I have a question for you: What’s your favorite childhood age? If you’re a parent, or an aunt or an uncle, or an interested observer, what age in a child’s life do you find the most appealing, the most charming? If you’re a child yourself, or a young person, what year of your life have you liked the best so far?
I can think of two years that I liked the best as my children were growing up. The first might surprise you: I love two-year-olds. A lot of people refer to that period as the “terrible twos,” but I think of it as the “terrific twos.”
The reason that year can be so hard on parents is, of course, that two-year-olds are achieving independence – and they know it, and enjoy it, and flaunt it. For a healthy two-year-old, developing according to the usual norms, life means: No longer confined to cribs or playpens or rooms barricaded off from others. A new mastery of language, and especially of that delightful word, “No!” Complete mobility and a new dexterity: the ability to open refrigerators, and cupboards, and doors to the outside world.
Many of you know my daughter Marissa, and if you do, you know that she is not very tall. She was a very tiny little girl, and I well remember walking into the kitchen one day to find her two year-old self up on the counter. I always kept snacks and plastic dishes on lower shelves so that the kids could help themselves, but she wanted something that was stored up higher. “You know,” I said, thinking of the potential disaster inherent in a fall from a counter which was much higher than she was tall, “you can always ask someone to help you.”
“I can do it MYSELF,” she declared regally as she surveyed her kitchen domain.
The next summer, we were in vacation, staying in a condo with a small pool. Marissa was playing happily at the edge when she suddenly decided to jump in – into a pool that, while small, was still much deeper than she was tall. I, fully clothed, had to jump right in after her, of course – the teen-aged lifeguard was clearly unaccustomed to children who know that they can do things THEMSELVES.
What does this joyful independence of a two-year-old reflect? Freedom – of course! Freedom from restraint, freedom from the limitations of a body that cannot yet walk, freedom to act rather than to merely observe. It really is a terrific time in childhood, if the parents can just survive it.
My other favorite age is four. Four-year-olds are filled with imagination, and retain the freedom of a two-year-old in self expression. In her classic book The Magical Years, which was a staple on my parenting bookshelf, psychologist Selma Fraiberg describes how children make use of imagination to confront the things which challenge and frighten them. Four is a great year for that response. Four-year-olds are still very small, but they are out and about, much engaged with other people, and there’s a lot that makes them apprehensive.
And so they make up stories with characters of great courage and strength. They draw pictures of heroes who triumph over disaster. Imaginary animals and stuffed animals are like human beings to them, talking and behaving in ways that they would like those around them to behave – protecting them, playing with them, visiting with them.
I’m sure that you have your own favorite ages. Years which stand out as those you’d like to relive. Years in which you see qualities in children, or remember in yourself, that stand out as the most desirable qualities for human beings to have. And I want to suggest that perhaps the most important underlying quality possessed by children, the one that provides the foundation for all the others, is wonder. Don’t we all enjoy the wonder experienced by a small child? It’s wonder that makes it possible for them to find such joy in a simple activity like blowing bubbles. It’s wonder that causes those irrepressible grins when a puppy frolics in the midst of a group of children.
It’s wonder that makes children such delightful companions. I remember another vacation, sitting on a dock with my children watching a particularly spectacular sunset at the far end of a lake many miles long. They were quite willing to sit there for half an hour or so, watching the colors in the sky change from deep blues and grays to shimmering pinks and gold.
Freedom. Imagination. Wonder. Some of the most magnificent features of childhood.
In Jesus’ time and community, children were not nearly the focus of attention that they are today. They were loved and cared for and taught, but in a world of poverty and political oppression, there was little leisure time in which to attend to the emotional and creative needs of children. And like women, children were low on the totem pole of status – lower, in fact, if that is possible.
Children were a form of family property, they began to learn to work as soon as possible, and their very survival was often a matter of hope more than reality. Injury, disease, famine, warfare – all of those things took a disproportionate toll on babies and small children in the ancient world. Few people gave much attention to the small children running around on village roads and paths.
How unusual it is, then, that Jesus gives such attention to children! We are perhaps accustomed to think of him doing so. We’ve all seen many pictures of him seated, perhaps on a small hillside, surrounded by young children, holding two or three of them in his arms. Those images come from texts like today’s, in which he takes a child in his arms and says that whoever welcomes such a child welcomes both him and the one who sent him. Go a few verses later, and he is warning us not to put stumbling blocks in the way of the faith of small children. Go to the next chapter, in which Jesus has been on the road again, and he again points to children, responding to the disciples who are trying to prevent people from bringing their children to him. It’s in that setting that Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And again, he takes children into his arms to touch and bless them.
And so we have a set of narratives, a few key moments, in which Jesus tells us that to welcome a child is to welcome him, and also the one who sent him, tells us that children are not to be trifled with, and tells us that we must receive the kingdom of God as a little child.
What does that mean? In a world in which children were of small significance, these must have been startling metaphors. In a world in which all decision-making power and economic power and social power lay in the hands of adult men, these teachings must have given people great pause.
These teachings are quite distinct from the usual ones. It was the place of scholars and priests to welcome God, and to do so in formal and sacred settings. It was the place of the father, the head of the household, to decide how children would be reared and treated. And to enter the presence of God was presumed to be conditioned upon great righteousness and seriousness. How did children suddenly become prioritized where God was concerned?
Perhaps we need to look again at who children are. Perhaps we are being invited to look at children not as the legalities and family systems of the first century looked at them. Perhaps we are being invited to look at them not as our own tangled family situations and consumer society look at them.
Perhaps we are being invited to look at children in more essential ways. As creatures of freedom. Of imagination. Of wonder.
Perhaps we are being invited to recover those gifts in ourselves. Freedom. Imagination. Wonder.
Martin Luther, the great church reformer of the 1500s, wrote an essay in 1520 entitled “On Christian Freedom.” In that work, he captures the paradox of which Jesus speaks when he, Martin Luther, says that, “[a] Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.” Freedom does not mean, as we might think of it today, the freedom to do whatever you want. Freedom means freedom from unnecessarily imposed restrictions in order that we become endowed with freedom to give, to serve. Freedom to become the most authentic human beings we are called to become, freedom to become the people we are destined to people: people who love God and give of ourselves to others in the way that we were uniquely to be and to do.
It takes imagination to become people of such freedom. Children imagine wonderful things, and so can we. In Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to Alice in Wonderland, Alice says to the Queen, “There is no use trying,” she said, “one can’t believe impossible things.” “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Believe impossible things. Believe that the hungry will be fed. Believe that the homeless will be housed. Believe that the poor will be helped. Believe that the despairing will be given hope. Believe that the meal we are about to share will fill us with Jesus. Believe that bread and juice become the spiritual body and blood we so need to sustain our imagination.
Become, in other words, people of wonder. Welcome the wonder in yourselves.
Jesus says that when we welcome children, we welcome him. When we welcome wonder, we welcome him. He says that we must become as children to enter his kingdom. We are called to enter his kingdom as people of wonder.
Sometimes it’s easy. We look out at the changing colors of autumn, and we can hardly help ourselves but to wonder in awe at the brilliance of the colors and at the natural processes of growth and decay that create them.
Sometimes it’s hard. We sit at the bedside of a dying loved one and we catch a glimpse of the reality that this life is a passageway to a greater one – that’s a more difficult form of wonder.
Sometimes it’s simply a mystery. We are called to service and we recognize the commonplace and yet awe-inspiring wonder that when we give, we receive; when we teach, we learn; when we served, we are served.
As we gather at the table this morning, let us remember that we do so as the children of God. Let us remember that we are free to serve one another and to be served: in bread and cup and in all other aspects of life. Let us remember that we are people of imagination: people called to see in a simple meal the fulfillment of all human aspirations for love and hope and reconciliation. Let us remember that we are people of wonder: people who walk with a God who calls us, over and over and over again, into a kingdom of love. James tells us, echoing the Jesus who pulls children into his arms, “Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.” Surely that is the great wonder of our lives.
Image: Sunrise at Wernersville (PA) Jesuit Retreat Center.