Recently as I was leading Chapel at Holy Cross School (which by the way is probably the best elementary school in town), I asked the crowd which was better: dogs or cats? There was a clear preference for dogs. Then I asked which was better: summer or winter? Summer predictably got more votes. When I asked about cars or airplanes, the crowd slightly favored planes. The most overwhelming majority vote came when I asked which was better: children or adults? Almost all the hands raised were for children.
When I asked the students what made children different from adults, most of them said that children play more than adults. “Like sliding down the slide,” one of them offered. “Adults don’t do that and we do.” When I asked why they thought adults didn’t play as much as children, one student said, “They don’t have time. They have to work and take care of us.” Yes our responsibilities can be heavy.
Another answer fascinated me. A student said that one thing children do that adults don’t do is homework. Children seem to know part of their job is to learn. Sometimes adults forget that learning is also part of our job. We often fall into thinking our minds are already made up or that we already know the right way to do something. We’re not very open to learning new things. Everything is new for children.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell the story of Jesus receiving children, despite the efforts of the disciples to keep them away. Jesus blesses the children and says that unless we are like children we do not know what the kingdom of God is really like. When a story falls in more than one gospel it seems to carry extra weight. Maybe Jesus meant that when adults lose a light and playful attitude, we close ourselves off from grace. Maybe he also meant that when adults start thinking we don’t need to learn and grow, we similarly wander from the quality of life offered in the kingdom.
Not only do Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell the same story about children. They also, all of them, follow up the story with exactly the same story about a rich man coming to Jesus wanting to know what he should do to inherit eternal life. After discussing various commandments, Jesus tells the rich man to sell all his possessions and follow him. So, the same story about children repeated in three gospels, followed by the same story about the rich man being invited to sell his possessions repeated in three gospels. Hmmm. Maybe we’re supposed to put those together.
Children don’t have riches. They might live among riches but children only have those riches if their parents have them. They don’t belong to the little children. The little children aren’t responsible for all the stuff they may live with. And of course we all know that if all the stuff children do have were to be taken away from them, they’d adjust a whole lot quicker than their parents would. How many Christmas mornings have parents watched their very young children have more fun with the box their big gift came in than they did the gift itself? Children don’t need stuff like adults do.
The more stuff we have, the harder life can be. Certainly there’s a minimum level of accoutrements that make life easier and more fun. But, after a certain point, more stuff equals more headaches. That’s why, later in life, we want to get rid of stuff. Because it starts to interfere with what’s most important.
So it’s Advent and the train is rolling toward Christmas. Many of us have just completed our most favorite holiday: Thanksgiving. There’s not too much hype there. The whole holiday is about preparing, enjoying, and cleaning up after a meal, then enjoying a nap and leftovers. Then it’s done. There’s no pressure to get something for someone else or respond appropriately to those who have given us presents. There’s less build-up and less let-down. It’s a feast to be enjoyed, that’s all.
The Christmas thing can be a bear. Presents are wonderful things, in proper proportion. But it’s sure easy for things to get out of whack and for all our attention to be paid to the stuff rather than the feast. Thanksgiving tends to pull us together as a family or group (not that everything about that is always easy), whereas Christmas often pulls us apart with the pressure to deliver or to be pleased with what has been given to us. Thanksgiving is more about us gathering around a table together and eating. Christmas is more about who got what. While we worry about that, the kids ignore the stuff and play in the boxes and have a good old time.
All that can be different. If we prepare to make it different. Advent is that time of preparation. We prepare for the coming of Christ, that presence which has been around for all of eternity but which gets enfleshed in a particular time in history. The gift of the Christ is meant to bring us all to the table together. It can be that, if we prepare to make it so.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.