“Unless you become like children.” I’ve wondered for a long time what it means – feel free to tell me.
The obvious thought recently occurred to me that this might have something to do with the Fatherhood of God. And as with the fatherhood, I wonder if we over-psychologize childhood.
A long-ago parish priest, for example, used to have a great line about how children immerse themselves in little details. A beautiful thought – but awfully psychological. Less beautiful, I heard today a sappy Christmas pop song that invoked Jesus’ line about childhood in the course of saying we should act more like children around the Christmas tree – Christian childhood at Christmas without reference to Christ.
Better, I think, to think metaphysically about childhood. What is a child? A child has received his Father’s nature, but is still growing into it. To become like children means admitting that God isn’t finished with us, we aren’t divine yet. That is the Christian child’s joy: not about the Christmas tree, but about the Child, who is God entering into our human weakness.
That thought goes well with the readings for this Gaudete Sunday. The Epistle, from First Thessalonians, sounds the central theme of this Sunday, midway through the Advent night of winter: “Rejoice always.” The other two readings speak to us of the vocation of a prophet.
The first half of the reading from Isaiah (the first two verses of chapter 61), speak of prophecy: “He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor.” The second half (the last two verses of the chapter) sounds the theme of joy: “I rejoice heartily in the LORD, in my God is the joy of my soul.” But what is the joy of the prophet?
Our Gospel, from the first chapter of John, brings us back to John the Baptist. First it gives the key definition of John’s vocation, from the Prologue: “He was not the light, but came to testify to the light.” The prophet is one who bears testimony to Someone Else.
So then we jump ahead to where John (the Evangelist) tells us about “the testimony of John” (the Baptist). They asked him, “Who are you?” And his first answer was, “I am not the Christ.”
There’s a lot of talk these days about our identity, about appreciating how great we are. There’s something important in all that – but John’s identity, his first answer to “Who are you?” is “I am not the Christ.” It is good to talk about how much God loves us. But we don’t know what that means until we also can answer: “I am not God. I am not the Messiah.”
They ask him other questions. “Are you Elijah? . . . Are you the Prophet?” Well, in the other three Gospels, Jesus will say, “For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you will receive it, this is Elijah who is to come” (Mt 11:13-14, cf. Mark 9:12-14 and Luke 1:17). Yes, John sort of is the ultimate prophet and Jesus even identifies him with Elijah. But John’s answer is “I am not.” The words ring more powerful when you know how often John’s Gospel has Jesus say, “I am,” an echo of God’s word to Moses at the burning bush, “I am who am.” I am not.
They ask why he baptizes – and he doesn’t even answer the question, he only says that the one coming after him is one whose sandal he is not worthy to untie, whose feet he is not worthy to wash, whose baptism will actually be worth something.
John’s main purpose in the Gospel is not to be Jesus. Jesus is not just a prophet. Jesus’s baptism is not like John’s. John is not the Christ. John is not.
But he does also tell them his vocation, quoting Isaiah: “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’.” He is not entirely “not.” Even more powerful than that, he is the one who points to he who is, and who brings life to where life is not. John’s life is entirely relative to Jesus.
So too when our reading from Isaiah talks about joy it is all about “him”: “He has clothed me, he has wrapped me like a bridegroom and a bride, the Lord GOD will make justice and praise spring up.” And when he talks about being a prophet too it is all about “him”: “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, he has anointed me, he has sent me, to announce a year of favor from the LORD.”
So too when our Epistle says “rejoice,” it then says “Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks.” Whatever you have not and whatever you have, point to him. “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecy”: believe that God is alive and active in our world. “May the God of peace” – He! – “make you perfectly holy.” “He will accomplish it.”
The joy of the prophet is to know that he is not the source of his own joy, but receives everything from one infinitely greater.
Christian childhood is to know that the power at work in us, bringing us to full maturity in Christ, is infinitely greater than we can ask or imagine. It’s not that we already possess, not that we have arrived – but that he is at work in us.
The joy of Advent is in looking forward to the one who comes, who can do what we cannot.
And the joy of Christmas is knowing that God is with us, and God has entered into our weakness, to give us a strength that does not come from us.
Where do you find yourself focusing too much on your own goodness and strength?