Suffer The Children

As you cross the border from Hungary into Western Romania, the noticeable differences are instantaneous. The lights, when there are any, are much dimmer, there are never any children playing, and when you do see children, they're most often huddled in the train station trying to find warmth against the walls.

It's a stark contrast from all I see at home, or from what I saw during my recent visit to America. And whenever I'm at home, our family rituals include warm embraces, playing games, or making biscuits or cakes in the kitchen together. I'm not suggesting a Currier and Ives Christmas card scene, but it's certainly an image of warmth and security.

Interestingly, there's a controversial thesis by French historian Philippe Ariès , that claims my schmaltzy attitude towards my children couldn't really have existed until the seventeenth century. Aries argues that because child mortality rates were so high, parents were not able to make the sort of emotional investment that we do in our children. Until the early modern period, children were simply adults waiting to happen.

All of which suggests a rather different take on Jesus' claim that unless we become like children, we will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Unfortunately, most of the time, Christians over-sentimentalise the role of children in the New Testament. It easily becomes cloying chocolate-box stuff: Jesus praises children because they are wide-eyed, innocent and trusting - a perfect analogy for faith. Well, I have difficulty swallowing that image.

Aries tips us off to the insight that children play an important role in the teachings of Jesus because they were nobodies. Life was too tough to waste love on a child who might not survive - so children became insignificant, marginalised, and terribly vulnerable. This then, is the unsettling message of what Christians are called to become if they want to find the Kingdom of Heaven. They are called to side with the nonentities and the defenceless, not with the cute and cuddly. After all, that's the real message of Christmas: the creator of Heaven and earth gets born as a pathetic child by a disgraced mother in a grotty shed.

In countries where its people have been victims of tyranny and manipulation it is difficult to get that first foothold in the rung to climb from deep within the abyss. Most of the children are unable to communicate their needs and therefore remain victims of predator adults or of those fortunate enough to be picked first. And for others, their perception of safety comes from the warmth they find with other homeless children, deep within the bowels of earth, among the steam pipes that criss-cross the city.

As we face what meteorologists claim will be one of the coldest winters in two decades, perhaps it's time for us to forget the cringe-making kitsch of the Jesus 'friend-of-little-children' image we so conveniently create for ourselves. When Jesus spoke of the kingdom belonging to children, it was to children such as these.
Ever-watching Father: we pray for the suffering children whom we do not see. We know that Your eyes see their tears, that Your heart knows their sorrow, that Your hands can reach them now. We ask that You send friends for the lonely, food for the hungry, medicine for the sick, saviours for the enslaved, and rescue for the perishing. Grant us the wisdom to do our part, to leave our comforts behind and share our possessions. Lend them our voice, give them our food and love them with more than prayers. We ask this in the name of Your own child – Christ Jesus. Amen.

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