Year B Divine Mercy/1st Communion
I would like to extend our warmest greetings to our 1st communicants. This is such a beautiful day and we know that you have been working hard to prepare for it. Although none of us ever earns the love of God or the right to receive his Body and Blood, it is a gift that he freely gives, and the effort you have put into this day, all your practice, all your studying, honors God very much.
You might notice an interesting detail when our 1st communicants receive. They are all going to have the Eucharist placed directly on their tongues. There are a few reasons for this: 1) Cardinal Sarah, the head of the congregation for worship in the Vatican, has recently encouraged us to maintain this devotional practice because it is a sign of receptivity and humility, 2) it helps us to safeguard against dropping any particles of consecrated host on the ground, and 3) it is fairly unusual to allow yourself to be fed, my guess is that the only experience of this is for those of you who are married and may have had a piece of cake shoved into your face at your wedding reception. You do it, and everyone laughs, but it’s really a sign of love and trust, as way of declaring I don’t mind being vulnerable with this person.
I was thinking about the way that brides and grooms so willingly embarrass themselves. It’s silly – except it really isn’t, and the laughter and joy is all part of it. The liturgy of the Church is also odd in this way. The priest wears funny clothes, and we have traditions that, without any context, seem very strange. For instance, last week I walked down the center aisle and threw holy water all over you – even if it doesn’t show on my face I was laughing on the inside while doing it. The signs and symbols of the Church are big and brash. When a bishop is ordained an entire jar of chrism oil is poured over the top of his head. When you come for Ash Wednesday, if Father is holding a secret grudge against you he might carefully smear a massive black cross onto your forehead. At confirmation, the Bishop slaps you on the cheek. I tell the 8th graders that their spectacles are going to fly off. There is so much good humor and whimsicality that surrounds Catholic culture. I really love it. And simply because talk about it with a smile doesn’t mean that it isn’t serious. We can do penance and practice devotion while, at the same time, maintaining a healthy sense of joy.
Every time I’ve taught children to receive the Eucharist on the tongue, they giggle and see how wonderfully awkward of an action it is. But here’s the thing, it’s just like a bride and groom, because it’s part of this great wedding feast that we call the Mass. Now, I’m not telling you what to do, and if you receive reverently on the hand that shouldn’t cause anyone else any heartburn.
The point is – almost everything we do here at Epiphany is ridiculous. We gather to sing some songs, we even say a few things in Latin, the priest harangues you for a bit about some topic and inevitably quotes a poem or something at you. Then we pray at an altar with bread and wine and consume them. Then we go home. To an outsider, this seems madness. And it is – Unless it is true.
Think of it like a child at play. There is no purpose because the playing itself is the purpose, and it is good and beautiful simply for what it is. It is ennobling and worthy simply to be here in the presence of God together. The very first words the priest says at the foot of the altar are, “I go to the altar of God. To God who gives joy to my youth.” There is an innocent joy that is connected with our worship such that we become like little children before the face of God.
Fr. Romano Guardini says that the liturgy unites us to a supernatural reality, a childhood before God. When I was a child, I played baseball with my friends in the park. The fence of the tennis court was the backstop and we would tape a strike zone to it. First base, which was frisbee, was carefully laid out. Second and third base were both baseball gloves of whichever teams was batting. A line of pine trees was a homerun. We had elaborate, serious rules about every detail of the game. We were earnest and so intent on the rules that we spent most of the time arguing balls and strikes. This may seem ridiculous and I’m sure our parents all laughed at us, but this game was a vital part of our growing up, the way we negotiated with each other, the ups the downs, and the moments of delight when we had a perfect afternoon and played until the cicadas came out and the voices of our mothers called us home to dinner. The liturgy, too has laid down the serious rules to a sacred game.
Now, as an adult think about those times a child has guilted you into playing. Chesterton says that “Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead.” How many of you wish Dr. Seuss had never written a single word? Here’s the thing, though, God loves doing it again. Each morning he says to the sun, “Do it again.” Each evening he says to the sun, “Do it again.” “He has the eternal appetite of infancy,” says, Chesterton, while “we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” The Mass is the same, every, single, day. In that repetition we are made young. Each time you worthily receive the Eucharist you are made young.
St. Thomas, like a good cynical adult, needed to see before he would believe. We are not able to see, or what it is that we do see is the Eucharist, so it takes faith, it takes a childlike trust. St. Bernadette when she encountered the Blessed Virgin, says “I looked, and I looked as much as I could.” It is a simple act, but it is the most pure act of devotion of which we are capable, to simply look to Our Savior and believe. In the Mass, when the Blessed Sacrament is lifted high, imitate Mary from the foot of the Cross and, behold, Jesus is our fair, most pure, most lovely, strongest, faithful Savior.
We may not always have the eyes to see, but Jesus sees you. His gaze has never left you, not even for a minute. He sees you, just as you are, and he loves you.
1st communicants, today you are mighty in the faith. Parents, don’t quench this gift that your children receive today, bring them regularly to mass, because the greatest gift you can give them is the presence of God in their lives. We all have doubts sometimes, we all forget to pray, or feel like we sin too much, or are unsure of how to behave as we grow up, but through it all God is with us, feeding us with his own life. This is true riches, to come and consume the God of the universe, to be seen by Him, to see him, and be drawn into the eternal youth of heaven.
As we receive you, O Lord, may we be made worthy of you.