In today’s Gospel, we once again see Jesus turning the values of the world upside-down. Jesus talks about His forthcoming passion and death. But, as with so many other occasions, the disciples fail to understand, they just don’t get it. They are busy arguing which one of them is the greatest. So, Jesus calls the Twelve around Him and presents a little child to them as a model of discipleship.
The saccharine image of Jesus embracing the little child is a familiar one and yet, for the time, it was revolutionary. In antiquity, children stood for very little. Unwanted children were simply discarded and infanticide was very common. Seen as incomplete human beings, they had no prestige or status - even a great thinker like Plato put children on the same level as slaves and beasts. Children stood for nothing and yet here we find Jesus, the Son of God, the long-awaited Messiah identifying Himself with a little child.
What is Our Lord saying to us? We all know that children are far from perfect - they can be very selfish and cruel, they can be silly and irresponsible, they can just as much be a cause of sorrow as of joy. But, despite all this, we can learn great spiritual truths from children.
First of all, children know their limitations and are absolutely dependant on adults, especially their parents and guardians. A child is full of expectations and has faith that it will receive everything it needs, whether it be food or the latest computer game. Likewise, as God‘s children, we need to entrust God with everything. Faith involves having the attitude of a child and recognising who is really in charge - God our Creator and not us creatures.
One of the great modern saints, St Therese of Lisieux, a Carmelite nun who died at the age of 24, lived each day with an unshakeable confidence in God's love and acknowledged everything as a gift. She described her ‘little way’ in these terms: ‘it is to recognize our nothingness, to expect everything from God as a little child expects everything from its father; it is to be disquieted about nothing…To be little is not attributing to oneself the virtues that one practices, believing oneself capable of anything, but to recognize that God places this treasure in the hands of his little child to be used when necessary; but it remains always God’s treasure.’
Another great thing about children is that they are always themselves. This is demonstrated by the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. As you will remember, two swindlers come to the court to sell clothes made of their unique material, which was ‘invisible to any man who was unfit for his office or unpardonably stupid.’ The Emperor commissions a suit and wears it at a great procession - everybody pretends to admire the non-existent clothes until a little child shouts out: ’But he has nothing on at all!’ The adults are full of pride and don’t want to lose face - like so many people, they’re busy trying to become somebody or something else. They make life so complicated. The child, on the other hand, is simple, innocent, direct, not afraid to be himself and speak the truth. And that’s what we should aim at - to be who God intends us to be and not to pretend to be someone else.
Inspired by the Gospel, let us become like little children so that we can enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Being childlike doesn’t mean being childish or simple-minded. It does mean abandoning ourselves to God and entrusting everything to him. It does mean becoming the person God wants us to be - being ourselves. And it does mean being young in spirit - cheerful rather than solemn, full of wonder at God’s creation rather than being cynical. ’Anyone who welcomes one of these little children in my name, welcomes me; and anyone who welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’