“Well, my child, God wished not to make prayer … a need as pressing as hunger or thirst, but permitting that some of us should pray on behalf of others. Each prayer, though it be that of a little shepherd boy keeping his sheep, is the prayer of all mankind. What the little shepherd boy does occasionally at the urging of his heart, we must do day and night. Not in the least because we hope to pray better than he. On the contrary. That simplicity of the soul, that sweet surrender to the Divine Majesty – which in him is a momentary inspiration, a grace and like to the spark of genius – we consecrate our lives to find or to recover if we have known it, for it is a gift of childhood which … does not outlive childhood … Once beyond childhood one must suffer to return to it, as at the end of a night one finds another dawn. Have I become a child again?” (Georges Bernanos, The Dialogues of the Carmelites, Part 2, Scene I, Prioress speaking to Blanche)
One of my favorite things to wonder about is innocence. What would an innocent world be like? What would it be like to travel from one town to another, from one country to another, where everyone was untainted by sin? What would life be like if everyone was trusting and trustworthy? What would be it be like to live in world where it’s safe to be naïve, where simple and delicate souls could thrive, and their gifts be appreciated? A world where prayer would come spontaneously and joyfully to us, as a sweet impulse of love flowing from within? Of course, we’d all sleep well. O blessed innocence, what peace you’d give – if only! What joy you’d give us! The “spiritual childhood” of which St. Therese spoke is the precious gem of our Catholic faith. It’s the “pearl of great price,” you might say. Jesus says: “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.” Matthew’s Gospel adds another detail: “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Why does Jesus use a child to reveal the way to Heaven? We’re all born with the curse of Original Sin, and children are by no means totally innocent. But the child is the best thing we have to help us understand innocence. As artist Carl Schmitt said, “When will we learn that childhood is in a great sense not simply a preparation for adult life, but a thing unique and complete in itself – a masterpiece of God.” A child’s vulnerability, trust and playfulness are remnants of a time before sin. If we can recall some joyful and carefree moments in our childhood, we’d begin to get the idea of what an innocent world would be like. Of course, carefree childhood experiences, for those who have them, are short lived. The realities of living in a fallen world cut them short. It doesn’t take long before even a child begins to sense that all is not right with the world. “Once beyond childhood, we must suffer much to return to it.”
When Jesus uses the child as an image of innocence, he gets us to look to our personal past in order to inspire hope for our future. The brief experiences of carefree joy that we may have experienced as a child are prophesies of good news: the innocence that’s being born from the womb of Eternity. “From the womb before the dawn of time I begot you” (Psalm 110). Salvation from sins, which is none other than a return to innocence – to a childhood that no one ever fully had – was won for us by Christ on his Cross. “As at the end of a night, one finds another dawn. Have I become a child again?” Innocence was personally restored to each of us at our Baptism. If we lost that innocence through grave sin, then we can regain it through Confession, if we are humbly sorry and repent. Our faith is not just about becoming a “child,” but a “child of God.” “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”
We’re about three months out from Christmas. But there’s no harm in preparing now. Not by shopping but by meditating on the one Child who restores childhood to each one of us. In one sense, Christmas should be a year-round celebration. In a world where sin and evil often catch us off guard, again and again ad nauseam, we can also take heart that the world’s long-awaited Savior caught everyone off-guard too, including the devil, by coming as a child. G. K. Chesterton calls this the divine joke. Why? Because God did not come to us – at least not at first – in power and splendor, as everyone thought he would. But in innocence and vulnerability.
Recall that Herod sought the life of this Child. But the Child was protected by Joseph, as every child ought to be protected by a father. Herod did not want to receive the Child. He wanted to destroy it. And in so doing, he slaughtered many other innocents, whom the Church honors every December 28th in the Feast of the Holy Innocents. These events give us the key to understanding history, which is ultimately a branch of theology: history is a battle between innocence and pride. God’s first step in restoring the world was to become a child. And he later said, “Whoever receives a child in my name, receives me.”
The answer to the world’s problems, he says, is for us to become like children – trusting, free and playful – in the presence of our Father in heaven. This has implications for how we conduct our public affairs. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI drew out this point in his social justice encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Charity and Truth):
The Church has a responsibility towards creation and she must assert this responsibility in the public sphere. In so doing, she must defend not only earth, water and air as gifts of creation that belong to everyone. She must above all protect mankind from self-destruction. There is need for what might be called a human ecology, correctly understood. … If there is a lack of respect for the right to life and to a natural death, if human conception, gestation and birth are made artificial, if human embryos are sacrificed to research, the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology and, along with it, that of environmental ecology. It is contradictory to insist that future generations respect the natural environment when our educational systems and laws do not help them to respect themselves. The book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development.
Innocence has “ecological” effects. It restores humans – and Creation as well. The innocence of Baptism prepares the world for a total renewal – to become a New Creation. But this rebirth of Creation begins with the Child Jesus, who restores innocence to a sin-sick world.
Receive every child in love and truth. And above all, receive the divine Child who is the Son of God and the Redeemer of the world. There is no other answer. “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life,” said Jesus, “and no one comes to the Father except through me.”
Jesus took upon Himself all of our guilt and shame, the bitter fruits of pride. When he suffered in the garden, and during his Passion, he personally knew and felt all of the guilt and suffering that every human being had ever and would ever experience due to sin. He felt the sense of isolation that marks Hell. He felt the sorrow and darkness that weighs upon those who abuse grace. He suffered all of this for each one of us personally, so that we would not have to drink the cup of suffering and evil to the dregs. And He did this because He loves us, and wants us to live in the Truth.
This Sacrifice of Christ made it possible for us to rediscover something unknown to man since Paradise: innocence. And this is what Christ meant when he said: receive a child in my name, and you will receive me. The child loves before he knows. He knows because he loves. His knowledge is the fruit of his love. This is the way of innocence. This way of innocence is the pearl of great price. Go, and sell everything you have and follow this way.
“While in this mortal life we cannot know God as much as we would wish, yet we can love him as much as we wish, lifting ourselves up from one level to the next by his grace and love. The condition and the level of knowledge, which we will have of God in heaven eternally, depends on the level of this love on earth. For we will know God to the degree that we will have loved him, and not to the degree that we will have known him on earth” (Pierre Cardinal Berulle, Discourse on the State and Grandeurs of Jesus).
Rev. Frederick Edlefsen, Pastor