Thinking Advent: Child and Childhood as Metaphors of Hope

I read a delightful essay today by Jürgen Moltmann entitled ‘Child and Childhood as Metaphors of Hope’ [Theology Today 56, no. 4 (2000): 592-603]. In this essay, Moltmann recalls that Jesus was ‘not merely a “gentle friend of children,” as the sentimental nineteenth century liked to picture him’ but a revolutionary contrast to the Roman world of antiquity wherein children were undervalued and where their legal status (alongside that of women and slaves) was very low; indicative of the fact that as the property of the paterfamilias, they could be sold or abandoned, and often were, particularly girls. Moltmann then offers some helpful commentary on key NT verses concerning children:

(1) “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (Mark 10: 14; Matt 19:14; Luke 18:19). The disciples view children as unworthy and therefore try to keep them from their master. After all, they are not children anymore. Jesus reprimands the disciples; embracing and blessing the children, he proclaims what he embodies, that the kingdom of God is already theirs. According to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the kingdom of God already belongs to the “poor,” the “hungry” and “those who are crying,” In the same way, it also now belongs to children, children are made partners in the covenant with God. Why? Did they deserve it? No. it is exactly because they do not deserve it and are unable to effect it, but in fact receive it like their own birth.

On the other hand, the kingdom “where peace and justice kiss” (as the psalm says) does not appear at the heights of human progress, among the clever and just, rich and beautiful of this world. Rather, it appears among the oppressed, the powerless, the poor, and the children, turning the status quo of human value systems upside down. If the kingdom comes into the world “down below,” those “up there” have been deprived of any religious legitimacy supporting their presumption to dominion. Just as the blessing of the poor was complemented by the lamentations over the rich, the benediction of children belongs with the curse pronounced over the violators of children: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt 18:6). If God’s kingdom comes into this world by way of the poor and the children, so does the judgment of God.

(2) “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes rne, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37). And the one who sent Jesus, as we know, is the Father. By way of these identifications, Jesus declares children his representatives in society: Just as the God of his messianic mission is in him, so Christ is present in every child. Thus, whoever takes in a child, takes in Christ. This is exactly how Matthew describes the great judgment day: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” “For I was hungry and you gave me food … I was in prison and you visited me” (Matt 25:40, 35-36). The one who will judge the world identifies with the lowly. He is hidden and present in them already now and will eventually judge how the just and the unjust treated the least among humans. Children and the lowly are not, unlike the apostles, agents sent by God. Rather, in them, the poor, powerless, and imprisoned Christ is waiting for his followers to act. Whoever takes in a child, also takes in God. In children, God is waiting for us to take in God. In helpless children, God is waiting for our compassion. This is also the spontaneous impression the image of the child in the manger awakens in us.

(3) “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” This is Jesus’ answer to the question of the disciples: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matt 18:3, 1) By saying this, Jesus underscores the point that whoever wants to be the greatest of all will have to be everybody else’s servant, “deny themselves,” and become “like a child” (18:4). He asks the disciples to accept themselves not in their power, but in their weakness, not in their wealth, but in their poverty: not as grown-up children, but as the children of their adulthood. He asks the disciples to reclaim the facets of their own being, which had been repressed by development and education. We can only come into the kingdom of God if we receive it like a child with empty hands. That does not mean one has to go back to being a child (which would be childish) but become upon analogy “like a child.” We don’t have to imitate children to become part of God’s future, rather we must be in solidarity with them, respecting their intimate proximity to God’s future. The point is not that children are closer to the kingdom of God because of especially childlike properties (like innocence or naivete that adults have lost), but rather that the kingdom of God is closer to them because they are loved, embraced, and blessed by God. We could also say: Whoever experiences God’s closeness in the community of Christ — as humans experienced it in the proximity of Jesus – will become like a child. Another, later way to phrase this is: Gotteskindschaft – “the community of God’s children.”

This stirred a number of questions in me that I’ll go to bed tonight thinking about:

  • What ought we make of Moltmann’s identification of children with Jesus’ words (in the Sermon on the Mount) regarding the “poor,” the “hungry” and “those who are crying”?
  • What ought we make of Moltmann’s claim that just as the God of Jesus’ messianic mission is in him, so too ‘Christ is present in every child’, so that ‘whoever takes in a child, also takes in God. In children, God is waiting for us to take in God’?
  • What might it mean for us to ‘reclaim the facets of [our] own being, which [have] been repressed by development and education’? Are there implications here for pastoral leadership?

Later on, Moltmann unsurprisingly draws on Ernst Bloch’s The Principle of Hope:

“Jesus is himself present among the helpless, as an element of this humbleness, standing in the dark, not in brightness … This is why the child in the manger becomes so important, along with the humbleness of all the circumstances in the out-of-the-way, cramped stable. The unexpectedness of finding the redeemer as a helpless child.” Christian love therefore “regards the helpless as important, that which is discarded by the world as called” and “gathers up its own in their out-of-the-wayness, their incognito to the world, their discordance with the world: into the kingdom where they do accord.”

sinead-1I was reminded of another essay that I recently read by Tony Kelly where the author suggests that in a world of violent competition and the exponential growth of problems and responsibilities, the child calls for the rebirth of wonder, trust and playful contentment within the great womb of life and time. Where the harried adult might see only problems, and become weary in mind and heart, children live otherwise. ‘They breathe another air, content to play within the inexhaustible mystery of what has been so uncannily given. Every child is a call to return to the gift that was at the beginning, is now, and ever shall be’.

So too does this same refrain echo through Moltmann, who concludes his essay with three reasons for why children remain metaphors of hope:

(1) With every child, a new life begins, original, unique, incomparable. And while it seems that we always ask, who this or that child looks like (apparently because we seem to think we can only understand the new in the comparison with what is already known or similar), we also encounter the entirely different, the entirely dissimilar and unique in each child. It is these differences that we need to respect if we want to love life and allow an open future.

(2) With every beginning of a new life, the hope for the reign of peace and justice is given a new chance. It is important to see children in their own transcendent perspective and so to resist forming them according to the images of our world. Every new life is also a new beginning of hope for a homeland in this unredeemed world. If it were not, we would have no reason to expect anything new from a beginning.

(3) The last reason to see “a new beginning” or a “beginning of the New” in the beginning of a child’s life is the fact that, for me, children are not only metaphors of our hopes, of that which we want, wish for and expect, but also are metaphors of God’s hope for us: God wants us, expects us, and welcomes us. Humanity is God’s great love, God’s dream for God’s earthly world, God’s image for God’s beloved earth. God is “waiting” for the “human person” in every child, is “waiting” for God’s echo, resonance, and rainbow. Maybe that is the reason God is so patient with us, hearing the ruins of human history, inviting one human generation after the other into existence. God is not silent, God is not “dead” – God is waiting for the menschlichen Menschen the “truly humane human.” “In all of the prophets, I have waited for you,” Martin Buber has the Eternal One speak to the Messiah, “and now you have come.”

One thought on “Thinking Advent: Child and Childhood as Metaphors of Hope

  1. Pingback: Thinking Advent: Child and Childhood as Metaphors of Hope « Paternal Life

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