We know virtually nothing about the childhood of Jesus. Whatever may or may not have happened at the time of his birth - the miraculous annunciation to Mary, the birth in Bethlehem in a stable, the irruption of the hosts of heaven in a vision to a few faithfull shepherds of God’s flock, and finally the visit of the wise men from the East with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to lay at the baby’s feet - after all that was over, Jesus and his family disappear from view into the darkness of history, which then hides them and all their doings, until he grows to manhood. As a result, we know virtually nothing about his childhood except for the story of a visit with his parents to Jerusalem, when he was twelve years old. But what we do know is that Jesus shared the experience of childhood, growing up like any other normal child, and so presumably knowing something both of its childish pains and worries and its joys, and discovering what it is like to be a human child. So what has he got to say to us about childhood?
There has been a very considerable shift of opinion in as short a time as my own life-time on the subject of how to treat children - even indeed on the subject of just what sort of creatures children actually are. Unlike opinion in the fairly recent past, today the currently orthodox view of children is that they are basically innocent creatures, who need above all to be loved, cherished, and allowed to express themselves freely, as long as they do not damage themselves or other people in the process.
Treated in such a way, they will grow up free from the repressions and fears, which were the result - in the bad old days - of parents and others heeding the advice that to spare the rod was to spoil the child and the accompanying admonition that children should be seen and not heard. Today, if an adolescent child behaves in a selfishly, aggressive, or even a criminal manner, we tend to look first at his early childhood for the cause of such behaviour. How was he treated by his parents, in what sort of social set-up was he raised, was he the product of a broken home - and so on - while secondly we may look at his genetic inheritance and ask what sort of parents did he have? His father was a drunk, was he? And his mother was a poor thing with a minimal IQ? Well, there you are! What else can you expect from such a heritage? But - and I think that we have got to ask this question - does all that (and Video nasties too) fully explain the behaviour of the two little boys who murdered James Bulger on a railway line just before Christmas in 1993? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I shall come back to that poor little mite, James Bulger, later.
Meanwhile, the contemporary view, which I have tried to describe all too briefly - the view of children as original innocents rather than original sinners - gains great support at first sight from such sayings of Jesus as “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not; for such is the kingdom of God. Truly I say unto you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child shall not enter therein.” And Jesus, remember, had experienced the business of actually being a small child in the company of other children. But, if one is to be even remotely honest, there is another side to being a child amongst other children, and Jesus must have known of its existence. It was described by the poet, Philip Larkin, who died not so long ago. ‘When I was about eleven,’ he wrote, ‘it was that verse (in the Bible) about becoming again as a little child that caused the first sharp waning of my Christian sympathies. If the kingdom of heaven could be entered only by those fulfilling such a condition, I know that I should be unhappy there. It was not the prospect of being deprived of money, keys, wallet, letters, books, long-playing records, drinks, the opposite sex, and other solaces of my adulthood that upset me, but having to put up indefinitely with the company other children, their noise, their nastiness, their boasting, their back-answers, their cruelty, their silliness. Until I began to meet grown-ups on more or less equal terms, I fancied myself a kind of Ishmael. The realisation that it was not people I disliked but children was for me one of those celebrated moments of revelation comparable to reading Haeckel or Ingersoll in the last century. The knowledge tht I should never (except by a deliberate act of folly) get mixed up with them again more than compensated for having to earn a living.
It is difficult not to agree with that. I remember my own childhood at a boarding school from the age of eight onwards - and later at another larger establishment - only too vividly to be able honestly to deny that children en masse can be, and often are, both barbarous and utterly selfish; and Jesus must have known this, for every child discovers it sooner or later. Equally plainly, when he said that unless we became like little children, we could not enter the Kingdom of God, he was not suggesting that we should all start being beastly to each other all over again like fractious children; and Philip Larkin must have realised perfectly well that Jesus was not likening the kingdom of God to a Primary School playground during a mid-morning break. He was pointing to some other characteristic of little children which we should all emulate, if we want to enter the Kingdom of God: a characteristic natural to all small children. So what was it?
I think that the answer to that question was most vividly and agonisingly made plain in that desperate photograph of little James Bulger being led away with his hand trustingly in that of his killer. Wasn’t it the sheer trustingness of that small hand that shattered the nation, as it watched on television, knowing how appallingly that trust was to be betrayed by events? I think so. Certainly, whatever else you may say about little children - and you can say both good things and bad things about them - the one thing which they all do is trust; above all, trust their parents, unless and until they are given reason not to do so by having their trust abused. Indeed, the trustworthiness of their parents is a bedrock upon which their lives are founded. Knowing that their father or their mother is there and available when needed, children can explore the latent possibilities of being alive, ignoring their parents’ presence and being as naughty, wilful, and impossible to control as they like; but when they fall down and hurt themselves, when some other child bullies them, when they get lost, and in a thousand-and-one other moments of crisis or fear or bewilderment, they run to one or other of their parents with their chins wobbling and their arms raised up in a display of total and unquestioning trust, to be picked up, hugged, loved, and comforted.
So must we learn from them to trust. it is a tall order; but if we want to enter the Kingdom of God here and now - and this is what Jesus seems to have been talking about - as a foretaste of life in that kingdom hereafter, we must learn to trust God, as a little child trusts its parents. I am not advocating the kind of sentimental and mawkish approach to children, as is so often displayed by the worst kind of B-movies produced in Hollywood and elsewhere.
Children are as full of the seeds of original sin - of selfishness, self-assertion, and self-idolatry - as we are full of their lethal fruits after a life-time, in which the seeds have had time to germinate, grow into luxurious plants, and fructify.
Children are enchanting and impossible, utterly lovable in their vulnerability and utterly savage sometimes in their unthinking treatment of other children; but while they remain little children, the one thing they never fail to do of their own accord is to trust in the love and care of their fathers and mothers. The challenge of the Christian faith is to bid us to vest a similar trust in the love and care of God, and to learn, not only to run to him when we are in trouble, but to walk through life with our hand held in his almighty hand, and thus to enter into his kingdom and know something of its peace.