Allow me to describe a scene for you: I come out of the sacristy to the front and center of the altar at the beginning of the service, I stand for a moment focusing on the cross and saying to myself ‘Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy’. I turn around to face the congregation and my eyes immediately hit the front rows of the church. To my right (the congregations left) are the two acolytes in their white robes; to my left (the congregations right) on the first and third Sunday’s of the month are some of the older member of the congregation, those who have trouble on their feet, and who later in the service we will bring communion to, as opposed to them coming up to the altar rail.
That is the first thing I see at the beginning of every communion service, and it perfectly symbolizes what the Church is about. We have the young (6-8th grade) and we have the old (average age is about 85) sitting in the front two pews of the congregation. On the surface it seems like simple logistics, the acolytes sit in the front so they can easily get in and out to light and extinguish the candles; the older members sit in the front so that we can more easily bring them communion; but there is so much more.
The one God and Father of us all has brought both the young and the old together in His house to hear His Word. Both will confess their sins and both will hear the words of absolution spoken that their sins are now forgiven. Both will hear the Word read from Holy Scripture and both will hear the Word proclaimed in Law and Gospel in the sermon. Both will sing liturgy and hymns that the Church on earth has sung for generations. Neither group would otherwise have much in common with the other; neither group would generally assemble in the same place as the other; and yet here they are, both seated in the front pews of the congregation, equal in the eyes of God.
Throughout the service, my eyes will float around the congregation: the Usher and his family, as well as those with small children seated toward the back; middle age and semi-retired generally more toward the front; while those with older children tend to be scattered about. As it works out, during the sermon, the front pew will actually be in my blind spot.
But then there is communion.
The Elder and I commune first, and then we go and commune the front row. I do not know if anyone else notices this, it was in fact a while before I even noticed it. But as the congregation begins singing the first distribution hymn, I notice that while I am giving communion to those members in the front pew, the acolytes (who will not commune until they are confirmed at the end of 8th grade) are peaking over to see what is happening.
What a joy it is to see them watching me give communion to these members. They are realizing in some fashion that something important is taking place, and they are looking to see what it is. What is this that has brought these members, staunch Lutherans all, suffering the effects of arthritis and old age, to sit in the front row of the congregation? What is this that is so important that they feel the desire to receive it? Will communion mean that much to me when I am that age?
As they know and will continue to discover: this is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ given and shed for the remission of all of your sins. This body and blood gives forgiveness, life and salvation. This body and blood is but a foretaste of the feast that we will partake of in the presence of Christ when we dwell with Him for all eternity.
It offers a perfect symbolism to the whole picture as well. We start out in the front of the church at the font, being welcomed into the family of believers in the waters of Holy Baptism. Then we kind of float around the nave, at first generally toward the rear in case we fuss too much and need to be excused.
But where do we find ourselves in a few years? Back in the front serving the church in the vocation of acolyte and crucifer; performing a duty that will assist the Church in her worship life.
Then we tend to float around the congregation again, sometimes even leaving the congregation for a time, only to return once more to hear the words of forgiveness and to have the Father’s arms wrapped around us once more.
And where do we find ourselves as we near life’s end? Back in the front of the church; because of age? No, for the same reasons as before: we are drawn to the cross, drawn to the Word, drawn to receiving Christ’s most holy gifts at the altar, even if they need to be brought to us.
The more we try to get out of the front pew, the more it draws us back in again.