Sunday, 19 December 2010

Christmas is for children?

Preacher: Veronica


Isaiah 11:6-9

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

Matthew 18:1-4

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

‘The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes But little Lord Jesus no crying he makes’.

How many of you here hate that line? Me too. I think it’s a glaring example of docetism - the belief that Jesus wasn’t fully human but only appeared to be. After all we can’t have God becoming a real child, one who soils his swaddling cloths and yells for hours, can we?

And another thing: it seems to suggest that for a baby to cry is actually a bad thing. But surely crying is the God-given way for babies to communicate their needs. When a baby is suffering severe malnutrition, it stops crying because it no longer has energy to do so. A non-crying baby is not always a good thing.

The other Christmas carol line we all love to hate is that one from ‘Once in Royal David’s City’:

‘Christian children all must be Mild, obedient, good as he’.

Given that the only story we have of Jesus’ childhood is when he gives his parents the slip and goes missing for three days, this doesn’t seem a very accurate description of Jesus as a child, let alone a goal for Christian children to aim for. In a world of child abuse, parents are not always worthy of obedience, and mildness is not always the safest characteristic for a child to have.

So when Jesus called a child to himself and made that child a model for how his followers should be in the world, what aspects of children was he thinking of? The traditional answer is that we should have the innocence of children. I’m not sure however whether we really know what we mean by innocence. We’re very apt to confuse it with ignorance. Which reminds me of a description I once found in the diary of a Victorian gentleman:

‘At the breakfast was an ancient Vicar, who was interesting as a specimen of the fast failing school of “Evangelical” clergymen, the immediate disciples of Wesley and Scott; men who clung to and preached a few strong and effective tenets, and under the honest pretext of “knowing Christ alone”, remained ignorant of most other things.’

Perhaps the writer was a bit premature in proclaiming the death of Evangelicalism, but his comment is one that still rings bells today. Jesus called us not only to be innocent as doves but to be wise as serpents: there is no particular virtue in ignorance.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says explicitly in what way we should be like children to enter the kingdom of God:. He asks his disciples to become ‘humble like this child’. Children in his time had no social status until they were grown up. Child- centred education hadn’t been invented, and our idea that ‘Christmas is for the children’ would seem extremely strange to them, and not only because they would have no idea what Christmas is.

In the other Gospels, what it means to become like a child is left more open, but it’s always in the context of a discussion among the disciples as to who among them is the greatest. In fact in Mark, this incident is the place where Jesus utters his saying, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” So he’s focusing on the low status of children, the fact that they are dependent on others, that they are vulnerable and defenceless.

In other words, following Jesus is not a way to social respectability, to being looked up to by others, to exercising power over other people’s lives. It’s a way to being of no account, a way to service and suffering - the way that Jesus began to go even as a child when his family became refugees in Egypt.

But Jesus’ parables and sayings are always told in a way that leaves plenty to our imagination. So I don’t think it’s invalid to look at other ways in which children might be a model for our Christian life. I’ll just mention a few.

Children are trusting - and sadly that trust is often abused. Perhaps the worst aspect of cruelty to children is that they lose their implicit trust in adults who are meant to care for them, and become withdrawn from relationships. As adults too we may often be exploited, hurt or insulted. But perhaps Jesus asks us not to lose our trust as a result. Even in an untrustworthy world, we are to think the best of people and expect the best in people - because that’s the only way to get it.

Children are people of the moment. They get totally absorbed in the serious business of play. A normal, well looked after child might spend hours with a saucepan and a wooden spoon, or make a pebble from the beach their most treasured possession. They don’t , or shouldn’t need to, think about whether there will be food tomorrow or a place to sleep. And Jesus asks adults too, not to worry about tomorrow.

Children are intensely involved in the material world. It’s all fresh and new to them - in fact they see the world, as it were, with the eyes of God, as a creation with which God is ‘very pleased’. You’ll have to forgive me for turning yet again to Thomas Traherne, because he’s my hobby horse. Here’s his description of how he saw the world as a child, a vision which as an adult he struggled to recover:

'All appeared new, and strange at first, inexpressibly rare and delightful and beautiful. I was a little stranger, which at my entrance into the world was saluted and surrounded with innumerable joys. My knowledge was Divine. I knew by intuition those things which since my Apostasy, I collected again by the highest reason. My very ignorance was advantageous. I seemed as one brought into the Estate of Innocence. All things were spotless and pure andglorious: yea, and infinitely mine, and joyful and precious, I knew not that there were any sins, or complaints or laws. I dreamed not of poverties, contentions or vices. All tears and quarrels were hidden from mine eyes. Everything was at rest, free and immortal. I knew nothing of sickness or death or rents or exaction, either for tribute or bread. In the absence of these I was entertained like an Angel with the works of God in their splendour. and glory, I saw all in the peace of Eden; Heaven and Earth did sing my Creator's praises, and could not make more melody to Adam, than to me: All Time was Eternity, and a perpetual Sabbath. Is it not strange, that an infant should be heir of the whole World, and see those mysteries which the books of the learned never unfold?

'The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold: the gates were at first the end of the world. The green trees when I saw them first through one of the gates transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things: The Men! O what venerable and reverend creatures did the aged seem! Immortal Cherubims! And young men glittering and sparkling Angels, and maids strange seraphic pieces of life and beauty! Boys and girls tumbling in the street, and playing, were moving jewels. I knew not that they were born or should die; But all things abided eternally as they were in their proper places. Eternity was manifest in the Light of the Day, and something infinite behind everything appeared which talked with my expectation and moved my desire. The city seemed to stand in Eden, or to be built in Heaven. The streets were mine, the temple was mine, the people were mine, their clothes and gold and silver were mine, as much as their sparkling eyes, fair skins and ruddy faces. The skies were mine, and so were the sun and moon and stars, and all the World was mine; and I the only spectator and enjoyer of it. I knew no churlish proprieties, nor bounds, nor divisions: but all proprieties* and divisions were mine: all treasures and the possessors of them. So that with much ado I was corrupted, and made to learn the dirty devices of this world. Which now I unlearn, and become, as it were, a little child again that I may enter into the Kingdom of God.'

Should we as Christians seek that same vision of the world as a glorious gift from God? If we believe God created it, then I think we should.

Finally, children are very ready to forgive. Children are wired for relationship, and a happy child will always put its relationship with caring adults above anything the adults may have done wrong or failed to do. Even the abused child still loves the parent or parents who have so betrayed the child. It’s as though children are programmed to love, which is one of the things that makes child abuse so harmful.

Centuries before Jesus came to us as a child, Isaiah’s vision is of a world where humans and nature are in harmony, where children can safely play with wild creatures, and where the way to wisdom is pointed out by a child. Or as Psalm 8 puts it, ‘From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise’.

So instead of saying ‘Christmas is really for the children’, putting children (and Christmas) in a marked off compartment labelled ‘Not for adults’, perhaps at Christmas we should be watching children carefully and letting them lead us.