It seems I talk about my kids constantly during the holidays. My husband and I used to talk about them, more or less constantly, when they were babies. And we continued talking about them constantly when they were toddlers. But now that they’re older, we occasionally find time to talk about something else – something more grown-up – like football. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, however, I get that feeling that we’ve been in this place before. What are we going to get them this year? Should we try to spend the same amount of money on each of them? When is the school holiday program? How do we get one kid to the holiday program and the other kid to basketball practice at the same time?
This obsession with children and their activities is a rather recent phenomenon, historically speaking. In the past, children were treated as adults at much younger ages, partly because children were valued for different reasons. Less time was spent simply enjoying children, and no time was spent planning activities for them. Children were valued for the contributions they made to the family. Children who could tend sheep, work the land, fetch water, cook, marry, and bear children were worth significantly more than those who could not.
This cultural view is confirmed when we look at the ancient texts associated with various religions. They rarely mention children, and when they do, it’s hard to know how old they actually were. The Bible is no exception. How old was Cain when he killed Abel? In the story, it’s not even clear that Cain was married yet. How old was David when he slayed Goliath? According to the story, David was “just a boy.” And how old would Joseph have been when he was sold into slavery by his older brothers?
Many have pointed out that we also know next to nothing about Jesus’ childhood. There is the famous Biblical account of Jesus in the Temple at the age of 12.
Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. (Luke 2:41-47)
Beyond that, Jesus’ childhood is never discussed, and suggestions that Jesus could have been married or the father of children are highly controversial.
As always, there are some interesting exceptions to the general rule of excluding children in such texts. In Christianity, the most famous example is that of Jesus blessing the children. It shows up in three of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), but it’s a short passage. The longest version is in Mark.
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. (Mark 10:13-16)
No one is exactly sure what Jesus meant by this. What child-like characteristics are we supposed emulate? Their innocence? Their sense of wonder? Their unquestioning faith? Their curious nature? Their ability to trust?
The Tao Te Ching mentions infants and children a couple of times, providing a slightly more precise view of why we should model ourselves after them.
Know the male,
yet keep to the female:
receive the world in your arms.
If you receive the world,
the Tao will never leave you
and you will be like a little child.
(first paragraph, Chapter 28)
There is also this:
One who remains rich in virtuous power
Is like a newborn baby.
Bees, scorpions and venomous snakes do not bite it,
The wild beasts do not attack it,
Birds of prey do not sink their claws into it.
Though its bones are weak
And muscles soft,
Its grip is strong.
Without knowing of the blending of male and female
S/he is a perfect production,
The ultimate in vitality.
S/he cries all day without getting hoarse.
S/he is the ultimate in harmony.
(first paragraph, Chapter 55)
Perhaps we are to be vital, open-hearted, or strong in reality but not appearance. Who knows.
My favorite ancient lines about children come from the Sufi poet, Hafiz, who lived in 14th century Persia (now Iran).
The God Who Only Knows Four Words
Has known God,
Not the God of names,
Not the God of don’ts,
Not the God who ever does
But the God who only knows four words
And keeps repeating them, saying:
“Come dance with Me.”
The images floating by us these day are full of children. They smile in front of the newly-decorated Christmas tree in our friends’ Facebook posts. They throw fits in the toy section because no parent is buying their kid an extraneous gift this time of the year. They gaze joyously at the lit candles of the Hanukkah menorah. They happily open their new electronic devices on television ads. They exhibit a range of emotions as they sit on Santa’s lap. Even if you don’t have kids, you can’t really avoid them right now. So, in the hustle and bustle of your holiday season, try to find at least one aspect of childhood that connects you with the divine, however you define that.
The Gift: Poems by Hafiz the Great Sufi Master. Translated by Daniel Ladinsky. New York: Penguin Compass, 1999. Print.
Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 2007. Print.
Lao-Tzu: Tao Te Ching. Translation by Stephen Mitchell. New York: Harper Perennial, 1988. Print.
[In our Multifaith Mashup columns, we explore a topic from a variety of faith traditions and sacred texts. To see other columns, search our blog using the Multifaith Mashup tag. These columns are representative of the middle school Sunday School curriculum, and to a certain extent, the upper elementary Sunday School curriculum we developed at Jubilee! Community Church in Asheville, NC.]