Ironically, they’re the easiest scenes in the Gospels for me to skip over.
Yesterday it was an episode from Mark. Arguing disciples, who’s the greatest, elbowing each other on the road to Capernaum like bickering brothers: nuh-uh, I’m the favorite. Exasperated Jesus, here’s the least, plunking down the kid in the middle like an exasperated parent: why can’t you be more like this one?
And every time, deaf and blind me, paying half-attention in the pew with my own squirming least, I miss the message, too. My eyes glaze over; my ears lull to auto-pilot. I’ve heard this one a million times; let the little children come to me; the kingdom of heaven belongs to them; yawn.
Until yesterday, I’d never thought about the shocking fact of Jesus noticing – to say nothing of embracing – a child.
But at Sunday Mass, while my youngest shrieked in my arms, flailing with frustration, lunging for a nap nowhere to be found, and I missed most of the Gospel as I plotted my exit from the pew pre-homily, before the hollering protest drowned out the priest entirely, I had a brief moment of clarity. Irony’s lightning bolt. Here I am, embracing the same child that Christ put his arms around. And I’m planning to whisk him out of the assembly ASAP so he doesn’t disturb the patient prayers around us any further.
(I still left. Amen, amen I say to you – that kid was CRANKY.)
But as we gently paced the gathering space, watching through windows at the quieter crowd within, I tasted the irony. I ignored the homily I couldn’t hear anyway and entered the scene.
I pictured Jesus, sweaty and grimy from the journey, annoyed with his quibbling friends, troubled at their stubborn hearts. I wondered about the child he chose to put his arms around.
Did the baby squirm in his arms, lunging for his mother? Did the toddler leak while she sat on his lap? Did the boy wrinkle up his nose and announce, to his parents’ mortification, that this man smells funny?
Or did the child cuddle in Christ’s arms with delight? Was Jesus like the favorite uncle, the one who never had kids of his own but never hesitated to get down on the floor and wrestle with the little ones, who always knew how to get a grin and a giggle?
I’m embarrassed to admit that for years I’ve slid over these passages like a worn-out children’s Bible: Matthew, Mark, Luke. Did I think they were simply moments when Jesus turned into a sap? That they were Hallmark sentiments or photo-ops for centuries of kitschy artists to paint in fuzzy pastels?
Even after I took graduate courses in Scripture, I still never realized the shattering shock of this scene. I learned lots of theological analysis of what the child means for the reordering of societal and familial structures in the reign of God. But I never thought about the kid on Christ’s lap.
Until I held the one that exasperated me, who smelled of wet diaper and oatmeal-smeared hair, who crawled too fast to contain in a chair, who babbled too loud to pray in a pew.
I tried to hold him with Christ arms instead of my tired own. I saw, for the first time, the shock of a savior scooping up the smallest.
And I realized that this was exactly the upside-down-ness of the Kingdom. He’s in.