Monday, August 5, 2013

Talking to children about the Eucharist

This is a common topic to talk to children about.  I am sure everyone has their own favourite way of dealing with this subject.  Here is mine and I hope that you may be able to pick up some pointers that will help you.

I normally start off by asking the children what is their favourite food.  This normally gets them into a very good mood.  And who wouldn't?  We are talking about everyone's favourite topic here - food!!

Why we eat
Ask them why do we eat?  Well, there are various reasons.  First, food gives us strength to do work.  Discuss the types of work that we do when we have strength from food.

Food keeps us alive.  We are not going to survive more than a few days without food.  Get the children you imagine how they feel when they missed one meal.  Then, imagine missing it many many times.

Food keeps us healthy.  Food contains vitamins and all the necessary nutrition that will keep our body healthy and recover from illness.  Without food, we will fall sick very quickly.

Food also helps us to grow.  All that food goes into building up our muscles & bones and without food, you will be stunted up for the rest of your life.

When, where and with whom we eat
When do we eat?  We eat at set times during the day, like dinnertime, etc.  Who do we eat with?  We eat with our families at home.  Ask the children who they prefer to eat with - people they like or people they do not like?  Interestingly, eating is not just for our nutrition. It is also a social event.  That is why we prefer to eat with people we like.

A birthday party
Talk about a party where everyone gets together to eat, say, a birthday party.  Ask the children what must be there for a birthday party to happen.  We must have lots and lots of food.  And where is the food?  The food is all on the table and there is a nice tablecloth on top of the table, washed and clean.  The pride of place is of course the birthday cake.

Then, you must also have lots of people.  Imagine if you have got a birthday party with lots of food but no one to share it with?  It wouldn't be much fun, would it?

And of course, the most critical ingredient of a birthday party is the birthday boy or girl. I f there is no birthday boy or girl, there is no point having a birthday party, is there?  Get the children to talk about the birthday parties that they have enjoyed.  What are the key features of those most memorable parties?

Spiritual food
Now that you have the children have the hook of something they are familiar with, you can now hang the concepts you are trying to introduce on it.  Remember parallels - every idea discussed in the hook has a parallel in the concepts you are introducing the children to.

We all have a physical body that we feed physical food to get physical strength, to stay alive physically, to be physically healthy, and to grow physically. But we also have a spirit. Explain what happens if we have a body with no spirit.  We will be dead.

Now, this spirit also needs food, but not physical food like the physical body.  How will a spirit take and eat physical food anyway?  A spirit needs spiritual food.

The spriritual food that we Catholics take is called the Eucharist.  The word is originally Greek, meaning 'thanksgiving'.  We see it as the bread and wine that becomes the Body and Blood of Jesus when the priest consecrates them at mass.  Jesus has given us his body and blood to be the spiritual food that our spirits need because he loves us so much.

I use the term Body of Jesus as it is a more intimate term for the children.  When discussing what the minister say at mass or more doctrinal concepts, I would refer to Body of Christ.  Be prepared for any confusion if you were to use the terms interchangeably.

Our spirit need the spiritual food to get spiritual strength to do spiritual work.  Discuss the types of spiritual work that we do - pray, tell people about God, to love and care for others, etc.

Our spirit also need spiritual food also to stay alive.  Without spiritual food, there will be no spirit to enter heaven!!  We also need spiritual food to stay spiritually healthy and keep us away from spiritual illness like sins and temptations.  And we also need spiritual food to grow spiritually, so that we can one day be a full member of the Church.

The bread and wine
The bread is small flat piece like a coin.  It is called a host.  When we go to receive the host, we are said to be going up for communion, which is another way of saying receiving the bread and wine.

The host is baked from wheat like normal bread, but without the yeast.  Yeast makes the dough rise up like the bread slices that we have at home. Without the yeast it stays flat.  They are baked elsewhere, traditionally by some nuns.  If you ask the sacristan in the sacristy at the back of the church politely, he may show you the hosts have not been consecrated.

The wine is made from grapes and must be fermented.  In the olden days people drink wine because it is safer.  Normal water gets contaminated but wine do not. 

The wine is not red because it represents the blood, but it is just common practice to have red wine.  I have had white wine for mass before.  My parish priest in London gives us wine at every Sunday mass and he knows where to get the best cheap wine at the supermarkets. Once when we ran out of wine, we had sherry for mass.

A meal with the family of God
We have the Eucharist at mass every Sunday in church with the rest of the family of God.  Like our mealtimes at home, mass happens at set times every week and on feastdays. Actually, we have mass everyday in many parishes but weekday masses are optional.

And just like a birthday party at home, there is the table in the middle of the sanctuary at the front of the church (not where the front door of the church is), called an altar.  On the altar table, there is an altar cloth on top of it - washed and clean - just like the tablecloth on the dining table at home.  And taking the pride of place on the altar is the bread and wine.

Just like we must have the birthday boy and girl, we must have the priest at mass (careful that the analogy is not exact here).  Without a priest, we cannot have a mass. And very importantly, we must have the people. Can you imagine if only the priest is there in church but none else turned up for mass? Is there any point in having a Sunday mass for the parish if there is no people?  (Actually, current Catholic doctrine is that a mass with a priest but without the people is valid but a mass with the people but without a priest is not.)

Only baptised Catholics can go for communion at a Catholic mass.  We can't go to a non-Catholic church for communion.  That would be just like turning up at the house of a total stranger and saying you want to have dinner with them

The symbolism
The bread is broken and shared out with all baptised Catholics attending mass.  When we share the Eucharist together with other Catholics, we are said to be in communion with them. This means that they believe in the same faith as us and follow the same Pope.

This is important we only those who believe in the same faith and follow the same Pope can be considered part of the same family.  That is why we sometimes call the people in the church as 'part of the Body of Christ'

When receiving communion
When we go up for communion, the Communion Minister will hold up the host and say "Body of Christ", we reply "Amen".  'Amen' means 'we agree' (note - it doesn't mean I believe as I find it commonly taught.  This incorrect understanding destroys the beauty of the idea here.) 

So, when we say 'Amen", we are agreeing that the host is now the Body of Christ.  We are also agreeing that both us and the Communion Minister are part of the same Body of Christ, along with everyone else who shared the bread at that mass, and in countless other Catholic churches all over the world.  Without that "Amen", we may not get communion if we do not agree that we are part of the same Body of Christ.  That is why the children must say their Amens loudly.

Wine represents fellowship.  When adults get together to drink wine, they are happy and have a jolly good time.  As such, having wine together means that we are happy and celebrating together.  Careful that this discussion do not get too carried away.

Table manners
Talk to the children about table manners and what kind of table manners we are expected to have at the dinner at home.

If someone wants to give us chocolates, for instance, we ask nicely, hold out our hands politely and say thank you when we receive it.  We do not grab the chocolates in one hand and dump it into our mouths, all at one go!!  And we do not munch them nosily or talk when eating.

The mass is a meal and like any other meal, we have table manners at mass.  Just like at the table dinner table, we are not expected to be playing around with the food or be distracted on our iPads, we should not be playing around or talking when going up for communion.

And just like the chocolates, we ask for the communion politely by holding up our hands, wait for the Communion Minister to place the host on our flatly opened palm before picking it up with the other hand and place it in our mouth.  Only difference with chocolates is that we say "Amen" before receiving instead of "Thank you" after.

We do not chew it nosily or talk when eating the host.  I also encourage the children to respect the host because it is Jesus sacrificing his body and blood for our spiritual good.  Please do not tell the children that blood will come spewing out of their mouth if they chew the Body of Christ!!  That is actually a heretical view as the Church is clear that the Eucharist is not the physical body of Jesus.

One final thing
If you are brave enough, you can try this.  You must make sure the children do not get carried away with the concept, balancing the informality of delivery with the seriousness of the underlying message.  If the point gets across, it can be rather a rather convincing notion to reflect on.

Our physical bodies eat physical food to get physical strength to do physical work.  So, what happens to the physical food in our physical bodies if we do not do physical work?  Other than turning into fat, it also gets flushed down a physical toilet.

Likewise, if we do not do spiritual work after eating the Body of Christ, it may get flushed down a physical toilet.  And, we don't want that, do we?

Takeaway message
Just like our physical bodies eat physical food to get physical strength to do physical work, all Catholics eat the Body and Blood of Jesus at mass to get spiritual strength for our spirits to do spiritual work.  Not doing the spiritual work after eating the spiritual food is a disrespect to Jesus, who has sacrificed his body for our spiritual well-being.

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