By Tim O’Malley
While living in Boston, I walked the Freedom Trail innumerable times with visitors. At first, visiting the historic sites of the early days of the American Revolution moved me. Yet after the 30th time standing in the shadow of Old North Church (one if by land, two if by sea), I found myself bored. I told the visitors, “You know what? You go ahead and look inside. I’ll be thinking about the delicious gnocchi we’ll be consuming in a moment.”
Our capacity for wonder is often limited by the drudgery of experience. We’ve been there, done that. This attitude is especially dangerous for those of us who belong to liturgical traditions. The Easter Vigil moved me — until the 30th time I participated in it. (I get it. This is the night.) A transcendent church, such as Westminster Abbey, captured my imagination until it became just another building that I passed while going somewhere in London. Christmas is the feast of the Word made flesh, the revelation that power is made perfect in weakness. But the 35th, 36th, and 37th Christmases tend to dull our wonder relative to the astonishing exchange of humanity and divinity in our Lord Jesus Christ.
I had been progressing along this humdrum pilgrimage toward a mundane Christianity when we welcomed our son into the world. One of the first Sundays of his life, we left our frigid home for the University of Notre Dame’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart. It was a building I knew well. It was a liturgy I had celebrated countless times.
Yet, through the eyes of my son, I saw the wondrous love of God anew.
The incense that floated toward the heavens captured his eyes and thus my own. He delighted in the chant sung by the choir, looking back toward the organ throughout Mass. His eyes widened when he turned his attention to the play of light made manifest through stained-glass windows.
As my son matured, his capacity for wonder grew with him. It was no longer just the material of the church building that captured his attention. He marvels at the cross of Jesus Christ, asking often about the identity of the suffering God-man. He robustly dips his hands into baptismal fonts, marking his body with the sign of the cross. He vigorously sings the chants of the Mass such that his distinct five-year old It is right and just shakes the sleepiness of the most soporific Sunday assembly. For the feast of St. Nicholas he received a toy thurible, and he now proudly and regularly censes his family. He sings along to Marian antiphons at Compline, picking up Latin texts as if it is his native tongue. He longs to receive the Eucharist, wondering when he too can “eat the Lord.” He asks questions about the feasts of the Church, ones that reawaken in me a sense of the marvelous words and deeds of the living God.
My son, of course, is not the perfect liturgical creature. Like me, he sometimes would prefer to be eating bacon at brunch rather than listening to a homily that goes on too long at Mass. He at times chooses the way of death by terrorizing his sister by ripping away her toy rosary rather than chant the Mass parts. He is, like me, a sinner in need of conversion (though, I have to admit, my sins tend to be more diabolical).
At the same time, it is my son who has reawakened in me the wonder of being a Christian. When he kneels before an icon of the Blessed Virgin, lighting a candle, there is no self-consciousness on his part. He is not playing some role of a “religious person” as I am prone to do as a theologian, a “public” Christian who is supposed to have pious thoughts. He is communing with God, adoring the hidden presence of the Word made flesh in the womb of his Mother. It is through his eyes of wonder that I have learned once again to perceive the wonder-filled quality of the gospel. It is through learning to attend to a sanctified cosmos through the eyes of the child, slowing down rather than moving along at the pace I see as necessary, that my salvation is unfolding.
Too often, we Christians think about the task of evangelization or Christian formation as directed exclusively to the young. Instead, we ought to recognize that those little children of God’s reign are preaching to us. In forming our newest Christians, we are tour guides reawakened to the glorious city of God. We see anew the story of salvation, the fact that God has entered so radically into history to become one of us. We delight that this divine love is available to us here and now in the sacramental life of the Church, in the Spirit-filled Word that echoes through pulpits and living rooms throughout the world. We see the presence of the living God in those poor men and women who are Christ’s presence on earth.
And in this process of rearing children to be Christians, we awaken to the most important realization of all. The children are not called to become like us. They’re not called to be efficient little creatures who engage in religious activity as a kind of avocation. Such practice is not a pleasant distraction from their worrisome jobs. Instead, we are called to become like the children. We are meant to give our wills away in total love. We are meant to become creatures made for wonder. Just like our kids.
Children evangelize by allowing us to wonder anew of the glorious deeds accomplished by God. They help us see that the gospel is not just a quaint narrative. It is real. It means something. Perhaps our Lord Jesus Christ welcomed the little children to him not so much for the sake of the little children but for the rest of us who need to learn to become sons and daughters of his Father.