That’s Chesterton’s idea, not mine. But he was surely right. Chesterton knew that, so long as the atheist remembers a Christmas of long ago, when it seemed that the stars themselves were made only that they might twinkle upon a stable in Bethlehem, he may yet someday become a man worthy of the boy he once was.
It is easy for the modern exegete to discount the infancy narratives. Easy, and wrong, dangerously wrong. I won’t bother here to elaborate upon the obvious rejoinders to those who doubt, namely that Jesus or Mary could easily have told the disciples about those events, and that if someone wanted to make up stories about the infancy and the youth of Jesus, we would have a great deal more than we have now; and that we are given these narratives as the word of God. The danger is twofold at the least: that we will miss the child in Christ, and Christ in the child. In both cases, we commit the habitual error of modern man, the error that our own recent history should have swept off the stage with disappointment and ridicule, but which seems to fascinate us and daze our eyesight again and again, namely that man has “progressed” from his age of puerile foolishness to the present age of adulthood, enlightenment, vulgar entertainment, sublingual chatter, scientific breakthroughs, and stupidity.
How do we miss the child in Christ? The stories of Bethlehem remind us not to put too much stock in the grimly serious business of being grownup and wise in the world. Think of it. Caesar Augustus wants an enrollment of his citizens in Judea, so everyone has to trundle off to his hometown, including an unknown carpenter and his wife, great with child. Ah, the hardship that the great so dismissively bring down upon the poor and the lowly! But Joseph and Mary go; and there, in the night, the baby Jesus is born, making his first appearance in the old and sin-riddled world. Who knows of it? Not Caesar Augustus, not his underling Quirinius, not a single senator in Rome, nor a single priest in the Sanhedrin. It is how God so often reveals Himself, not as the God of the big, like a hulking Molech, but the God so great that He can be comprehended in the small: So He appears to Moses in a burning bush, and to Elijah in a still small voice, and now to the simple shepherds as a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.
We must never suppose that Jesus abandoned the innocence of that night in Bethlehem. We must not transform Him into those sorts of grownups we readily understand and readily dismiss: as if the “real” Jesus would only appear once He began to preach in Galilee and Judea, or once He began to reinterpret the old covenant and the law of Moses. That is to turn Jesus into a political actor, or a professional exegete. It is to make Him like us, when instead He has come to make us like Him. It is to suppose that we “progress” from the infancy narratives, upon which we smile with a smug benignity, to the real heart of Jesus, which we then fashion according to the political or theological dictates of our program. But the real heart of Jesus was beating in the child in the manger, and never ceased to do so.
When Jesus tried to instruct His disciples about who would be greatest in the kingdom of God, He “took a little child and set him in their midst.” True enough, He was reminding the disciples of the need for humility, for receiving the kingdom of God as a pure gift, as we are no more capable of entering that kingdom on our own than a child would be capable of building a temple. Yet we know too that when we enter the kingdom, we will be made like Jesus and will see God as He is. So to be made like Jesus is to be like that innocent child. The Christ child is the Savior to whom we turn, and we ask, “Make our hearts like unto Thine.”
So it is entirely fitting that the Good News of the Lord’s coming is centered on the lowly maiden Mary: at His birth, at the inception of His ministry, at His death and resurrection, and at the descent of the Holy Spirit. The shroud was His swaddling bands still, and the tomb His stable, and He came forth in the flesh, never again to die. And to this day He is with us, wise as we are in our own eyes, and He stands before us in our sage and serious temples, the eternal Boy, teaching us in His innocence and leaving us dazzled in wonder.
And then we miss Christ in the child. Today at a local diner I saw a small child, a handsome blond boy of about six years old, playing a funny game with his grandfather and grandmother, wide-eyed and smiling. And I thought, “Jesus was once like that.” But as soon as we see that — as soon as we put the Christmas back in Christ, and see all children as made blessed by Christ’s having become a little child — it seems incomprehensible, even criminal, what we do to these children. “Sing of Jesus,” says the hymn, “pure and holy, in the home at Nazareth.” Imagine Him there, with Mary at the washing, or kneading yeast into some measures of flour, while Joseph works and smoothes a beam of wood with a chisel and plane. Imagine this toil and labor, and this quiet innocence and love.
Now take an hour’s slice of time from the life of a child today. Imagine a teacher, often enough working behind the backs of the parents, instructing the boy Jesus on the proper use of a prophylactic. Imagine Mary aiming the clicker at the television screen, to watch an episode of . . . the reader may here fill in the blank. Imagine the boy, not exposed to the daily round of selfishness and sin that can be found anywhere, at any time, but to a systematic and universal barrage of sleaze, hatred of one’s forebears, disdain for God, and the snide and self-serving ideal of “success” in a narcissistic world.
What we do to the little ones, says Jesus, we do to Him, not just because He loves the children, but because the children in their innocence — the innocence we take a flesh-crawling glee in spoiling, disillusioning, and sweeping away as soon as we can — reflect for us what He was and is and ever will be.
What is wrong with us? We are Herod-hearted. We wish to be the king, not some troublesome child born to ruffle us in our sufficiency. We “protect” them by destroying their purity. We “teach” them by feeding them untruths about the world and themselves, untruths that make them as cynical as we are, useful cynics. We remove them from the tenderness of Mary and the protectiveness of Joseph, making them wards of a state that cannot hug without crushing. In our disdain for the innocence of children, for their resemblance to the baby Jesus, and to that pure youth who went about his father’s business, we adopt the amoralism of the murderer and the corrupter.
How desperately we do need that child in the manger! How I need the best of what I once was, when in the bracing winter night I dragged my sled uphill, the strains of carols ringing in my mind. Is Christmas about Christ? If it is, then Christ too is about Christmas: about returning to us our lost innocence and, in a world of astonishing wickedness but far more astonishing beauty, making us like Him, whose infant hand once strewed the heavens with stars, and even now welcomes us into His Father’s house.