Wednesday, May 18, 2011

No, they're not "special"

Contrary to greeting card sentiments, I do not think that the Eucharist is meant to make us "special."

Last week, we were going to a First Communion, and I wanted to give a card. And of course I wanted to find a good one. So we (yes, I made him come look with me) went to look for a card. The first place we looked only had one left that I didn't like very much. So the next day we tried another place, which had a bunch to choose from, and one annoying thing in common. There is a very great over-use of the word "special" in these cards. "For a special boy" dominated the fronts of many of the cards, or sometimes something about "your special day" or, to really overdo it: "For a special boy on his special day." Yes, some cards did actually have an otherwise meaningful sentiment inside, and I found a couple that I really liked. I give extra points to cards that actually use the words "Eucharist" or "Sacrament" as well.

I know that I should not place too much importance on how greeting card sentiments are written, or have too high an expectation of knowledge on the part of those who write them. Some of the sentiments in the cards, though, did seem to have been written by someone with at least some understanding of the doctrines around the sacrament of the Eucharist. Some even sounded as if they may have been written to be Catholic, with reference (or at least implication) to the Real Presence of Jesus. The people who write these cards seem to know that a) receiving the Eucharist for the first time is a big deal and b) it's a big deal because of what it has to do with Jesus/ God's Grace, etc. They must know at least that.

So why this apparent need to assign "special"ness to the recipient? Why cloud the meaning of an otherwise meaningful sentiment about receiving the Grace of the sacrament with a "you're special" statement stamped first and foremost? The main problems I see with this are a dislocation of the significance from the sacrament itself to the recipient, and also an invention of personal achievement on the part of the recipient.

There seems to be a strong need to emphasize individual specialness in our culture, as in, being inherently and independently "special"n in one way or another, or just in a general sense. If we are "special," whatever that is supposed to mean, we are such because that is the way God has created us, but it does not come from the reception of a sacrament itself, as if it's a personal achievement of some sort; that's not what the sacraments are for. We do gain something from every sacrament that was not there before we received it, but to use an over-applied term like "special" really cheapens the value of the sacrament. To use it in the context of conveying a message to a child, it is particularly misleading to him. A child will not realize that in this context, "special" is (hopefully) meant to imply being imparted with God's grace, but to him it means "I am special, I have achieved something because of how special I am on my own, all by myself." I don't think this is what we should be teaching our children when they receive the Eucharist. Instead of saying "You're so special you get to have communion with everyone else now," we should be saying, "This is God and his grace you are receiving, this is why you need it, and why it will now help make you a better person."

So I guess what I am getting at is that we seem to think that we are already inherently great persons, and do not need God in order to achieve this personal greatness which we already assign to ourselves. This error we convey to our children when we emphasize specialness over God.

1 comment:

  1. Unfortunately, unless it is a specifically Catholic card company, the industry can't make the assumption that the First Communion child is Catholic, so they have to produce cards that reach the widest portion of the market. Many protestants have first communions, where it is seen as simply a memorial or re-enactment.

    But I have to disagree. The reception of your First Eucharist is a special day, and I don't agree that it's wrong necessarily to refer to the child as a special child. The card makes no statement of what theological preparation the child may have or should have made. That's not the job of the greeting card. The greeting card's job is to send a message, namely that the day is a day for celebration. Now it's up to us to determine what it is they're celebrating, namely completion of one of the Sacraments of Initiation; ability to participate fully in the Sacrifice of the Mass; and sometimes just a reason to have a good day.