Sometimes, it is easy to tell when a child is old enough to receive the Sacred Eucharist at Mass. Other times, it's not. Usually, when parents with an offspring who has not received First Communion approach the sanctuary, they may either keep the youngster behind them or signal to the minister in some way that their child is underage. Nevertheless, there are times when some taller, pre-Communion children carefully observe their parents receiving the Consecrated Host and imitate their movements exactly, cupping their hands, palm upon palm, hoping to receive as well. When refused, these kids return to their pew just as crestfallen, I'm sure, as the youth who were shooed away from Jesus by the apostles (Mathew 19:13).
Why does the Church deny Holy Communion to those members of the flock who are innocent, sinless and most worthy to receive the Blessed Sacrament? The short explanation is that children must be able to distinguish the Body of Christ from ordinary bread. We call this the “age of reason” and pinpoint it to 7 years old. But I'm beginning to wonder if such reasoning powers are appearing as much as three years earlier. If you had asked me before this Lenten season started whether a 4-year-old was astute enough to make clear distinctions and abstract connections, I would have said no. But an Ash Wednesday encounter made me seriously rethink these assumptions.
There are a limited number of days in the Catholic liturgical year when everyone, regardless of age or acumen, can approach the altar to receive the same “sacramental” as everyone else. For example, there is no age restriction for holding a palm frond at the beginning of Holy Week or having your throat blessed on the feast of St. Blaise or receiving ashes on the first day of Lent. Everyone, from infant to elder, can participate.
This year, hundreds of our parishioners crowded into the early morning Mass on Ash Wednesday. Some youngsters were perplexed. During the Communion procession, they could not receive anything. But in the line to receive ashes, words were being recited over everyone, even babies, and each person was being smudged with something during this ancient ritual. An observant 4-year-old tyke watched closely as I first placed ashes on the forehead of his mother, dipped my thumb into the dish to gather more ash, and then repeated the same incantation while blessing him: “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” My voice echoed among the heavily populated yet fervently quiet worshipers. I thought these words would be lost on the boy. I was sure he had never heard “unto” before and I seriously doubted that he could comprehend the significance of this strange anointing. I was wrong. He stood, statue-like still, looked wide-eyed into my face, and questioned me loud enough for the whole community to hear. “I'm dirt?” he asked. I was so taken aback by the fact that he understood what I said that I was unable to answer him. His mother abruptly reached for his hand to rescue him away from the spectacle he was making of himself. Undaunted by my silence, he bellowed to his mom about me: “He said I am dirt!” The entire assembly stifled a chuckle as I regained my composure and replied, “Yes, we are dirt. All of us.”
From the mouth of babes, the congregation was soundly reminded that the point of this intentionally “morbid” ceremonial was to acknowledge the mortality of our humanity. We are all going to die, and we better be prepared for what comes after death. The 4-year-old inquisitor got the message. He didn't like it, but he got it. And his reverberating challenge that morning forced every sleepy mind in God's house to wake up. We couldn't help but recall the final witness of Our Lord before he died on the same cross we were temporarily tattooing onto our brows for all to see, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
For Holy Homework: Place a piece of lint from the clothes dryer into a clear plastic baggie as a reminder of the dust and dirt that comprise our finite bodies. Label the bag with the startling question of this prophetic 4-year-old Christian, “I'm dirt?” Then fasten the sealed bag to the refrigerator door for the rest of Lent to serve as a frequent reminder of what this penitential season is all about.
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