by Rev. Jerry J. Pokorsky
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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Matthew wrote to show that Christ
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.
At that time Jesus said in reply, "I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike. Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.
"Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light."
The effects of original sin abound. Walking to the church one Sunday, I came across a mother with an unruly baby in her arms near one of the exits. Her two-year-old son was also standing at her side. On my shoulder I had placed a lightweight tree branch that had fallen, intending to toss it behind the church. I jokingly asked the two-year-old, “Did you break this branch?” The child’s response was immediate and exculpatory: “No, (pointing to his baby brother) Jason did it.” The lie (or perhaps merely a stated conclusion of faulty childish logic) was transparent and very amusing. I was amused. Mom wasn’t. Parents know that cute kids, without parental vigilance and gentle correction, quickly become not-so-cute in habitual misbehavior. My chuckles for the moment would need to be suppressed.
The customary interpretation of Christ’s teaching, “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:3), is that we must become “childlike but not childish.” Christ seems to be referring to a child’s lack of adults’ crusty cynicism and negativity, the openness to goodness and truth, the ability to accept the almost unbelievable extent of God’s mercy, generosity and love Jesus is telling of. So it’s a convenient and reasonably satisfying distinction, but upon reflection it may be helpful to reconsider. In Sunday’s Gospel, Christ similarly teaches, “for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to little ones.” What is it about being “childlike” and perhaps even a bit “childish” that prepares us to receive and live a life of faith and goodness?
Little children are capable of lying easily and blatantly or wildly misunderstanding the world around them. They might deny snitching cookies, for example, even when the cookie crumbs grace their tiny lips. This transparency of children may be one key to understanding these words of Christ. Unlike many adults, little children are usually not good liars. When they lie, they likely know they are lying (provided, of course, they know that what they’re saying is false). We know they are lying. And it’s a good guess they know we know they are lying.
One day in the parish school, I asked the children preparing for first penance if they knew, before they learned the Ten Commandments, that disobeying mom and dad, lying, cheating and throwing temper tantrums were wrong. They all agreed, affirming the teaching of St. Paul — and St. Thomas Aquinas — that the Commandments are written on our hearts as the “natural moral law.” So if we already know what’s wrong, why must we learn the Ten Commandments? A thoughtful child answered correctly: “To remind us.”
The seeds of bad habits and narcissism (and other psychological disorders, some of which may be rooted in habitual sin) have not yet come to full bloom in a child. This is why healthy and straightforward Christian formation at a very young age not only is relatively easy to sustain by churchgoing Catholic families, but is so necessary for character development. The dandelion sprouts of venial sin have not yet sunk deep, making it possible to root out the weeds of sin before they blossom into hardness of heart (to press a metaphor). Hence, in our parish (and in many parishes), the priests hear the confessions of the school children monthly during the school year, helping to direct them to a life of virtue.
A child usually has a simple view of morality. After hearing a heartfelt confession of sin, I often encourage the child by suggesting he knows something that many adults do not know, or refuse to know: the difference between right and wrong. For as we get older, we tend to convince ourselves that the norms of right and wrong blur and become much more complicated in a “complex and technological” world. This may be true with respect to the great questions of war and peace and economics. But it is not true with respect to the everyday rules of morality that form the foundation of our character, both personally and culturally. We never grow out of the need to abide by the Ten Commandments.
If little children at times transparently attempt to deceive their elders, they do not seem to deceive themselves and are responsive to prudent correction. But grown-ups frequently cultivate the delicate crafts of self-deception and denying personal responsibility for evil. Indeed, as we grow older and become more settled in our habits, we need increasing measures of God’s grace to recognize our sins, anesthetized away as we make them by adult rationalizations and self-justifications. This is why a priest greets the penitent with an invocation, “May the Lord who has enlightened every heart help you to know your sins and trust in His mercy.”
In our day, as in every age, we need to be reminded of how readily God’s wisdom is received by children. God’s law is not complicated, nor is it difficult to grasp or understand, if we open our hearts with childlike simplicity. Even sinning with a childlike simplicity without self-deception has its merits, provided we respond as children, accept correction and repent. A child has a sense of freedom and security within a loving family. By becoming childlike, even childish, in the presence of Christ, a path to happiness opens as true children of God.
Nevertheless, lest we become too sentimental with childish things, we might all agree the face of a child can say it all — especially the mouth part of the face.
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