In his gospel account St. Matthew describes a moment in which Jesus interrupts His preaching to bring a child before the crowd. He commands them, “unless you turn and become like children you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” It’s easy to gloss over this statement as simply a call to trust in God. After all, children are the epitome of trusting. They look up to us adults who are bigger, stronger, and know lots of things they don’t. Children place themselves in our hands and believe we’ll take care of them. Likewise, we should trust that our heavenly Father knows better than we do, and that He’ll take care of us. All of this is true of course; but there’s much more to Jesus’ words.
It was during the Divine Liturgy on the Sunday before the Fast began that Jesus’ words about being children suddenly struck me. Perhaps it was the convergence of hearing the day’s Propers (recalling Adam and Eve, who were both the Original Children and First Parents), Fr. Popson’s homily on the importance of mercy and forgiveness, and the sound of children crying, cooing and laughing. It all got me to thinking about how I approach the Fast, and my relationship with God in general. The Fast is not just my chance to repent, but to begin the process of living a converted life. To do this requires not only personal discipline and the guidance of the Church, but childlike wonder. Consider the snow, which for adults is a back-breaking commute spoiler. But a child sees in the snowflake a world of wonder. Put many flakes together and new possibilities open up. Children make angels, snowmen, forts, and projectiles with which to torment friends and siblings. The point is that where adults first see obstacles and nuisance, the child sees novelty, beauty and creative opportunities Of course we have responsibilities, and things like snowstorms do require our attention. Our maturity and experience are necessary to protect children and ourselves; but it can also wear away at our own sense of wonder.
We’ve all experienced a child’s meltdown. Either as a parent or an observer, we know that sometimes a child needs a moment (or twenty) away to calm down. Yet when I heard the sounds and watched the movements of children on that Cheesefare Sunday I thought of my own proper and often mechanical disposition before God. I know when to sit, when to bow, and when to bless myself. Children aren’t as well disciplined because they’re still learning (and we have a duty to teach them), but the wonder they possess – even if it’s only in fleeting moments throughout the hour – are moments of praising God I can only hope to achieve. Children look at the icons (really look – not just stare straight ahead at Father’s back). They point up to the ceiling at the larger-than-life Jesus watching them, and they wave at Father when he emerges from behind the mysterious screen to bless. They turn up their little faces and open their mouths to receive Jesus just the way they receive their nourishment at breakfast or dinner. Children aren’t always still or quiet, but they are often engaged in the Liturgy in a way I’m not. The child wonders what’s going on, while I take it for granted – and check my watch a few times. Sure, the child doesn’t understand most of what’s going on. But when the priest brings out the chalice and we say to a child, “There’s Jesus,” he actually looks for Him.
The Fast is interminably “slow” when I mistake rigid adherence to the law (leaving no room for the “surprise” of encountering the living God), with authentic spiritual maturity. No, I shouldn’t get up in the middle of Father’s homily, babbling and waving. And, no, I shouldn’t throw a tantrum on a Lenten Friday and demand a burger and piece of chocolate cake. To act in such childish ways is not proper to who I am as an adult, or a person striving in the Faith. Adults must be adults; children are counting on it. But as I make my way through the Fast, seeking God’s mercy – and learning to love Him and others more intimately – I won’t be successful unless I heed Jesus’ words and become childlike. If I squash the wonder and pure delight found in seeking and meeting Christ, then I will never grow up to be God’s own precious child.
“To be a child means to owe one’s existence to another, and even in our adult life we never quite reach the point where we no longer have to give thanks for being the person we are.” Hans Urs von Balthasar
Ann Koshute teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.