I know a little kid who is thoroughly convinced that Jesus is coming during, or perhaps bringing, her birthday. She’s two-and-a-half, so she doesn’t have the keenest sense of chronology, which means that waiting to celebrate the day she was born has taken on rather mythical qualities. Who’s to say Jesus can’t bring a birthday, anyway?
She is rather fixated on Jesus somehow arriving. No matter what anyone explains to her about Jesus, she wants Him to be there. Her mother is concerned that her daughter will be disappointed, and does not what her daughter imagining that Jesus is far away in Heaven. Her mother is right, of course: Jesus is not far away, not at all, and the distressing part about all these conversations with the little child is that she might think He is. Nothing that we try to say seems to help the dire situation: the kid is determined Jesus will be there, and looking at crucifixes and praying at the Mass (however it is that wiggly two-and-a-half-year-olds pray) does not soothe her. What is anyone supposed to do? The facts are strange in themselves: Jesus is with us, and He is far, and He is everywhere, and He is nowhere. I cannot say I blame the kid for her puzzlement.
God favors children, but that doesn’t mean He infuses them with a supernatural understanding of all His mysteries. It means He loves them in all their veering wildness. Which, of course, never makes them less wild. Most kids raised in faith wander around with a healthy mix of vibrant faith and fairy tales. That’s how it is, and it is in its way very good. Children are still learning about the world, and they learn in half-steps and countermeasures. We are no different; we just pretend like we know.
There are some who try to argue against raising children in faith, as if they could be protected from misunderstandings or be permitted – at an older age – to choose for themselves what they would like to believe. Few things fail more miserably to understand either children or faith. Faith is, first, not like deciding what car you’d like to own. Second, children are going to be wrong-headed about all sorts of things, especially those things that their parents treat like dark secrets. Besides, it never made any sense to me to think of God like alcohol, a thing only to be imbibed in moderation by those mature enough.
I’m not saying that God is not dangerous. I’m saying that He is, and that this is why children should grow up knowing Him.
I do not remember a time when I was not aware of God. My mom always talked about Jesus with us, and we said little night prayers. Did I understand what I was doing? I don’t think so, but I don’t think understanding is the measure of our existence. Especially as children. I knew God was important by the way my parents acted; and I knew it was important to pray. Even if I did not know why yet, or how it worked, I knew that it simply did. I knew that it was important enough to my parents to bring us all to Mass every Sunday even though that meant my sister would bolt for the altar nine times out of ten. And I knew that I was never alone; I had the saints to be with me wherever I was, and there were so many of them.
It was faith, primordially lived. I never knew a time without it. And I grew into it.
Of all the advantages given to denominations who can name when they were baptized, when they came to personally know Jesus Christ, they cannot in the same way claim the advantage of growing in the shadow of Jesus Christ as someone always and forever known. I’ll not deny the advantage of, say, a convert to Catholicism: they can remember when the ancient faith became their own, and they appreciate it in ways a cradle Catholic cannot. All the same, it would be unfair to deny the inverse advantage: that of never being a stranger to the Faith. Because grace, you see, is given before we know it to prepare us for it. I cannot remember my baptism, and my lack stands as a sign of grace’s excess.
Grace is always excess. Always more. Which is why, though it is right to worry about children, it is not right to forget that God is in charge of their growth, too. Did I understand, as a child? No. But I grew into understanding – and still do. We never quite outgrow childhood.
God himself, lest we forget, was also a child – and that is perhaps most strange of all. I often think of it when I observe my friends’ children, and watch the way in which their very imaginations grow. They are taught this by their parents. Jesus was taught this, too. So there must be something worthy in the teaching itself, difficult as it can be.
I spoke, recently, with some friends about how we imagined God as children. All of us were in distinctive ways a bunch of little heretics. One friend imagined God as a giant human being, with a large invisible hand over there by that cloud and another one over there. Another, trying to grasp the Eucharist, imagined Jesus could be cut into little pieces and handed out. I always used to wander around imagining God was in the wind, which was a massive misinterpretation of the Elijah story (1 Kings 19) that I remember being obsessed with, and which basically rendered me a pantheist.
Lucky for us, none of us still think these things. I, for one, learned to read and figured out that God was not in the wind (1 Kings 19:11). Grace, you see, was far greater than my lack of understanding.
C.S. Lewis encountered these sorts of problems with his Narnia series. One famous letter he wrote is a response to a “Mrs. K.,” who wrote to him explaining how her son, Laurence, loved Aslan more than Jesus and that this distressed the poor boy. Lewis’ response is wise:
Dear Mrs. K….,
Tell Laurence, from me, with my love:
… God knows quite well how hard we find it to love Him more than anyone or anything else, and He won’t be angry with us as long as we are trying. And He will help us.
… God knows all about the way a little boy’s imagination works (He made it, after all) and knows that at a certain age the idea of talking and friendly animals is very attractive. So I don’t think He minds if Laurence likes the Lion-body. And anyway, Laurence will find as he grows older, that feeling…will die away of itself, without his taking any trouble about it. So he needn’t bother.
… He must be a corker of a boy: I hope you are prepared for the possibility he might turn out to be a saint. I daresay the saints’ mothers have, in some ways, a rough time!
So, even if one of my favorite little kids cannot get her head around where Jesus is, and would like for Him to come to (or bring?) her birthday, and is saddened and perplexed by all this troubling business about His presence, I have no doubts that God knows all about her imagination. That fiery imagination, the one that would dare to think that Jesus could come around the house, is not so wrong anyway. That happy thought can grow into a happy hope. The hopeful day when all things will be His, and in their way already are. That is a hope even adults should remember.
Her mother will, of course, have a rough time of it. There’s no fixing that. Mothers worry. It’s what they do. Maybe I should get the kid an icon – after all, Jesus is literally present to us in an icon. …or maybe that will cause her mother to strangle me when her child misunderstands an icon, too.