And they came with haste; and they found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. And seeing, they understood of the word that had been spoken to them concerning this child. And all that heard, wondered: and at those things that were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart. (Luke 2:16-19)
At Christmas time so many magnificent events occur, leading up to and highlighting the Cause of our celebrations. Buildings of every kind find themselves bedecked in light and nature’s green; families plant a veritable representative of the forest in their homes, and then proceed to drape it in every brilliance and finery imaginable. And then, in the darkest days of winter, Churchgoers of every denomination gather in their places of worship to offer homage to a tiny God. Nonetheless, years of experiencing the labors and sorrows of the world, as well as the repetition of Christmas traditions can dull the soul’s perception of these joys. Sometimes it takes the hilarious glee of children to remind the rest of us that reality truly is a marvel beyond telling. In God or Nothing, Robert Cardinal Sarah comments: “It is important for baptized Catholics to keep the beautiful, holy joy of little children.” Indeed, the wonder of children at Christmas offers a wise glimpse into the very real wonder of the Truth to which we have grown accustomed.
Children unabashedly delight in all things Christmas. They revel in its many-faceted glory; and while decorations and gifts may bring a good deal of concupiscence to their innocent surfaces, children also easily rejoice in the holiest Reason for the season. Again, Robert Cardinal Sarah observes, “Children are marvelous! They sense the Heart of God and the mysteries of his love that meet us even in our serious sins and petty weaknesses.” They rejoice easily for the simple reason that children are more easily disposed to wonder than most grownups. For one thing, they instinctively trust. Whereas adults fear vulnerability, children know little else, and so they must trust. They trust their parents, from whom they receive every needful thing, including love. Therefore, they trust God, of whom their parents, particularly fathers, provide a child’s first rude images. This trust inclines children to humility; which, as Dale Ahlquist, renowned Chesterton expert, avows, provides the foundation for wonder: “The key to happiness and the key to wonder is humility…. Humility means being small enough to see the greatness of something and to feel unworthy of it, and privileged to be able to enjoy it.” Children know their own littleness, considering that in all their experience, others have assisted them to do and to understand everything.
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Furthermore, children set no limits on love or goodness. Any parent knows the sometimes maddening, endless demand for attention, service, food. But children do not grow tired of begging “Mom, mom, mom, mom,” or “Dad! Daddy! Dad!” because they have no concept that love might grow tired, or that goodness wears out and turns sour. In this they offer keen insight into the love of God, for while parents do indeed grow tired and often turn sour, God never does. A child thinks, “But of course God chose to love us in this most marvelous manner! Why not?” Therefore, they exult without embarrassment because they know they are loved, and they are quite correct. They let their mouths drop open upon seeing their Christmas tree lit (every.single.morning! Oh to be two). They gasp in astonishment when they see an enormous Advent Wreath in Church, loudly whispering “Mommy, Daddy, LOOK! They have lit the PINK Candle like OURS!!” They are filled with tenderness and awe to think of the Baby Jesus, and they can hardly bear to wait until Christmas morning when he will finally be laid in the manger of their nativity scene. The reality of Christmas is full of wonder for children, as indeed much of reality fills children with awe. This wonder of theirs ought to be revived in our own hearts, should we ever wish to be wise or holy, for as Socrates professed, “Wisdom begins in wonder” and the Lord God himself instructed his disciples, “Believe me, unless you become like little children again, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3).
Many of us pass by constant wonders with nary a thought, and yet long for the wonder of children to fill our own souls. Residents of the information age, we often feel utterly bereft of wonder. Why wonder, when you can Google it? And yet, as G.K. Chesterton put it so well, “The world does not starve for want of wonders, but for want of wonder.” Wondrous things surround us, which cannot fit into dictionary or Wikipedia entries, but can fill our souls with awe, if we but let them: The stars that arch over our heads every night, to guide wanderers, but also to delight wonderers. Green grass, green trees and all the green in nature. God painted nature with so much green, which happens by no coincidence to soothe body and soul. Snow, which can turn an ordinary back yard into a little bit of Narnia. Msgr. Charles Pope offers his own insights on the need for wonder: “A great gift that all of us should seek is a gift of wonder and awe; the gift to appreciate God’s glories and wonders on display at every moment, and everything we see and everyone we encounter.” At Christmas so many elements harmonize, calling out to us, appealing with all possible charms, that we might but respond with wonder: A God who loves us so madly from out of all eternity, that even before a bloody atonement for our sins, he desired to come to us as a pitiful and helpless infant, and to live in the humblest manner so that no matter how hard our own lives might become, we could look to him and see his compassion. He understands us all. He understood without having to give us an example! The example is pure excess of love.
Christmas is a marvel every year, as it was the very first. Could the Old Testament Prophets who predicted his coming have imagined the disarming combination of humility with majesty? Indeed, the first Christmas has a majesty all its own–the first day in all time in which the Lord Our God, become true man, entered the world for any eye to see. However, could it not be said that those of us who look back on that first Christmas, knowing the entire story of Redemption are able to wonder all the more? There lay the King of Kings, so small, so poor, so full of love for us, and all at our mercy, by his own choosing. There lay the infant God who would live his poor and humble life completely for us, that we might know how to live. There, helpless in hay lay our baby Redeemer, who would sweat blood, fearful of all that he chose to suffer for us. There in a cave reigned the Lord of the Universe, who would walk the torturous way of the cross, bearing our sins, and then mount his throne on Calvary and die, all for us. All this he would do for us so that we might laugh at death, knowing that we, with him, would rise again to live forever.
Nor does the adventure of salvation stop there, but God adds the most fantastic element of all. As if to be a child in our hands were not vulnerable enough for him, Christ remains completely present in utter humility, disguised as a flimsy wafer of bread and a glass of wine, to be with us until the end of time.
Children remind us of the sense of awe we should have in the face of such mysteries. For, no matter how much we pursue understanding through study—and we ought to pursue such understanding—there is, simply put, no plumbing to the bottom of love and goodness such as God bestows at Christmas. We live in a mystery of love, and wonder is the appropriate response. Sean Fitzpatrick, prolific headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy writes: “wonder is something men experience as they experience the mysteries of the world. Men need mysteries if they are to be wise.” Indeed, men do need mysteries. Or rather, to be reminded that they surround us. For small children, practically everything is mysterious; hence, they turn to parents with a sacred trust that must not disappoint. Therefore let us affirm with them: Christmas is indeed a mystery worthy of all the wonder in our beings. And with the wise humility of a child let us accordingly lift up our eyes to him from whom all good things come, and worship.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Silent Night” painted by Viggo Johansen.