Unless you turn and become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 18:3
“God the Father is so pleased with you,” the old priest said with a broad smile on his face after praying over my husband, Bernie, just hours before his death. “Well done, Bernie. Well done!”
“It’s hard to miss the echo of God the Father’s thundering voice at Jesus’ Transfiguration saying: ‘This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased,’” I wrote about the experience in my book, Miracle Man. “It suddenly dawns on me that this is what Bernie Klein has been waiting for to die, and that this is precisely the gift that Our Heavenly Father wanted to give him so he can finally rest in peace,” I concluded.
The assurance of being God’s beloved son. A child of the Father. Isn’t that the identity that all human beings are called to discover?
Jesus enters this world as a little child precisely to teach us to say “Father,” says Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in his book of collected sermons entitled The God of Jesus Christ. His vulnerability as an infant and a child make it clear that humans are not meant to be self-sufficient, but that we are by our very nature relational, in need of others and in need of God.
He became a child. What does it mean to be a child? To begin with it means dependence, needing support and help from others...Being a child…means learning to say “Father.”*
Sounds simple enough. But human experience tells us that it is often very difficult to say “Father” from our hearts. It can be painfully hard to perceive God as a loving, merciful Father, as Abba, Papa, Daddy. We suffer from what could be called a collective father-wound in our culture, and the wound bleeds openly, even in the Church. We are facing a crisis in fatherhood itself, where the meaning and importance of fatherhood are called into question, and where more than half of the children in our country are growing up in homes that are absent a father’s presence.
Each Advent, we are invited to reconsider the infancy of Jesus, which points us to the truth that we, like Jesus, are God’s little children. And like Jesus, we are called to address God personally, intimately, familiarly—as our Father. The profundity of creatures assuming such a stance before Almighty God can hardly be overstated.
I recently noted with interest that the Church’s Advent readings contain a recurring theme. The Old Testament ends with a prophecy of the Messiah’s forerunner, John the Baptist, who will “turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers.” (Malachi 3:24)
The Gospel of Luke begins Christ’s Infancy Narrative with a repetition of the same promise. There, the angel Gabriel declares to John the Baptist’s father that his son will go before the Savior to “turn the hearts of the fathers toward their children…to prepare a people fit for the Lord.” (Luke 1:17)
It seems that a major theme of Advent is the turning of heavenly and earthly hearts one to the other, anticipating the spiritual healing that God desires for each of us: becoming a child, becoming His child, becoming like the Christ-child. Healing of this sort makes us fit for a relationship with the Father, and retrofitted for membership in His family.
The babe in the manger is completely vulnerable and dependent, much the way the sick, the elderly and the dying are at the end of their lives. Just the way that my husband Bernie was when his earthly life came to a close. Such vulnerability is good and necessary if we are to shed our world-acquired illusions of autonomy and enter God’s kingdom—which admits of only one path—the way of the child.
*Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, The God of Jesus Christ, Meditations on the Triune God