Sri Lanka’s Children in White: Receiving the Food of Martyrs

COMMENTARY: Among the children killed in the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka, those slain on the day of their first Holy Communion have become the most poignant icons of the attacks.

Mourners light candles during a vigil in memory of the bomb blast victims in Colombo on April 28, 2019, a week after a series of bomb blasts targeting churches and luxury hotels on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka.
Mourners light candles during a vigil in memory of the bomb blast victims in Colombo on April 28, 2019, a week after a series of bomb blasts targeting churches and luxury hotels on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka. (photo: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

We are now at the time of year in which, in many parts of the country and globe, young people are receiving their first Holy Communion. As pastors and catechists are well aware, the spiritual significance of this event is sometimes obscured by an excessive focus on suits and dresses, parties and photos.

This year, however, the world has received an extraordinary reminder of the importance of this day from the First Communicants in Sri Lanka.

As Catholics were celebrating Easter at St. Anthony Shrine in Colombo and St. Sebastian Church in Negombo, young children were excited to receive for the first time Jesus’ risen body and blood in the Holy Eucharist. Bombs detonated, however, at both churches at exactly 8:45am, killing 50 and 93 people, respectively. Others were killed by similar terrorist explosions within the next 20 minutes in three hotels and in the Protestant Zion Church in Batticaloa.

Among all 253 victims — 207 from Sri Lanka and 46 from 16 other countries — the 45 children slain have become the most poignant icons of the attacks. Among the children, those slain on the day of their first Holy Communion are most iconic of all.

Joe Palathunkal, a journalist and editor for the Indian Catholic magazine Living in Faith, wrote a poem — prose is inadequate — to express his grief at pondering so many children, in line to receive Holy Communion, becoming an offertory procession in which their own bodies and blood would be commingled with the Eucharistic sacrifice:

They went with the steps of a soldier to receive him, the Supreme Commander, who had only one command: Love your neighbor as yourself and nothing more.

But the little ones who lined up [in] the churches in Sri Lanka — wearing the white of the innocents and turning the heart to the Table where the Bread of Life will bid them to fight the forces of darkness — during that Easter Eucharist never knew that Judas had already taken a morsel dipped in Blood to turn it into 30 silver coins to sell their life to the ruler of darkness … [and] snuff out their life and the lighted candles in their little hands.

And the First Communion they received turned into the Last Supper while the Risen Jesus welcomed them into his outstretched arms and told them to gaze at a mountain top [Calvary] where nails from perverted minds gleefully cried out, “Crucify him.”  

But when the Risen One told them to look into the tomb by the mountain, they found it empty, with an assuring smile that the First Communion you receive puts a seal of lasting life on you …

Little ones, as you lie in white, with closed eyes and folded palms holding a rosary, remember your closed eyes are the most open in a world that has closed its eyes to [those who] have inked an agreement with Lucifer against him who said, “The Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” Rest assured, you have flooded the eyes of millions, and that is the Resurrection Mass that raises conscience and the First of the First Communions!

Palathunkal’s elegy not only provides a moving tribute to those children dressed in white who died, but also provides a Eucharistic catechesis for First Communicants everywhere and for all those of whatever age who should receive Holy Communion as if it were their first, last or only time.

Every time we attend Mass, we enter in time into the timeless actions of Christ in the Upper Room, on Calvary and from the empty tomb, where Christ leads us on the new and eternal Passover. His act of total self-giving, the greatest act of love in all of history, was met not just by love and gratitude, but also by betrayal and sadism. So we shouldn’t be shocked that the evil one who was present in Jerusalem reappears with the same spite in Colombo, or Negombo or closer to home.

But as Jesus was raised on the third day, those who hunger for him, who eat his flesh and drink his blood, who long to enter into communion with him, enter into communion with his risen life. The Risen One meets them with outstretched arms and inaugurates them into a communion within the communion of saints within the communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Holy Communion is meant to lead to heavenly communion.

St. John Paul II stated in his Eucharistic encyclical Ecclesia de Eucaristia, “This pledge of the future resurrection comes from the fact that the flesh of the Son of Man, given as food, is his body in its glorious state after the resurrection. With the Eucharist we digest, as it were, the ‘secret’ of the resurrection” (18).

Palathunkal’s poem reminds us that receiving Jesus at Mass is not like receiving birthday cake at a birthday party. It’s entering into Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection.

To enter into risen life, we enter first into Jesus’ martyrdom. He gives us his body and blood, tells us that no one has greater love than to lay down his life for his friends, reminds us that we are his friends if we do what he commands, and then he commands, “Do this in memory of me.”

This imperative means more than, “Celebrate the Eucharist.” It means, as well: “Make your lives a commentary on the words of consecration: Learn to love others by giving your body, blood, sweat, tears, mind, heart and strength as co-redeemers.”

To receive Holy Communion is to receive the food that makes martyrs.

We’ve seen this throughout history.

We see it in St. Ignatius of Antioch in 107, who saw himself as “God’s wheat” and who desired through his imminent martyrdom to become “Christ’s pure bread,” as he called the Eucharist “a medicine of immortality, an antidote to death.”

We see it in the altar boy St. Tarcisius, who in 258 gave his life protecting Jesus in the Eucharist, whom he was bringing to prisoners.

We see it in the Martyrs of Abitene, who died in 304 for coming together Sunday morning to celebrate Mass despite an imperial prohibition. They proclaimed, “Sine Dominico non possumus,” that without receiving the Lord on Sundays they cannot make it.

We see it in St. Nicholas Pieck and his fellow martyrs of Gorkum, in 1572, who were tortured and hanged for their refusal to deny their belief in the Real Presence.

We see it in St. Oscar Romero, who on March 24, 1980, celebrated Mass despite death threats and was gunned down at the offertory.

It was the reality of the Eucharist — and Jesus’ promise that those who worthily eat his flesh and drink his blood will have eternal life —that strengthened them to make those sacrifices, because they believed with firmness of faith that just as Jesus had been raised from the dead after his martyrdom, God would similarly raise them.

Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Sacramentum Caritatis (SC), his exhortation on the Holy Eucharist, about this connection between martyrdom, the Eucharist and eternal life. “The Christian who offers his life in martyrdom,” he stated, “enters into full communion with the Pasch of Jesus Christ and thus becomes Eucharist with him” (85).

This connection between the Eucharist, martyrdom and eternity is a truth that all of us today must ponder more.

When St. Paul tells us, “I urge you, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1), he wasn’t just speaking symbolically, but describing how we should pray the Mass and make our life a Mass. We’re called to offer our bodies, which are the sacraments of who we are, body and soul, to God, as a sacrifice of life. He calls this, in Greek, our logike latreia, which means, “the only worship that makes sense.”

Pope Benedict commented, “Even if the test of martyrdom is not asked of us, we know that worship pleasing to God demands that we should be inwardly prepared for it. Such worship culminates in the joyful and convincing testimony of a consistent Christian life, wherever the Lord calls us to be his witnesses” (SC, 85).

We’re all called to be martyrs — whether “wet” or “dry,” in death and life, respectively — of and by means of communion with Christ and his life, death and resurrection.

The Mass, as a priest mentor once told me, is kind of like a game of poker. Jesus says, “I’m all in.” And, even though we may have far fewer chips to play, the only fitting response for us is to go all in, too.

This is something hopefully First Communicants this year will learn well, so that they, with us, may live the “joyful and convincing testimony of a consistent Christian life” and cash in on the “jackpot of happiness” in this world and forever.

Father Roger Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts.