I say to you, unless you turn and become like children,
you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven….
…If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray,
will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills
and go in search of the stray?…
…In just the same way, it is not the will of your heavenly Father
that one of these little ones be lost.” Matt 18:1-5,10,12-14
Our peaceful Pentecost prayers were interrupted by the wail of an emergency siren. It was emanating from my 18-month-old niece Zippy, who was making a compelling case that evolutionary descent was not from apes but from banshees. “Owwwww” she wailed, convincing the entire congregation to look our way, expecting blood. But it was just an abbreviation for “out” by which she meant “out of the pew”, “outside” and also “now.”
So I extracted her writhing figure and brought her outside to the statue of Joseph holding Jesus, where she was once again happy. “Ball!” she said, noting the sphere in the hands of baby Jesus. “Ball!” she said louder. “That’s the world, Zippy, not a ball,” I explained, but she still thought that Jesus ought to hand it over to her. I realized she had a good share of my DNA blended in with the banshee.
Several years ago I read a book about Saint John Paul the Great which deeply inspired me to want to be a saint. “I am ready to get serious about my faith” I told God. The images that came to me in prayer, however, were not of great sacrifices or even good deeds, but rather of a nursing infant.
“What does this mean?” I asked, and then followed another image, of myself as toddler, sitting on Jesus’ lap at the Last Supper. I looked around with great delight. “I am ready to sit with the big kids!” toddler-me told Jesus. “I want to be one of the apostles.” Then I thought for a moment, and toddler-me replied, “Actually Jesus, I want to be you. I want to be in charge!” Jesus only smiled, and I saw once again the nursing infant.
There was a time when serious-adult-me would have rebuked this little toddler, but now I only laugh, because I know that Jesus delights in her, in her big dreams and small stature. Certainly a humility check is in order (and still in progress) but there is something in her honesty, in her way of relating to Jesus, her confidence in His love for her no-matter-what, that adult-me can learn from.
After Mass, we take Zippy to Red Robin for dinner, and order her mini meatballs from the kid’s menu. Because I am an amateur, not a parent, I hand her the tomato sauce for dipping. Moments later, I am sitting next to a pint-sized serial killer, covered head to toe in red. Because I am an aunt, not a parent, I snap pictures in lieu of cleaning her up.
I hand her a cup of juice, which she sips daintily, careful not to spill any. When she is finished, she indicates so by pouring the remaining juice directly into her lap. She looks up, smiles, and reaches out her arms to be picked up. She is confident that my love is greater than my aversion to sauce and stickiness.
I bring her outside to fend off impending sirens, and she hears some music from a nearby restaurant, and begins to dance. She has not yet learned to judge herself on the reactions of others, the number of Facebook likes, or even her skill at dancing, which is only a slight improvement over her table manners.
I am reminded of teaching my four-year old class the story of The Found Sheep. For this one, Jesus leaves the ninety-nine to search diligently, until He finds it and carries it home jubilantly on His shoulders. At first I worried in the back of my mind that children in their sensitivity might worry about the ninety-nine—those poor sheep left behind while Jesus goes looking for the one. But the child sees what adults do not: to Jesus, there is no ninety-nine. There is only the one.
Children know the secret to holiness is simple. Love. Dependence. Trust. Confidence in the goodness of God, in His care for us, in His willingness to love us even when we are messy or awkward or do things badly or even completely wrong.
The key to holiness is not the greatness of our deeds but the greatness of God’s love. Prayer is not one of the good works performed by the holy, but rather the food which makes any other work possible.
A few months later I am standing at the seashore with little Zippy, the waves which wash pleasantly over my ankles are strong enough to push her off balance. But unafraid, she reaches up her arms to be picked up. Safe and comfortable in my arms, she points to the deep, trusting that she can go anywhere as long as she is held.
May we like little children be confident always in the Father’s love for us, trusting in His goodness and protection to feed us, to lead us, to carry us home.