Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Child Everlasting” first appeared in the December 2007 issue of Touchstone.
On the Omnipotent Humility That Saves an Old & Infantile World by Anthony Esolen
Every Sunday our pastor proceeds up the aisle behind a troop of altar boys and lectors, one of the boys holding up a five-foot cross and another holding up the lectionary from which we will hear the word of God. Not on Christmas, though.
On that day, the pastor himself raises up something for the people to behold: From beneath the folds of his outer vestment he presents to the congregation a small statue of the Christ child. When he reaches the foot of the apse, he places the child in a crèche and kneels, while the people all sing that old carol that calls us to come to Bethlehem and adore the king of angels.
It is a simple gesture, yet extraordinarily moving; when I first saw it at a midnight Mass, I was surprised almost to tears. The Lord we worship is a little child. How can this be?
When the shepherds were told, in grand style, to go to the village and seek a babe lying in a manger, what wonder did they behold? They had seen babies before, and when they saw the child Jesus, unless they saw with the eyes of faith, they saw an average baby boy, with his mother and his father, both weary from the long journey.
Yet swaddled up in those bands of humanity was Omnipotence. He who had spoken the world into existence now came into that world as an infant, literally a being without speech—the Word made speechless. He whose right arm upholds at every moment every creature in its existence, now could not clasp a pebble, even could he move his hands from the cloth that hemmed him in.
The Child’s Witness
But can we see the wonder from the other direction? It may be that the child Jesus does not conceal omnipotence so much as reveal what it really means to be omnipotent. That’s because the Word through whom were made the heavens and the earth was from before the foundations of the world the Word who would be made flesh: It is a world made to be redeemed by that child.
If it is not stretching a word to say so, creation itself shows us not only the power of God, but his mighty humility, as he condescends to make what is not God, but what is for him, and, in the case of man, what is capable of loving him. More than that: he is a God who has granted man the sublime power to be the means whereby he brings into the world an immortal soul.
Except for our first parents and for the second Adam, no immortal soul has ever (until our recent experiments in hominiculture) been brought into the world unless by the holy act that God intended for the expression of the love and union of man and woman. Any child, then, if we could see aright, gives witness to true power—the power of God, inseparable from his wisdom and his love.
At the least, the child—any child—is distantly like God in its unconsciousness of sin. For sin is an aging thing; but our God, the ancient of days, is himself first and new.
But the world is old and infantile. It gabbles, and says nothing. It craves power, and its babyish hands grope about the empty air. We say we like children, and we make our institutions puerile to prove it, but we have as few children as possible, and those few we keep well away from our business, our careers, our pacifiers and rattles and dolls. Don’t touch, don’t touch!
Here in the dead of our winter it would do us well to remember that every passing thing in this world derives its true meaning from that Child; that upon the boy asleep in the manger depends all of man’s history; that at every conception, time is impregnated with eternity, and again there comes into this world an immortal image of him who also came into the world, who burst the barrier of the world at the moment he took flesh in the womb of Mary, and who was born a babe long ago, to redeem us and show us a glimpse of that ancient youth he never can lose. •
Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of The Ironies of Faith (ISI Books), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery), and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books). He has also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's The Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
“Child Everlasting” first appeared in the December 2007 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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