A child’s search for Baby Jesus

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  • November 21, 2012

Every year as Advent approaches, my memory goes to a moment our priest asked my six-year-old son if he would carry the Baby Jesus up the aisle on Christmas Eve.

I could tell how honoured he was to have been asked but also, in a character trait forming for life, how much he was fretting about the task he’d just accepted. He was silent for most of the trip home, finally asking somberly: “Do we have a Baby Jesus at home? What am I going to bring instead if we can’t find Him?”

I reassured him the church would provide the Baby Jesus, though I really wanted to tell him he had already brought Christ anew to the Church by his willingness to serve and bring whatever gift he could to God.

The explanation would have gone over his head, naturally, but the moment never fails to open my eyes a little wider each year to the meaning of Matthew 18:3: “Verily, I say unto you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of Heaven.”

I must admit that particular piece of Scripture is one of many that took years to sink into my understanding. Don’t we admonish our children to stop being childish? Aren’t children supposed to become adults, not vice-versa? And what does it mean to be “like children” anyway? Sketchy table manners? Missing front teeth? Only coming up to the waist of most of the rest of the world?
The easy thing would be to blame Catholicism for my inability to grasp such perplexing verses. Doesn’t accepted wisdom tell us Catholics simply don’t know how to read the Bible? Yet in a recent Convivium magazine interview Paul Henderson, the country’s greatest goal scoring evangelical Christian, told me that he, too, is often flummoxed by Scripture.

A passage that upset him for a long time, he said, is the wedding feast at Cana when Our Lord comes across as a provocatively disrespectful son to Mary, speaking to her in a way that would prompt many parents — well, me, anyway — to say with full on-high authority: “Don’t you speak to me in that snippy voice, young mister.”

As Henderson puts it so well: “You can get the same problem with Scripture as you do with e-mail. You can’t see the facial expression or hear the tone of voice so it’s easy to have misunderstandings.”

Or, as in my case with Matthew, have no easy time understanding at all.

Perhaps the biggest roadblock comes from approaching meaning with preconception rather than openness. When Christ calls us to “become like children” don’t our minds immediately flit to images of innocence? Of happiness?

In a delightful recollection of long-ago childhood Christmas in Saskatchewan, however, Convivium writer Alan Hustak reminds us that being like children — being children — is not synonymous with a trouble-free, easy-peasy existence.

At the tender age of four, Hustak found himself wrestling with the age-old conundrum of giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. To be more precise: of keeping to himself a silver dollar even though that meant disobeying his grandfather by refusing to put the coin on the collection plate held by an enormous ceramic angel during Midnight Mass.

Most adults would bet on the angel in such showdown, but that doesn’t mean children always do. The essential Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor tells of a game she invented as a child that she called Sock the Angel. She locked herself in a room, closed her eyes and swung her fists wildly around in hopes of connecting with the jaw of the angel on her shoulder.

Fittingly, it was also O’Connor who said: “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

Don’t we, as Christian children, know the crucial importance of a Baby Jesus even if we’re unclear on exactly where to find Him?

Don’t we just need someone to give us the Word, and we will bear Him as best and as proudly as we possibly can?

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