December 10, 2006
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” (Luke 1:76)
Imagine for a moment a world and society in which our worth and wages were not determined by our work but rather by an entirely different standard. Suppose we were not assessed for our adult skills, but for our childlike abilities – our capacity to be vulnerable and spontaneous, to show our feelings, and to live fully in each moment given to us. Suppose further that our annual performance appraisal was done not by our supervisor at work but by our children – or grandchildren – at home, or perhaps even by “children gathered from west to east,” to borrow words found in our first reading today.
It opens up all sorts of possibilities. Those of us who do not have children of our own would not be let off the hook. A child would be assigned to us for the occasion – preferably one not of our own choosing – just to make the evaluation fair and equitable.
Rather than a rating for promptness, we would probably have a scale reflecting the ability to lose all sense of time and place for hours on end. For the ability to lay carpet or hang wallpaper in a straight line, we would substitute skill with Legos or Tinker Toys or the latest video games. And original contributions to high-quality academic publications would be replaced by interesting bed-time stories, peer-reviewed and assessed by panels of children from the neighborhood. The talent for making tasty tacos, pizza, and hamburgers that taste like Big Macs – preferably seven days a week – would merit extra points on our performance assessment scale.
Our world would certainly be a different place. Some of us would be in serious trouble and would have a lot of catching up to do. However, instead of being encouraged to sign up for remedial courses in graduate school, we would probably be required to enroll in the neighborhood Head Start program for a couple of semesters. For all of us, priorities would change in a hurry as we came to terms with the new values and norms. After all, our livelihood would depend on it.
Perhaps we could even try this new way of doing things in the world of politics and high finance. There might be a little confusion at first, but it would be worth it. “No hitting” and “plays well with others” would take on new meaning as we appraised global leaders. And the world would be a more sensible place as Matchbox cars were substituted for BMWs as status symbols, Barbie-doll fashions replaced Prada and Armani, and baseball cards became the new coin of the realm.
Alas, the world has a long way to go in learning to cherish the child. Child-care workers are still among the lowest paid professionals in the country. According to some experts, they rank just below casual farm laborers and assistant zoo snake-handlers. As African professor, Lamin Sanneh, writes, “When I think how my own children, raised in the U.S., have their routine dictated by school and violin, piano, and ballet lessons, and how they move fluently from baby-sitting for hire to video for rent and then to microwave popcorn and hot pockets, I realize how our society has learned to dispense with child-inspired patterns of living.”
“Child-inspired patterns of living.” What an apt way of summing up what we seek to discover during this holy Advent season. It probably does take a child to lead us back to that which is precious and holy – to the kingdom of heaven itself. A child, after all, would understand about the kingdom of heaven – at least until an adult tried to explain it.
Perhaps this is on Zechariah’s mind in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke as he encounters his neighbors gathered in the temple for the circumcision of his child. “What then will this child become?” the neighbors ask, as they reflect on the events surrounding the birth of John, who is to become the Baptist. But they are not so much thinking of “child-inspired patterns of living” as they are the destiny and future of the extraordinary child before them.
For the aged Zechariah the answer to their question comes easily as he is “filled with the Holy Spirit” and speaks. “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High;” he proclaims, “for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” His words are an allusion no doubt to the traditional understanding of John’s future role as precursor of the Christ. Yet in some sense it is the child himself who is the prophet of the Most High because every child is an image of the loving and blameless God who sent his Son to be born among us in humble circumstance. Only a child can call us back to the simplicity and fullness of divine love.
If, in our contemporary world, we have “learned to dispense with child-inspired patterns of living,” we have also all too often learned to dispense with children themselves. Their images haunt us in scenes of famine in faraway lands. We read with horror of their abuse in our own country and elsewhere. In some quarters, children have even become as disposable as holiday wrappings and tinsel, lovely in their festive attire but otherwise nonessentials, neither profit centers nor revenue enhancers.
This Advent season we must learn again to treasure the child, whether it be children of our own families and neighborhoods or those “gathered from east to west” throughout the world. But we can only do this by first rediscovering and cherishing the child still within each of us – hidden beneath layers of needless complexity and sophistication. Midway through this Advent season of preparation and wonder, we open ourselves to the child who approaches our doorstep in the cold and dark of our winter hearts. Let us welcome that infant visitor and become what John – and we ourselves – are called to be: prophets of the Most High.
— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is priest-in-charge at Saint Alban’s Episcopal Church in El Cajon, California.