It's Sunday at 9:29 a.m., one minute before Mass starts, and I am in the front seat of my Jeep tapping on the steering wheel and waiting not so patiently for my 10-year-old daughter Emily, who has raced back into the house because "I forgot something, Mom."
Moments later, she bolts out of the front door and jumps up onto the seat next to me. As I steer the car backwards and race out of the driveway, I glance down into her lap. There, clutched in her hands is the pocket-sized white plastic book, the one that rests on her nightstand, the one that spent almost four decades on mine. Its pages are torn and tattered, the buckle clasp that used to lock the treasure inside snapped off. It was the gift I received from my parents for my First Communion some 30-plus years ago. It is called Welcome Jesus: A Prayer Book for First Communicants (The Bruce Publishing Company, 1953).
During those years, when hurts and frustrations mounted, I turned to the picture pages of Jesus carrying the crucifix and instantly found comfort, knowing my friend, Jesus, suffered so for me and for others. On my Communion day, the day I received the book, I met a new friend. When Emily made her First Communion almost three years ago, I wanted to share that exquisite friendship. I gave her my book.
Since then, it has become more than just a source of daily reflection and reference in times of need for Emily. It is a standard morning addition to her backpack, a must-bring to Sunday Mass, and the font of wisdom when her crush rebukes her, her best friend is on vacation and the adults in her life, mostly me-"MOOOOOM!"-force her to endure "challenges" she finds demanding and unfair. As she explains: "It helps me talk to Jesus when I sometimes don't know the right words to say."
Therein lies the minor miracle: Emily got it. She got First Communion.
During the days, weeks, and months leading up to Emily's First Communion, I doubted that my youngest child would walk away with anything more than the feeling that she had been part of a photo shoot for a major magazine and an underprivileged communicant whose event was shattered by her mother's lack of attention to glitz and glamour.
Indeed, suddenly First Communions have become extravaganzas, rivaling in many ways the pomp and circumstances once first experienced on one's wedding day.
I, for one, was left reeling in the wake of all this splashy sparing of no expense. As a mother of two other children who had experienced this Roman Catholic rite of passage just five and eight years, respectively, before, I was astonished and appalled at how First Communions, for Emily's generation, had suddenly become a commercial three-ring circus. Where had the solemnity of the day gone?
As I was busy hand-sewing my grandmother's rosary and a felt chalice onto the banner that would mark our family pew and celebrate the moment Emily first received the Body and Blood of Christ in the form of wafer and wine, her peer's parents were busy scouring the Yellow Pages for the best selections of silk, lace, tulle, and taffeta. Digging deep into their pockets, they were plunking down big bucks for everything from jewelry and fancy shoes to expensive halls and meals. This once sacred event was fast becoming the hottest new business op in town-the First Communion market.
All of a sudden I was bombarded by: "Gina's mom is taking her to a fashion show for dresses." "Mom, where are we going to have my party? Mary's party is at that hotel." "Mom, when are we going to get my jewelry?" "Can I go with Kelly that morning to the salon to get my nails done?"
Matching headpieces embellished in pearls, sequins, and lace? Faux-fur matching capes? Rose bouquets? Appointments at the hairdressers for swept up "dos"? And hundreds of dollars as gifts? These sound like the tick list for a modest wedding.
I refused to be sucked in.
At the time, it all seemed "not fair Mom," according to Emily. "Why can't we be like everyone else?"
Don't get me wrong. I do understand how parents today, especially following the events of September 11, want to get more in tune with religion and family. Some argue that it's a way of showing kids this is important, that it is more than just a birthday. And, when done with all the hoopla and frills, in the end the kids still do look so angelic, in a chic sort of way. But are tenderloin and chicken marsala served up at a ritzy hotel the ways to focus on faith, or a bit much? I think, a bit much.
And then what happens for Confirmation? Do we rent out Six Flags Great America?
I think not. I think we should strive for a simpler way of celebrating these Catholic rites of passage. I think they should be events focused on the meaning, and the takeaway should be small lessons that will carry through with us our whole lives.
After all, I had only to look at my little white book, now clasped in Emily's hands, to know the reason my First Communion survived in memory is that it was a day that captured the essence of the experience. It was a simple day, albeit I got to wear a fancy dress and a veil, but a day where I was going to go meet Jesus. Afterwards, my cousins, parents, and little siblings and I would rally around the roast beef sandwiches and Hawaiian salad at home, sip a couple ginger ales, and head to the backyard for nine innings of softball. My presents: a couple crosses, Bibles, and holy cards. And, of course, my little white book.
So despite the pleas to be just like everyone else, i held firm in my preparation process for Emily's First Communion. The message I wanted to convey to Emily about her special day came softly, gently during our impromptu treks to the Botanical Gardens, trips enroute to soccer practice, and nighttime bedside chats. I wanted her to learn a simple lesson that Jesus was there always. That in a world that moves so fast, it is easy to forget that he is there. In our harriedness we take him for granted.
Today, as she races out the door with the little white book in hand, I feel that I did well. I did what was right, despite the consumer tugging. For Emily, as it did for me, the little white book remains, as always, a place to turn in times of questioning and a reminder that all of life is sacred. It is a visible sign to her that Jesus is a force that moves through all of us always. Despite all the material things we can buy, all our trials and tribulations, tests, worries, and attempts to make things into memories, our friendship with Jesus is a gift.
I am afraid if we deck ourselves and our children out in silk and satin, and stage elaborate events, we will miss the lesson. We will miss the gift, the gift of a simple guy who just wants to be our friend . . . even if we aren't wearing expensive jewels.
But maybe Emily says it better today, almost three years after her First Communion: "Mom, Samantha wanted to know how she could get a book, too. I told her she could borrow mine, because they don't make them anymore."