This was first published in my congregation's December 2009 newsletter.
It was a magnificent gift for a little train-loving boy – a battery-powered Micky Mouse train that came with its own track and made all kinds of train noises. The toy was clearly labeled "Ages 3+," but my 6 and 3 year-old daughters wanted to give it to their brother anyway, who was turning 2. As soon as Naaman saw it, his face lit up and he gave out an enthusiastic, "Choo-Choo!" He loved this gift.
Yet, he didn't really understand it. Sure, he knew it was a train, but the toy had a complexity – specifically, a pretty neat track – that only a 3 year-old could truly grasp. Naaman, however, is just two, and he struggled with some of the toy's features. He knew it was a wonderful toy. It made him smile. He loved it, even if he didn't really appreciate just how wonderful it was.
As I watch my older two children, Tali (age 6) and Cana (age 3) in the First Communion class, I feel much the same thing. They know that church is special and that Holy Communion is the most special part of our worship service. They want to receive communion, to participate fully in the life and blessings of the church. And indeed, my wife and I want that for them, too.
But, like their brother with the train toy, do they really understand what they're receiving? Do they know what this gift means, and how it changes their life … indeed, how it changes the world? Surely they do not. But then again, do any of us truly understand the wonder of this gift? We know only in part, St Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 12. Only in part.
In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther writes that in receiving Holy Communion we receive "forgiveness of sin, life, and salvation." Of course, entire libraries can be filled with books written on these subjects … yet Tali is just learning to read, and Cana can just about recognize her name. Sin and salvation are concepts that challenge the faith and intellect of older youth and adults, let alone children. Though I certainly hope and pray that some of what we're learning in the First Communion class is sinking in, I'm sure most of it is over their heads. Yet if they don't grasp it now, that's fine … learning and growing in faith is a life-long endeavor.
But something Tali and Cana do understand about the sacrament is this – that the sacrament is God's gift for them. Holy Communion is a special gift from God, a special way that God shares with them his love. They know that it is a time that all of God's children gather around his Holy Table to eat special food, food that connects us to God and to each other. What a great foundation they have as they grow into the mysteries of our faith!
In this Advent season of expectation and anticipation, of waiting for God to come and be born among us, I wonder if we're not all somewhat like my children – not entirely sure of what this gift means, of what it really does. For who can truly grasp what it means for divine and human to be joined together, for the eternal God to take on finite flesh, for the Holy One to dwell with quite ordinary ones such as us? The birth of Jesus, together with his suffering, death, and resurrection, changes everything. The order of the universe has been turned on its head – death now leads to life, poverty is the path to riches, the least are made the greatest.
Until our Lord comes again and gives us all knowledge, we will not truly comprehend what this means. But this much we do know – just as the gift of the Sacrament is "for us," so too with the gift of Jesus. For he is is called Emmanuel, "God is with us." However much else we might struggle or wonder in our faith during these Advent and Christmas seasons, let us hold fast to this promise – that in Jesus we come face to face with God who is truly with us and for us.
So what about all the rest of the details? Just as Naaman will grow into the 3 year-old complexity of his new train toy, and just as my girls will grow into the richness of the gift of Holy Communion, so too will we grow into deeper knowledge of and faith in our Lord, and the gifts of forgiveness of sin, life, and salvation that he brings.