from St Anselms Chapel Center @ USF
Today we celebrate St Agnes, a Christian martyr who died in Rome around 304 during the last and fiercest round of persecutions of Christianity by Roman emperors. Agnes’ name means “pure” in Greek and “lamb” in Latin. She is thought to have been only about 12 or 13 at the time of her death. (Her remains are preserved in St Agnes’ Church in Rome and offer confirmation of this.) It is also thought that her death at so young an age shocked the Romans and helped bring an end to the persecutions. As one commentator has offered:
“Some said, ‘It is contrary to Roman law to put a virgin to death. Our leaders say that it is necessary to kill Christians in order to preserve the old Roman ways: but they are themselves scorning those ways in the process.’
Others said, ‘Do young girls constitute such a threat to Rome that it is necessary to kill them?’
Others said, ‘If this religion can enable a twelve-year-old girl to meet death without fear, it is worth checking out.’
Today’s Gospel reading is from Matthew 18. The disciples have asked a question which seems to always weigh heavily for them: Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? Jesus calls a child to stand in the midst of them and reminds them that unless they change and become like children, they will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
I wondered as I read this how we should understand what a child might represent in Jesus’ time?
On the one hand, Biblical times seem like a barbaric time to be a child. There are stories in the Old Testament that make us cringe. (Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac is one with which I always struggle.)
For us today, childhood has been expanded well beyond when young people were considered adults in Jesus’ time. It is a time of education and play, growth and development, under the sheltering protection of loving families.
Except when it is not.
There are too many children in our country and around the world who live in extreme poverty, where daily existence is a matter of fighting for survival. There are too many children right here in our neighborhood who live in abusive, violent environments and our laws often do not afford protection for them. Our society tends to ignore the needs of these most vulnerable members. And we even exploit some who may not be as visibly fragile, using them to market everything from breakfast cereal to cars and, in the entertainment industry, creating the Justin Biebers, Brittany Spears, and even Honey Boo-Boos of our time.
What does it mean to become a child and a part of the Kingdom?
Most of us see this scene with Jesus as we remember it from Sunday school representations. A golden-haired Jesus next to a fair-headed, angelic small child who is radiating light and peace. It is a sentimental, overly idealized picture and I wonder how useful such an image really is for us interpreting this passage. Jesus didn’t speak in platitudes or clichés. I wonder how he might have gotten the attention of his disciples and the rest of those present?
Maybe it wasn’t that a tiny blonde tyke that he placed in their midst. Maybe it was that scruffy looking kid whose face and hands were still sticky from breakfast. The one who had been teasing his sister and pulling the dog’s tail and generally making everyone present wish that his mother–and where was she, anyway?–would pack him up and take him home.
How might the disciples respond to that? Maybe they would be as shocked as Nicodemus was when Jesus told him he would have to be born again. I don’t understand. How could this be possible? How could I become a child again? Why would I want to?
Theologian Frederick Buechner has an interesting interpretation of this passage:
Jesus was not being sentimental. He was saying that the people who get into heaven are people who, like children, don’t worry about it too much. They are people who, like children, live with their hands open more than their fists clenched. They are people who, like children, are so relatively unburdened by preconceptions that if somebody says there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, they are perfectly willing to go take a look for themselves.
Children aren’t necessarily better than other people. Like the child in ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes,’ they are just apt to be better at telling the difference between a phony and the real thing.
Perhaps that’s the way we build faith that will last. Keep your hands and hearts open. Keep asking questions and growing. Find the real thing in Jesus. Become a child of God and live into the Kingdom.