On the Sunday before last, ie., Cantate Sunday, I attended another church of the same communion as my own. I was there for the purpose of witnessing my nephew's Confirmation, and indeed it was an honor to see him confess the Christian faith, and receive his First Holy Communion.
It is always an interesting experience to visit another parish. You get to see the art and architecture of the church in ways often forgotten by its own lifelong members. You get to hear the Word with brethren you don't really know, but with whom you have a common bond in the Lutheran Confession. Every time the liturgy is celebrated, it is the prayer of the whole Church, of every place, even of those who have gone before us. In the liturgy we participate in the ongoing worship of the whole Church. So in one sense, if I were to worship in the same place my whole life, by doing so I would still be in real communion with the Church in another place. For the Church is One, as we confess in the Creed. Visiting another parish enables you to see these brethren with whom you have been worshipping Christ all along, and actually helps drive home the truth that we are all of the same Church. So there are many benefits to visiting other parishes.
What would drive home this sense of unity even more, however, would be if our churches were to practice actual liturgical uniformity. This problem is not the fault of Mount Olive. The liturgical cacophony of which I speak is a shameful plague on the whole of the modern Missouri Synod. Every parish is left to do what seems best in that place, so that no one blinks or thinks twice when liturgical aberrations occur; such are no longer seen as 'aberations', but merely the way we do things here. Mount Olive, for example, was once known for the reliability of its "Old Missouri" practices, yet now is perfectly fine with leaving out major portions from the order of Mass purportedly being used that Sunday, so that, eg., though I would normally kneel when the Sanctus begins, on this occasion there was no Sanctus and the pastor was already breezing through the sacred words of consecration, the verba testamenti, before I realized it. Somewhere along the line it also became perfectly fine to have a layman read the Holy Gospel in the Mass. Perfectly acceptable now, too, is the practice of giving out the Precious Blood of Christ only in individual tiny cups, and not even utilizing a chalice for those who desire it. When I realized this to be the case, I admit, I walked right by the pastor handing out the shot glasses, perhaps to his perplexity. It is better to commune in one kind than to take part in the irreverent methods of the Methodists. Another practice once prevalent in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod was to open the Holy Supper only to Lutherans of the same confession, and to make real efforts to keep it closed to others. Not that I saw non-Lutherans take communion, as far as I know; I am merely struck by the fact that this church's communion practice seems to make it feasible for potentially anyone to get communion. For example, I have spoken with the pastor before, but I'm not sure how much that matters, since it turns out that the pastor is not the one who gives out the Host. That is handled by some other person, while the pastor stands a few yards hence handing out the little shot glasses. My niece, who happens to be a Muslim, was sitting next to me; another niece, who happens to be Roman Catholic, was a few pews back, along with more Muslim family members. None of them would have taken part, but there are many people in today's world who, in such a circumstance, would automatically go to communion. Is there any procedure in place to prevent such a thing? None that I noticed.
As I say, these things are symptomatic of the way things are in the LCMS today, so my aim is not to pick on one congregation in particular. Today's Missouri Synod is a point on a trajectory, and my prayer is that this trajectory starts to turn, and go in another direction. Is there any compulsion to do so, to turn back toward consistent traditional Lutheran practice? Do we see ourselves as a Church? Time will tell.
Instead of dwelling on those aberrations that I saw, however, I would like to reflect on a different matter. It actually has something to do with what I didn't see. More on that in a moment. As I mentioned above, the occasion of my nephew's Confirmation also happened to be the first time he was privileged to receive our Lord in Holy Communion, for this congregation, as I suppose is still the case with many in the LCMS, delays first Communion until Confirmation. I certainly think that we cheat our young Lutherans by denying them participation in the Blessed Sacrament until they are at Confirmation age. Be that as it may, it is not my business to stand in judgement over a church's practice in this regard. There may be pastoral reasons for keeping first Communion at a certain age, while perhaps working toward lowering it. So my point is not so much to pick on the decision to have First Communion so late, but to point out one of the unfortunate liturgical implications of such a decision, as food for thought.
Namely, when the Confirmation and First Communion are the same day, the First Communion loses the attention it would otherwise have. That is what I mean by observing something that I didn't see. There was a complete lack of attention on the fact that is was First Communion for these young Lutherans. The day is all about Confirmation. The sermon is about Confirmation. The printed literature is about it being Confirmation Day. In fact, there was no mention at all, so far as I noticed, that this was also First Communion. I inferred it from context clues, such as the Confirmands receiving Communion before everyone else, and kneeling instead of having to go to a walk-up station like everyone else, and by verifying this later. This is all the more problematic when a church doesn't exactly do much in general to highlight the Eucharist, its central importance in the Church's life, and the deep reverence with which we hold this mystery, either in its preaching or in its liturgical practice. So instead, the theological focus on this day gets shifted to the spiritual significance of our Baptism, since that is the focus of Confirmation preaching. Such a focus at Confirmation is understandable, but this leaves a gaping eucharistic hole in our piety, our preaching, our practice, and maybe our theology.
At a child's first participation of Holy Communion, or anyone's, a most blessed thing happens. The Christian is united with his Lord in the most Blessed Sacrament for the very first time. Christ deigns to come under a sinner's roof, and bless him with His saving presence, and thereby bring him healing of body and soul. A most blessed marriage takes place, for the Lover of our souls unites Himself with us. And with His presence, He brings us the forgiveness of our sins, and with forgiveness comes new life, and salvation. It is a great milestone, and the commencement of a significant new stage in a Christian's life. Therefore it ought to be a time of great celebration both in a child's life, and in the life of the parish.
I suspect that part of what has led to First Communion being so diminished as to be virtually just another day in so many of our churches is precisely the casual way in which the Eucharist is treated. With a rebirth of a real eucharistic piety in our church will come a renewed attention to things like a child's First Holy Communion. This is one of my prayers for the modern Lutheran Church.