by Lamin Sanneh
Lamin Sanneh teaches missions and world Christianity and history at Yale Divinity School. He is an editor-at-large of The Christian Century.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 6, 1989, p. 1146. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Mindful of the ghosts of Herod’s excess, our business in this Advent season is to treat our own children as God’s gift to us, despite the overwhelming burdens and responsibilities of parenthood and child-rearing in our society.
In many non-Western societies, children are regarded not as incomplete adults but as collective symbols of social and personal fulfillment. Consequently, children figure prominently in rituals of purification, healing, restoration, various forms of divination and in rites of passage. in much of Christianity, however, children are deemed unfit for the central rites until puberty.
Growing up in Muslim Africa, I was steeped in the world of the child. So many of our customs placed the child at the center. In rites of betrothal and marriage, the desire for children is expressed in explicit acts and words; in the Muslim religious calendar, children figure prominently in the two major annual festivals; in rituals connected with the farming cycle, children run symbolic errands to augur fertility and abundance; in the Islamic system of education, children pass through stages of instruction marked by communal celebration and recognition; and in the great and life-forming circumcision initiation ritual, children enact a death and resurrection rite, entering the bush clad in blood-stained garments and emerging festooned with the regalia of youth and new life. All this instills in society the idea of children as a unique and growing endowment.
We in North America and Europe have adopted a bolder course with our children, thrusting them into a world made for the streetwise and the tough-minded. When I think, for example, how my own children, born in Britain and bred in the U.S., have their routine dictated by school and by violin, piano and ballet lessons, and how they move fluently from babysitting for hire to videos for rent and then to microwave popcorn and hotpockets, I realize how our society has learned to dispense with child-inspired patterns of living.
Given this ethos, we are embarrassed with the lectionary reading that envisions the child as symbol of apocalyptic hope and herald of divine reconciliation. We feel that if God is really serious, he would depict the blessed dispensation with more robust, adult fare, since, as the apostle puts it, when we became adults we "put away childish things" (I Cor. 13:11) Yet for those with any hint of the child in their veins, the visionary paean of the prophet stirs a childlike response:
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
and the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The sucking child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put a hand on the adder’s den.
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain:
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea [Isa. 11:6, 8-9].
Jesus picks up this theme, saying that the kingdom of God is like a little child (Mark 10:15) that those who wish to enter the kingdom must do so as children Matt. 18:lff.) , that the child is symbol of Christlike humility, and that a father is not likely to give his child a stone when asked for bread, a snake when asked for fish, or a scorpion when asked for an egg (Luke 11:11 ff.) These references depict a society still in touch with its roots, old men and old women renewed in the shade of Jesse’s ancient stock, their old frames, matured by godly fear and faith, now become the polished horn for the spirit’s eloquence: "The people who have walked in the dark have seen a wonderful light. . . for unto us a child is born."
Yet the Christ-child’s coming provoked Herod to massacre the innocents, to put to death all children under the age of two -- potential challengers to his throne. This tragedy flavors all of the gospel; the innocent blood shed to safeguard the political kingdom anticipates Calvary where the wolf struck down the lamb and was redeemed.
Mindful of the ghosts of Herod’s excess, our business in this Advent season is to treat our own children as God’s gift to us, despite the overwhelming burdens and responsibilities of parenthood and child-rearing in our society. No single act is more momentous for society than bringing a child into the world. Quite often we recognize that, but then adopt strategies to duck those burdens and responsibilities by insulating ourselves from children. Our natural and spontaneous love and esteem for children suffer in a society that rewards us only between the ages of 25 and 65 and only for our economic productivity, not for our parenting. There are, or course, signs that the indomitable spirit that built this society will not rest till all our children are fed, clothed, loved and celebrated as our imperishable legacy. However, even if we wish to so devote some of our precious time and resources, we continue to be hit by the tax blade cutting into disposable income and cheap consumerism blunting the distinction between stone and bread or between, snake and fish. So much of the material possessions we amass fail abysmally to nurture family relationships.
This Advent season we would do well to keep the shopping mall behind us and the expected Christ-child before us. We can best do that by concentrating on the time we spend together as a family, on lowering the adult voice and listening more to our children, on beginning and ending the day with a word about and from our children, on cutting down on outside commitments and being home more, on taking time off from work and taking our children to be with other children, and on being generally mindful not to use our children as our burden-bearers, the captive mirrors for our self-absorption or guinea pigs for our theories and projects. We should resolve to correct them without wounding, to teach them with authority without being authoritarian, to restrain not the hand of guidance but that of condemnation and, above all, to prize them without egoism. It is truly impressive how far children will go despite adult-imposed handicaps, including the handicap of indifference. All the more reason for retrieving those child-inspired patterns of living the prophet speaks about. The world is precious not, as Africans put it, because our parents gave it to us, but because our children lent it to us. Advent is not a bad time to start finding that out.