We are in a restaurant in Jacksonville Beach, where the music is ear-splittingly loud, but the chips and salsa are fine. Our grandnephew, Noah, 1 ½ years old, is eating tidbits handed him by his mom.
At the end of the meal, the waitress gives lollipops to everyone, and even though Noah is too young to eat one, his mom allows him to play with it. Ecstatic, the child begins rapping the lollipop against the tabletop. He also lets out a huge chortle of delightful baby babbling, which sounds like a foreign language.
Impulsively, one adult starts imitating him, and everyone follows — and soon we are all laughing and banging the tabletop with our lollipops. It is a fine moment and, for me, another key to understanding a favorite Gospel passage. It’s the one where Jesus said we must become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven.
During our vacation in Florida, I watch this little boy carefully with Jesus’ words in mind. I notice that the child runs around, chuckling with great joy and tossing his toys into the air.
Every moment, I realize, is a cause for this kid to celebrate. When he isn’t parading around, laughing, you will find him jubilantly pushing his toy car.
If he gets scared, he shouts “Momma” at the top of his lungs, and his mom is never more than a few seconds away. Sometimes, when he is delighted by something, he will also call out the same word. If Noah is hungry, Momma is there. If he wants to play, she joins in. And should he injure himself in any way, Momma rushes to help.
Becoming like a child, it seems, has something to do with recognizing that God is there to meet our every need.
Of course, when Jesus spoke his words about becoming childlike, it was assumed that mothers, like our niece, would take care of their children, day in and day out. Today, women like her often have to defend their choice of being stay-at-home moms in a world that only seems to value professions that bring in money.
Still, when Jesus invited us to become childlike, surely He was pointing to a happy, well-balanced child like Noah. A child who is secure in his mom’s love, and knows he comes first in her life, always.
As I watch our niece breast-feeding Noah, I think about Mary bringing up the boy Jesus at a time when everyone accepted that a mother’s life revolved around her family.
In one Gospel episode, when she and Joseph were separated from Jesus for three days, she did what any good mother would have done when she found her boy. She chided Him for getting lost on the journey. After He tells her that He has to be about His “Father’s business,” she doesn’t say anything. Instead, she ponders these perplexing words in her heart.
Mary’s heart always was centered on her child, but she remained in the background of the Gospels, and only has a few speaking lines. Still, it is true that, without the background, you cannot see any image clearly.
Today, the child who shows up at school in clean clothing, with hair neatly trimmed and homework done, reveals how important background figures are.
Someone had to wash and mend the child’s clothes, trim his hair, pack his lunch, and be sure homework was done on time. Someone made sure he got sufficient sleep to be alert during the school day. That same someone disciplined the child, so he would sit still and listen in the classroom.
So often, that devoted someone is a mother, a humble person like the Blessed Mother, who doesn’t mind being in the background.
And as the child grows, that mother must explain everything, from how to peel a banana to how to pray. She must be a mathematician, an astronomer, an ethicist, a botanist, and an historian.
She must be ready to handle questions like “Where do rocks come from?” and “How big is the sky?”
As I watched our niece patiently following Noah around, I saw clearly that mothering truly is an all-encompassing vocation. It is a 24-hour, seven-day a week job, especially for the first few years.
And I thought again about Jesus’ words, “Unless you be converted, and become like children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Of course, Jesus would have known that childhood was a place of joy and peace and great love. After all, He had been cared for, day in and day out, by a humble and sweet lady who hastened to His every cry of “Momma.”
Mary had fed him, bathed him and taught Him how to pray. She had shown Him the true heart of love that comes from putting others’ needs first.
And like our niece, she had surely known deep in her heart that taking care of her little boy was the most important thing she would ever do.
Lorraine’s newest book is “Death of a Liturgist,” a wild romp through a parish that has been hijacked by a liturgist who wants to get everyone grooving on Sunday. It can be ordered on the Saint Benedict Press website. She also is the author of “Death in the Choir,” “The Abbess of Andalusia: Flannery O’Connor’s Spiritual Journey” and other books. Her website is www.lorrainevmurray.com
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