During the Christmas Eve Mass the congregation’s attention was drawn to the procession. First came the crucifix and torches followed by the altar servers. Then there was a gap and before the clergy came a little child carrying a littler child: the bambino--the Christ child to be placed in the manger bed.
As the procession made it’s way to the stable scene I was reminded of the verse from Isaiah’s prophecy that “a little child shall lead them.” The prophet foresees a coming age when the lion shall lay down with the lamb. Peace will come to all and reconciliation to a broken world. Speaking of the coming king he says, “...righteousness will be the belt about His loins, And faithfulness the belt about His waist. And the wolf will dwell with the lamb, And the leopard will lie down with the young goat, And the calf and the young lion and the calf together; And a little child will lead them.”
At Christmas Jesus Christ is the little boy who leads the world into peace and harmony. He comes to reconcile and renew the world, and he does so by becoming small. As St Paul writes, “Though he was equal with God, he did not consider equality with God something to be held on to, but he took the form of a slave.” This example of noble lowliness reverberates throughout the gospel and the lives of the saints. So Jesus tells his disciples not to forbid the children from coming to him, and taking a child onto his knee he reminds the adults that unless they become like little children they cannot enter the kingdom.
We are so used to hearing Jesus’ teachings about children that we forget how radical they are. In the first century people did not have the sentimental view of children that we do. In their day a child was lower than a slave and only one step above the animals. That Jesus said everyone had to become like a little child would have seemed outrageous and bewildering. Wise old men held the highest rank. How could it be that one had to become small to enter the kingdom?
Only after long reflection could the church understand that Jesus said we must become like a child because he first became a little child. He calls us not to be childish but childlike. There is a difference. A person who is childish is immature, self centered and narrow minded. A person who is child-like reveals the good traits of childhood--innocence, open hearted wonder and a genuine curiosity and open mindedness. To become childlike in this sense is to be most mature. This childlikeness is the result of growing up through adulthood to discover a new innocence that is combined with experience, a new wonder that is combined with knowledge and a new curiosity that is combined with certainty. To be childlike in this way is to achieve freedom through discipline and an unselfconscious quality through service of others. It is to achieve the liberty of mastery and the detachment that is won through self denial.
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St. Therese of Lisieux is one of the world’s most beloved saints because she taught a new way of spiritual childhood. She remained a little child--dying at the tender age of twenty four--while attaining in that short life a great measure of maturity and wisdom fulfilled through her remaining a child.
St. Benedict shows us the kind of childlikeness that comes with age. He is pictured as the wise old man who--in the midst of his senescence--has achieved innocence again. Benedict’s rule overflows with a down to earth spirituality--a simplicity and trust that evokes the joy of the child in ordinary things-- simple pleasures and the thankfulness of a child’s heart.
The Christmas season reminds all of us that we need to return once again to the simplicity and trust of childhood. Like the little child Therese we put all our trust in our heavenly papa, so at last, like Benedict we can “run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with inexpressible joy.”
Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary, Greenville, SC. He is the author of St Benedict and St Therese--The Little Rule and the Little Way. Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com