Like Children, We Offer Ourselves to the Arms of God
[Editors' note: This Advent season, we will be running a series of reflections on the Bread Blog from members of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC. The lectionary readings for this post are Isaiah 9:8-17; Tuesday; Matthew 18:1-6; and 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3, 13-17. Keep reading the Bread Blog for more Advent reflections each day.]
I reflect on today’s verses after Skyping with my sister and her 2-year-old son, Nathaniel, who live in Australia. The connection isn’t great: The picture is blurry, like I’m seeing my nephew’s face from a distance without my glasses, the edges all fuzzy. Even through this imperfect medium, the pleasure I feel when I see him is visceral. I feel delight, when he calls me by name, Aunty Nicki. I feel happiness, to see him wear the gift I sent him, a cowboy vest from Wyoming. I feel such pleasure to see that he looks so much like my sister, until he smiles, when he is suddenly the image of his father; and yet to know that he is entirely himself, a wholly unique little person.
As I read the verses, Nathaniel fills my head. Perhaps for this reason, the verses from Matthew resonate with me most in this moment, because they are so focused on children. These very familiar verses seem to give two distinct lessons, united by their context; first, that a person must humble themselves and become like a child to enter the Kingdom of God; and second, a dire warning against causing a child (or, by implication, anyone) to lose their faith. My reflections here are focused on the first question.
God’s great love for those who are least in the eyes of the world is one of the defining themes of the gospel. Obviously, and without question, we are called to humility. I wonder, though, what it means to humble oneself and become like a child? I’m no biblical scholar or historian, but my understanding is that the children of the Bible were deemed as chattel, the property of their parents. A rudimentary knowledge of the Proverbs suggests they were subject to the strictest discipline and obedience. They were also considered a great blessing from God, the hope and future of their families and communities. In a nutshell, it seems to me that they were both powerless and of enormous value.
Perhaps there is a lesson here. Perhaps God calls us, first, to own and acknowledge our weakness. Children are absolutely dependent, in ways that adults usually are not. In simplest terms, young children die if the adults in their life don’t provide food and clothing and shelter. And so, lacking the capacity to care for themselves, they give themselves up into their mothers’ arms. Perhaps this, then, is what it is about—recognizing that we cannot save ourselves. Though, for the most part we can feed and clothe ourselves and make choices for our lives, we are ultimately vulnerable. Life and death are out of our hands. And so, like children, we offer ourselves up into God’s arms.
The Taize Community points out that, shortly before the exchange related in these verses, Jesus tells the disciples “The Son of Man is about to be handed over to those who will kill him,” (verses 22 and 23). It is little wonder that Jesus identifies with the child. Understanding that humans often crush the vulnerable, Jesus is approaching the moment of his greatest vulnerability. Thus, even God, the Lord of the Universe, models to us this humility he requires. He did it when he was born a baby to a poor, unwed mother. He did it again on the cross.
To cast us in the role of children, also speaks of the Lord’s relationship to us. Unless given reason not to, a child trusts its mother implicitly. A child trusts without thinking, without questioning. A child knows where comfort lies, where there is safety, where there is sustenance. It’s that simple.
In this equation the mother, ostensibly, is the one with all the power. However, she is also vulnerable to her child, in a relationship of mutual dependence and mutual delight. Her own health and happiness are inexorably linked to her child’s, who is capable of bringing the greatest possible grief to her life—by death, yes, but also by rejection. When we long for God, when we look for God, does God feel the joy of a mother when her baby reaches out for her, milk drunk and rapturous? I believe God does. It is wondrous that the God of the Universe, the Almighty One, assumes this role of vulnerability, through God’s love for us.
Nicki Gill is a member at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. Visit their website at www.nyapc.org.
Works cited: Taize Community. “Children: What does it Mean to Welcome God’s Kingdom Like a Child?” Taize. 13 Mar. 2006. Web. 5 Nov. 2010.
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