It All Starts with a Child

We have entered the Advent season once again. The Sunday before Advent was the final one in the annual church calendar—Christ the King Sunday. The whole cycle culminated in a celebration of Christ’s final victory and glory. It ended on a high note. But now with Advent it starts up all over again. We begin at the beginning. The story we rehearse is a journey toward glory, but it gets there only by way of Good Friday, the cross and suffering. In biblical imagery it is the Lamb that is upon the throne—the one who suffered and died was vindicated by God and now has a name that is above every name.

But Advent is a reminder that the one who became King of Kings began his journey as a child—as one without power or clout, as a dependent who was obliged to submit to earthly parents during his growing-up years. The story begins with the Eternal Son’s acceptance of the identity and place of a child. The first Adam hit the deck running as a mature adult, but the second Adam—the one who symbolized a new beginning for humanity—began not as an adult, but as an infant, a dependent.

He submits himself to childhood, with its absence of control and its unavoidable humility. We are very familiar with the manger scene depicted in Luke 2 and celebrated in carols like “Away in a Manger.” Perhaps less frequently we consider a poignant observation later on in the same chapter, after the boy Jesus went missing in the temple for a few days and was finally located. Then, after everything got sorted out, Luke says that “he went down to Nazareth with [his parents], and was obedient to them” (2:51).

He was obedient to them. We know nothing about Joseph’s character or competence, whether he was bright or slow, gracious or irritating, a hard worker or undisciplined. Ultimately, however, it didn’t matter. Regardless of his earthly parents’ strengths or deficiencies, he submitted to them. The overall pattern of Christ’s life now comes into focus: first humility, later suffering, and finally glory.

Jesus’ experience of childhood undoubtedly shaped his subsequent thinking. Perhaps it is there in his prediction of Peter’s old-age regression—when he would be dressed by another, and taken where he did not want to go. Jesus knew personally what that was like.

Perhaps this explains why Jesus highlighted children as exemplars of the Kingdom of God—not so much for their innocence (as is commonly assumed) as for their submissive acceptance of their powerlessness. And is it possible that Jesus’ heroic Gethsemane prayer, “Not my will, but yours be done” expressed an attitude he had learned through the discipline of childhood back at the beginning?

Presumably it was not always easy for him either. Jesus had to learn this obedience (Heb. 5:8). He learned what the TNIV aptly describes as the art of “reverent submission.” In doing so Christ models a spirituality of childlikeness. It is, admittedly, an assault on our egos. It challenges our fierce sense of autonomy. And that’s the point.

The spiritual theologian Richard Foster has observed that “the idolatry of today is the idolatry of power.” If this is true, and it certainly appears to be, then the advice found in the Epistle of First Peter was never more applicable than it is right now: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time” (5:6). This is an inspired biblical command; it is also, in effect, a commentary on the life of Jesus himself.

As apprentices to Jesus (for after all, what else are Christians?) we are invited to embrace this pattern for ourselves. The path to glory goes through suffering, and just as surely it begins in a spirit of humble submission and dependence. May we breathe a quiet “amen” to this in our heart of hearts. Advent reminds us that it all starts with a child.

One Response to It All Starts with a Child

  1. George Cox December 11, 2008 at 8:34 pm #

    Thank you for this article. As a Christian from a liturgical background, I have always valued and cherished the seasons of the year. It’s so rare to see them explained (and so clearly!) outside of a liturgical setting. Thank you! I’m curious to hear from others who read these articles, do we submit our lives to the rhythm of God’s plan? Are our ministry and personal goals and objectives in life grounded in first humility, then suffering, before we encounter Glory from above?