Opening Communion for the 3-Year-Olds

Yesterday, Richard Beck posted the following quote from Jurgen Moltmann:

Because this fellowship comes into being on the basis of Christ’s unconditional and prevenient invitation, the fellowship will be an open one. It cannot limit Christ’s invitation to its own account. Everyone can participate who wants to participate in the fellowship of Christ. The communion is the answer to Christ’s open invitation…

Because of Christ’s prevenient and unconditional invitation, the fellowship of the table cannot be restricted to people who are ‘faithful to the church’, or to the ‘inner circle’ of the community. For it is not the feast of the particularly righteous, or the people who think that they are particularly devout; it is the feast of the weary and heavy-laden, who have heard the call to refreshment. We must ask ourselves whether baptism and confirmation ought to go on counting as the presuppositions of ‘admittance’ to the Lord’s supper. If we remember that Jesus’ meal with tax-collectors and sinners is also present in the Lord’s supper, then the open invitation to it should also be carried ‘into the highways and byways’. It will then lose its ‘mystery’ character, but it will not become an ordinary, everyday meal for all that, because the invitation is a call to the fellowship of the crucified one and an invitation in his name to reconciliation with God…”

I loved this quote for a couple of reasons, one because of my past experience and the other because of my daughter’s recent experience.

At the church where I grew up, the rule was you couldn’t take communion until you were baptized. To be honest, I have no idea why. This was not a faith tradition where baptism saved you. It was simply the way it was done. What makes that even stranger is that we were a New Testament restorationist church – we were all about doing what the early church did.

But no one really knows what the early church did. The New Testament does not ever define who should or should not take communion, except warning that those who do should not do so “in an unworthy manner,” which isn’t especially helpful. The earliest document describing the rituals of the young church, the Didache, written about 100 C.E., is actually unclear on whether children who haven’t been baptized can take the bread and the cup.

Nevertheless, I didn’t take communion until after I was baptized at 13. Some friends of my parents, who had started a little restorationist house church of their own, took it a step further. If you weren’t baptized, you couldn’t even partake in worship with the rest of the group. They were a lovely, sweet old couple, but how this was supported by scripture is beyond me. Nothing makes God less attractive to a preteen than being told he wants you out of the group.

Fast forward 20 years or so, and our oldest daughter is 3. She knows what communion is and what it represents because she’s asked us about it. But following in the tradition in which my wife and I were raised, we’d been passing the plates over her head during worship.

But during my Worship class in January, our professor and a friend of mine engaged in discussion that threw this tradition into doubt. My friend lets her children take communion before baptism, and my professor acknowledged there was no basis – not in scripture, nor in recorded tradition from the early church – to prohibit her from doing so.

Two weeks ago, our church did communion down front, “Catholic style.” We all stood up and took the crackers and the little plastic cups from servers at the front of the auditorium. I brought my daughter, mostly because I didn’t want her getting into trouble way in the back while we were at the front. After I had taken communion, the sweet older ladies who were serving us leaned down to my daughter’s level and said (paraphrasing): “Jesus loves you very much, and this is the life he gave for you.” And she took her first communion.

After the first wave of confusion and doubt, I felt nothing but pride and relief. Pride that my daughter had done it without spilling grape juice all over herself, that she knew what to do at all, that she had done it, and that I knew she knew exactly how important it was. Relief that no lightning had come down and incinerated us all. Relief that another barrier rooted in my childhood keeping me from truly understanding God had been broken down. I hadn’t even known it was there until it was gone.

Because the more I think about it, the more I realize: If the God you worship wouldn’t let her take communion simply because she hasn’t gone through whatever steps you think she needs to take, then I don’t think we worship the same God.

The next week, last Sunday, she asked us if she could take her first communion again. I still hesitated, unsure if she wanted to for the right reasons or just because she would eat every minute of the day if we let her. So I asked her why. Her response: “Because I want to praise Jesus, too!”

The days of passing the plate above her head are over.

9 thoughts on “Opening Communion for the 3-Year-Olds”

  1. “Relief that another barrier rooted in my childhood keeping me from truly understanding God had been broken down. I hadn’t even known it was there until it was gone.”

    I am with you on this. So much. I have these moments all the time. Growing up in a C of C means building a house of cards that can’t stand up to actual questions and experiences. I’ve had to rebuild so much, and it’s been so hard, but it’s also been worth it.

  2. What a lovely story about your daughter’s first communion. Thank you for sharing it!

    You might be interested in the Catholic and Orthodox communion practices with respect to children, although the situation is a bit different since both also practice infant baptism.

    In the Catholic church, about a hundred years ago, the pope at the time lowered the age of first communion to the “age of reason” — typically about 7 years old, in practice; I made my first communion in 2nd grade. This was part of an overall trend of trying to encourage Catholics to receive communion regularly. The child is supposed to be old enough to understand the difference between the eucharist and other food, and also old enough to know the difference between right and wrong.

    In the Orthodox church, infants receive all three sacraments of initiation — baptism, chrismation, and communion — in the same rite, just as adults would. And they continue to receive communion every sunday as they are growing up. The Orthodox consider the eucharist to be spiritual food, and just as important for children to receive in order to grow in holiness as nutritious food is for them to grow in physical health.

    One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen was when I visited an Orthodox church service a few years ago. When it came time for communion, all the adults stood and waited while the “little angels” came toddling quietly up the aisle, or in some cases carried on hips, received communion, and quietly toddled back out to the church nursery. “Let the little children come to me”, indeed!

    1. Victoria,

      Thanks very much for this insight. I’m woefully uninformed about Catholic and Orthodox traditions, so I appreciate any and all knowledge my readers can bestow!

      1. From an Orthodox perspective, I guess I don’t understand why you would take your child to communion, but not baptise her.

        Even if you don’t believe in baptismal regeneration or the Real Presence (and I’m not sure if you do or not), why does one act “require a conscious commitment to Christ after the age of reason” and one not?

      2. From our perspective, the Lord does freely invite everyone to the Lord’s Supper; the avenue being repentance and baptism, and sealing with the Holy Spirit, and repentance. The notion that such an invitation is not free because you have to accept the invitation is therefore quite baffling.

        Let’s say I invite a man named Joe over to my house for dinner.

        I open the door and say, “come on in, Joe, glad you could make it!”

        Joe becomes indignant, and responds, “I thought you freely invited me. Why, then, have you restricted me from entering?”

        “How have I done that?” I would ask.

        “If your invitation were truly a free invitation,” Joe says, “you would not make me enter through your doorway to come in to dine at your house.”

        I would be shocked. “But Joe,” I’d plead, “that’s the entrance to my house! You’re too large for the chimney and the windows, and it would be most inconvenient, anyway. Won’t you just come in the door?”

        “No,” Joe would say, leaving in an offended huff, “If I can’t have a free invitation, I won’t dine with you.”


    1. I’ll have to give that some thought to give you a fuller answer, but off the top of my head: I’ve always understood baptism to be a sign of commitment that you were ready to live for Christ and make him Lord of your life (I could be wrong about that, but it’s what I was raised believing). That requires a conscious decision that should be made carefully with a lot of thought, whereas, as Moltmann argues, the invitation to take communion comes from Jesus himself and requires a more basic level of recognition and appreciation for what he did.

      1. Doesn’t baptism also come from Jesus himself? I struggle to see how Baptism and the Eucharist require different levels of intellectual understanding; specifically, Baptism requiring more.

        Especially since the Scriptures mention the importance of how the Eucharist affects the Church and preparations for it (1 Corinthians 11), but baptism is not given any such warning.

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