Fifth Sunday of Easter B
Today, more than 40 children of our four parishes received Holy Communion for the very first time. I preached to them without a text (and “tested” my homily during two Masses before that), so what follows isn’t word-for-word, but some reflections based upon what I had to say.
What I really wanted to share with the kids was a message about “putting together”—in particular, how Jesus wanted to be put together with them in their receiving of the Eucharist. So I tried to come up with a few examples…
The first was blocks. (For the record, these are not from the rectory; I borrowed them from some local toddlers…but they’re fun and I might be slow to give them back.) Blocks can be put together very easily, and in countless different ways. You can make almost as many things out of blocks as your imagination will allow. But there’s one problem: blocks also come apart rather easily. When Jesus wants to be put together with us, I’m quite sure he wants us to stay together.
So I put away the blocks, and next considered bread. You see, the First Communion candidates and I spent some time in the kitchen at their retreat yesterday and baked 40 loaves of bread. The children’s faces were beaming with pride as we pulled all that fresh bread from the ovens. Their parents’ faces all said, “Has this guy lost his mind?” when they realized just what we were doing: mixing up all that sticky dough with our bare hands. That’s where bread is better than blocks: when the flour, water, and yeast are put together, there’s no way to take them apart again. They become something even better when put together then when they’re separate. But there’s still a problem. Most of the children had already tried their bread, and many had shared it with their families. (One grandmother told me before Mass that it was, in fact, pretty terrible.) When you’ve eaten bread, it’s gone. It grew a bit as the yeast helped it to rise in the pan, but it wouldn’t grow any more. When Jesus wants to be put together with us, I’m quite sure he doesn’t only want us to stay together, but that he also wants us to keep growing; the gift he’s giving isn’t going to run out.
So I put the bread away, and brought out two branches—one with dry, brown leaves and one with fresh, bright green ones. I asked the children the difference, to which they promptly responded that one was dead while the other was alive. (Of course, the truth is that they were both dead since I’d yanked that second one off the tree…but it simply wasn’t possible to bring the whole thing into church.) One branch I’d found on the ground; it would never grow again. But the other one, while firmly attached to the tree, would keep on growing. If it were a branch on a grapevine or an apple tree, it would soon enough not only have leaves but flowers, and in time those flowers would become fruit. We could eat all the grapes and apples we wanted, and that branch would keep right on growing, producing more the next season. Now we had a good example! When Jesus wants to be put together with us, I’m quite sure he doesn’t only want us to stay together and to keep growing, but to bear good fruit that can be shared with many others—and which won’t run out.
It was during the Last Supper that Jesus said to his friends, “I am the vine and you are the branches.” It wasn’t long after he broke bread and said, “This is my body,” and passed a cup of wine saying, “This is my blood.” In the great gift of the Eucharist, Jesus found a most wonderful way to be put together with us. He desires to not only live near or among us, but to dwell deep within us—to make a home in our hearts. “Remain in me,” he says, “as I remain in you.” We keep returning to this sacrament again and again, because Christ wants us to stay together always and to keep on growing. “Without me,” he warns, “you can do nothing.”
And then I had a brief (and pointed, I guess,) reminder for the kids’ parents. Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.” Mothers and fathers share in God’s own work as the vine grower, protecting and nurturing these tender branches. Parents already had a responsibility for the their children’s’ growth in body and mind; at Baptism, when these little ones were grafted onto Christ, they accepted the additional responsibility to grow their children’s’ souls. We priests, when we talk among ourselves about First Communion in our parishes, speak of the joy at seeing these young parishioners at their finest. But we also tend to find this a sad day, when we look around realizing how many families we haven’t seen much of before, and how many we don’t expect to see too much of again. Our community was rocked during the past week as two teens took their own lives. We all felt the hurt of when young people feel disconnected, unable to see how truly precious, how deeply loved they really are. Shouldn’t we, then, seek out those times and places when our young people can be put together with that Someone who makes the rest of life make some sense? Jesus wants to be as stuck to our children as the sticky bread dough that had to be scrubbed from their small hands yesterday morning. I urged their parents to come to Mass with their children, and to come every Sunday, helping them to stay connected to the things that really matter.
Jesus is the true vine, and we are the branches. By the Eucharist, he helps us to stay put together with him. Let us return often to this great Sacrament, where we’re given what we most need to keep on growing and bear much fruit.