite of Confirmation’s past in Lutheranism, it does continue to have a positive role to play (and it’s a basic reality of pastoral practice that people in the Lutheran church expect Confirmation to take place).  Our Lord commands His Church in Matthew 28 to make disciples by baptizing and teaching.  In Confirmation we rejoice that this mandate has been carried out in the lives of young people who have been brought to a mature understanding of the faith and are ready to participate fully as confessing members of the congregation.

This practice makes the opportunity to commune available to children.  There is no requirement or expectation.  Parents and children who wish to wait until Catechesis in seventh and eighth grade are free to do so.  Our goal as a congregation is to make Christ’s gift of the Sacrament available to children who wish to receive it, and to foster learning about the faith in the home.    


[1] Cited by Hermann Sasse, This is my body: Luther’s Contention for the Real Presence in the Sacrament of the Altar (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1959), 382.
[2] The following is a brief summary derived from the magisterial study, Arthur C. Repp, Confirmation in the Lutheran Church, (St. Louis: Concordia, 1964). I have begun writing a series of blog posts summarizing current scholarship on confirmation (The weird and wackyhistory of Confirmation, Part 1: When there was no Confirmation – the westernChurch before Nicaea; The weird and wacky history of Confirmation, Part 2: Whenthere was no Confirmation in Rome; The weird and wacky history of Confirmation,Part 3: When there was no Confirmation in northern Italy, north Africa andSpain).  In the near future I will continue this series in tracing the history of Confirmation up to the present day Lutheran church.


  1. In ~1966 or '67, CPH, Augsburg, and Fortress (maybe it was Muhlenberg) published "Confirmation and First Communion", by Frank Klos (sp?). I think that the practice was well-presented.

  2. It was the early 1960s. It takes into account that children are generally more eager to please their teachers and parents in the 5th and 6th grades, before the hormones kick in. It makes good sense to catechize earlier and open the Sacrament to them when they are most eager to receive it.