Days before my twin sister and I received First Communion, my mother dug into her closet and produced two white dresses. Each dress had been worn by one of our older sisters and by my mom and her five sisters before that. My endlessly talented grandmother had made them for her girls. They were passed down the chain of descendants until the fabric was so worn and the styles so out of date that it wasn't worth Grandmother's time to resurrect them.
My mom hid the dresses behind her back as my twin sister and I sat at the top of the stairs preparing to make our choices as if our lives depended on it. Like everything else, it was a race to see who was the quickest. We both knew the slow poke would be left without a choice: the second dress, no matter how unflattering it might be.
When my mother held out the two dresses for us to examine, our arms crisscrossed. I pointed to the dress on the right. My sister pointed to the dress on the left. "Well, that was easy," said my mom, relieved that it hadn't ended up in a massive quarrel about who was the favorite daughter.
Then we got to pick up our veils from school. My mom had ordered them in advance so that we would have plenty of time to do some practicing. I don't think the purpose of them was to pretend that we were young brides, but that's what we did with them, and they were great for playing make-believe.
I remember almost every detail of my First Communion and the days leading up to it because for me it was the first step toward adulthood. On this day, aunts and uncles and older cousins and siblings treated you with an unprecedented respect, like you were close to being one of them--which, for a kid, is quite an accomplishment.
And the day itself was magical, mystical even. It was more than dressing up like a princess or bride. It was more than seeing all the boys in black suits and being paired with one of them to walk down the church aisle. Even at a young age, I knew that there was something very spiritual about this day. And as I grow older I understand it a little more.
When we receive Communion--the consecrated bread and wine--we remember the Last Supper, when all of the disciples gathered around Jesus before he died. And we remember the words our Lord said that night. Holding bread in his hands, Jesus said, "Take this, all of you, and eat it. This is my body, which will be given up for you." When dinner ended, he took a cup of wine and continued, "Take this, all of you, and drink from it. This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven."
Although we repeat those words every week as part of the Eucharistic Prayer--indeed, maybe because we repeat them so often--we rarely stop to think about what they mean. How can we comprehend the generosity of a person who offers his body--his life in this world--as a sacrifice for us? What does it mean when we say that that the blood of Jesus has been shed to forgive our sins?
I am not sure I will ever be able to fully understand the dying and rising of Jesus Christ. But I am beginning to understand how the bread and wine that is offered as part of the liturgy is connected to the meaning of unconditional love and forgiveness. It is that love and forgiveness that make First Communion--the first time a child partakes of the Eucharistic meal--such a holy event. The white dress and the veil are pretty cool. Marching down the aisle with a cute boy dressed up like a young gentleman ain't so bad either. But the real mystery of this day comes from the Lord inviting us, with the same words he used when talking to his friends 2,000 years ago, to share some bread and wine with him.