by Father Thomas Catania
FAMOUS FOR SAYING, among other things, that “anyone who dislikes children and dogs can’t be all bad,” W.C. Fields has gone down in our dark comic tradition as one of the great curmudgeons; we may forgive that acid remark, but that is only because we won’t take it altogether seriously. Not like dogs? Well, maybe. But not like children? Why, that’s unnatural! (Although ask a kindergarten teacher on a January afternoon at 1:30, and see what you get.)
We are habituated to picturing the chubby-cheeked cherub of art and developing a mist in our corneas. So we may assume that the image of the Gospel today — Jesus “taking a little child into their midst” and saying “[w]hoever welcomes a little child such as this … welcomes me” — must be reinforcing that instinct that sees the child as the lovable innocent. The image then also reinforces a picture of Jesus Himself as a lovable innocent — an image that does not tally with the Gospel image of His blunt directness, His prophetic energy and His defiance of the powers-that-be, which resulted in His execution.
If we are to get this story straight — and draw from it what Mark intends — we have to put aside the image of the chubby-cheeked child and, with it, the inappropriate (for this passage, at least) image of Jesus as the naïve innocent.
It is true that Mark’s Jesus is, like the author of James, castigating the “jealousy and strife,” the “conflicts and disputes,” the “quarrel[s] and fight[s]” represented by the disciples’ contending about “who [of them] was the most important,” and thus anticipating the “envy” that plagues every human society — including the Church — that has ever existed. It is also true that James’ words identify “[w]isdom from above” as “innocent.” But James is speaking of the nature of God and calling God “innocent” does not mean to depict the Almighty as a chubby-cheeked naïf. Rather, the “innocence” to which James alludes is the deliberate will, inherent in God, never to harm or hurt but rather, always, to fill with life and with a share of His own limitless vitality. Quite simply, God is never envious and therefore never has recourse to the cheap tricks we humans use to “get back” at one another when “[w]hat [we] desire [we] do not obtain … [we] cannot acquire.” None of that characterizes the God of Israel, the God of Jesus, and it does not characterize Jesus. It is not naïvete, but the deliberate will to invest with new life that marks the Jesus of the Gospels. It is His conscious decision to go toward the cross — to “give his life as a ransom for the many” — that constitutes His “innocence.”
Now, back to this little kid in the Gospel. If you insist, he or she is an “innocent” but a most remarkable “innocent” — one who deliberately wills to eradicate the envy and jealousy that generate conflict and who instead wants to invest other people with a new, godlike vitality. (Forgive me, but at one point I worked with first-graders and, no, what I have written doesn’t describe what I remember.) Such an “innocent” is a miraculous presence, a gust of energy, a vital spirit that transforms whatever is around him or her. Ah! Now you’re getting it: This little kid is a figure of Jesus. Mark’s Jesus can “wrap his arms” around the child, because the child and He are one.
But there is a reason why this lesson is addressed to the disciples, who, like you and me, give in to odd and irrelevant discussions about who is most important. The child, who is a figure of Jesus, draws his or her identity from his or her begetter — Jesus has His identity from the Father, just as a child has his or hers from the parents who gave him or her birth. The analogy is plain: A real disciple takes his or her identity from Jesus, just as Jesus takes His from God. The Almighty “who deliberately wills to invest with new life” all who come to Him, the God of the covenant, is the identity of Jesus. The “innocence” of the Almighty God, though scoffed at and, as James notes “murdered,” when it was manifest in the “innocent” Jesus, must be what characterizes the disciple. The real disciple has no identity, no energy, no vitality that does not somehow point back to Jesus. The disciple, like a child drawing his identity from his parent, draws his identity, nature and behavior from Jesus.
Today, we might use DNA or parental nurturing to suggest that there is something built into the child to continue his or her parents’ character. Mark probably would have found our language more confusing than we find his simple picture. The arrow, however, in both cases lands closely on the same bull’s-eye: Disciples, the “children of the Father,” as Jesus is the Child of the Father, are, if we are really disciples, “innocent” as Jesus is. We are infused (through baptism by the spirit of the Father) with a “will to invest with new life” those who are part of our life story.
That brings us back to W.C. Fields. (Oh?) Why would anyone dislike children, especially if they are “disciples of Jesus?”
Two thoughts: “Disciples” of Jesus “want to invest” people with life — with a sense of their value in God’s eyes, with a conviction that faith (a relationship with God) dignifies and enhances them as persons. Do we, as a rule, bring people to sense that they have that dignity simply because they are God’s creation, or do we tend to castigate and criticize as though we were the prophets and not the disciples of the Arch-Prophet? Then, do we go back, with humble consistency, to the “wisdom from above” so as to ensure that we are representing in our words and actions the Father of Jesus, who was prepared to see His Child not “be served, but serve” and “to give his life as a ransom for the many.”
How evident are Jesus’ characteristics in us “children” who say we are His disciples?[hr]
Readings for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Wisdom 2:12, 17-20
Psalm 54: 3-4, 5, 6 and 8
James 3:16 – 4:3
Mark 9: 30-37[hr] Father Catania is an English professor at Molloy College, Rockville Centre, L.I., and an assistant at Holy Child Jesus parish, Richmond Hill.