What Child is This? Coming to Terms with an Avoidant Advent

Let’s see if I can do this.

As we near the end of Advent, I find myself enmeshed in what has become a perennial bout; a fierce grappling between a primal force inside me and the wondrous onslaught of the season. Something must give.

I took our dog for a late afternoon walk last week, venturing into the already-dark Chicago chill. As we made our way onto the nearby campus, we passed through a dim corridor between the theater and art museum. My dog bounded back and forth straining against her leash, sniffing and scanning frantically for the rabbits she knows frequent these lawns and hedges, while I was enacting my own thrashing struggle, albeit an invisible one.

My soul was a gurgling cauldron of complaints: that overwhelming project, that unforeseen ordeal, that irreconcilable strife, my impenetrable mental fog, and the intolerable sense of being unknown and misunderstood in it all. Flapping in the wind.

They were mini tantrums, really: “It’s not fair!” And I was suddenly conscious of their juvenile quality. I walked further, through the nearly vacant quadrangles, and my meditations converged momentarily with Advent. I heard myself whisper, “What child is this?”

This surprised – no, intrigued me. It had the hallmarks of a divine encounter demanding my attention.

This phrase is, of course, a lyric from the William Chatterton Dix poem we have come to cherish in its eponymous carol form. For Dix, the child in question is none other than “Christ the King,” and it is our loving privilege to greet and guard, laud and lavish, own and enthrone. Or else, with Mary, gather this child to our laps, where he may rest and slumber. The child is holy and the child is lovely, and it is imperative to prepare him room. The child in question during my wintery ruminations was none other than me. Could an akin loving privilege be thus in order?

Advent startles us with the riddle “What child is this?” and, as I trekked through the windswept and solitary darkness, I was startled at the thought that Advent might have yet another child in view.

Pop psychology of the ’70s and ’80s introduced the idea of the “inner child” into our lexicon. Though the phrase was swept predictably into the disparagement reserved for such self-help terminology, it also contributed to development of trauma, reparenting, and internal family systems therapies. There was no denying this childlike figure, only how to rightly attend it.

It was Carl Jung who first proposed this child “lurking in every adult,” calling it “the eternal child” or even “the divine child”; an irrepressible child demanding “unceasing care, attention, and education.” Paul Simon referred to “the obvious child” and pled that we not deny it.

It is in desolate moments that this child becomes most obvious; it’s blaring squall no longer drown out.

The child, according to Jung, can be quite disruptive – incorrigible even! Paradoxically the child is both powerful and powerless (as most parents well know). The child holds the keys to our vitality, imagination, and wonder. The child is importunate and more than a little mischievous to the point of provoking this hallowed question in us all: “What child is this?” This question always has in tow an implicit concern, “What can this child need?”

The above picture was taken in 1979. It was the Christmas of my earliest recollection. I still recall the privilege of placing the star atop our tree, aided by the landing of our split-level Colorado home. The snow piled deep that Christmas, and I received the coveted Mattel “Shogun Warrior” Godzilla toy and a plush Snoopy to boot, both of which I still possess (in the case of Godzilla, only his projectile claw). I was 4 years-old and all was sublime wonder.

Less than one month later, my parents divorced.

Long before Jung, Jesus taught perplexing things about children. Once, amidst the self-important jockeying of his disciples, he “called a little child to him, and placed the child among them” and said,

Truly I say to you, unless you change and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. So whoever will humble himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  And whoever receives one such child in my name, receives me. (Mt. 18:3-5)

We must become like children, humble ourselves as children, and learn to gladly entertain all children in order to inhabit the kingdom.

Later, when his disciples barred children from his presence, Jesus became indignant, rebuking them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” (Mk. 10:14, Mt. 19:14, Lk. 18:16) As rendered in the King James, “Suffer the little children come unto me, and forbid them not.”

Many have sought definitive answers to Jesus’ meanings, ascribing all manner of virtue or essence to the young. These pronouncements usually ring hollow and conjectural to me. All I know for sure is that much takes place between what we call childhood and adulthood that makes us ever more closed off to this heavenly kingdom – dishonor, neglect, exclusion, or far worse. We are born helpless into a world swirling with curses. None go unscathed.

Singer-songwriter Michael David Rosenberg (known by his stage name Passenger) achingly captured this in his song “All the Little Lights”:

We’re born with millions
Of little lights shining in the dark
And they show us the way
One lights up, every time you feel love in your heart
One dies when it moves away

The song traces this wistful theme elegiacally,

Till we’re old and we’re cold
And we’re lying in the dark
‘Cause they’ll all burn out one day

While this is surely and sorely borne out in many a heart, Advent insists this needn’t be so! Advent places a divine child among us all that we might learn what to make of him, for the kingdom belongs to children; more so than it does to adults. Jesus says so plainly! We must refuse at all costs to drive children away, and nowhere is this more emphatic than in Bethlehem’s rustic manger.

Oh little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

But aren’t we appalled at our childishness; loath to admit immaturity, brattiness, neediness, or gullibility? My therapist had a habit of asking me a question, “Does that part of you feel young?” It would always make me bristle. He was on to something.

We learn to disregard all childish commotion, preoccupying ourselves with much adulting, anesthetizing through many diversions, displaying the No Vacancy shingle prominently. But the child will always return, and Advent bids us honor this child; connects honoring this child with receiving the Christ child and his kingdom. By avoiding our own “divine child” we avoid the Divine Child in the manger. What are we to do?

To begin, we must “change and become like little children.” Whatever this may involve, it certainly entails reckoning with those events that became curses in us. After all, “He comes to make His blessings flow / Far as the curse is found.” Our mini tantrums are distress signals; transmissions from still-cursed regions of our souls. We must go inhabit these discordant regions, faithfully publishing words of blessing and peace!

Many a curse is stealthily invoked against us throughout our childhood. Do we remember Herod’s chilling request? “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” (Mt. 2:8) Do we recall the Apocalypse of John, and how “the dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born”? (Rev. 12:4) Having been thwarted, this relentless and cunning predator stalks the earth making war on all her children – even you and even me.

Every child constitutes a threat to dark regimes and, for this reason, every child pays a price. Advent will never deny this, but reminds us that our God is more relentless and cunning still!

The people walking in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
    a light has dawned.

For to us a child is born. (Is. 9:2, 6a)

If you are reading this, the child remains alive, and the story is far from over. The curse can still be lifted. As Martin Luther attests in reflecting on Isaiah’s words:

For this purpose Christ willed to be born, that through him we might be born anew… To you is born and given this child… see to it that you make this birth your own and that Christ be born in you. This will be the case if you believe, then you will repose in the lap of the virgin Mary and be her dear child.

If this requires belief then it also requires much humility. “Whoever will humble himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” What can this mean? For my part, it means owning this child and refusing to deny or be embarrassed by juvenile me. There is nothing wrong with being a baby; never has been and never will be. Nor a toddler, nor a child, nor an adolescent, nor a “harassed and helpless” human adult.

Does not Advent meet us at our most uncouth – immature and bratty and needy and naive, bawling for help in countless registers? This – this! – is Advent’s discordant wail. We are not ok, not by a long shot. What child is this? The Savior child whose birth was announced to the shepherds on those dark Judean slopes. What child is this? The truest part of you and me crying incessantly for a Savior.

Could it be that the inward expanse of the kingdom is proportional to the tenderness we afford this precious child, and that our aggrandizements are mere clutter in the space that might contain eternal furnishings? Could it be that the repose of a dearly beloved child is nothing short of a miracle? It is certainly an act of resistance!

Paul appealed on behalf of the Ephesian saints that God, “out of his glorious riches, may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being.” (Eph. 3:16) For what purpose did we need such supernatural internal strength?

…that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Eph. 3:17-19, emphasis added)

It’s hard to imagine anything more tantalizing and yet more terrifying than being flooded with such unalloyed love; our parched and shriveled inner beings cry for it with holy trepidation. We require an otherworldly strength and power to be on the receiving end of such love.

Attachment science suggests that all people develop attachment styles: neurologically-grooved reflexes for intimacy and connection. These can be secure, anxious, avoidant, or disordered. These styles determine our relationship to our neediness – the cries of our inner child – and constitute an educated wager as to how others might handle us in our needs. These styles are hedges against loss.

Of late, I’ve described me relationship to God as avoidant. If anything, Advent exacerbates this; all the pressure to feel it and get it right can be stifling. It has been, actually. This piece has been very hard to write. But I’ve been avoiding two Advent children all this time, the one in the manger and the one for whom the one in the manger came. Advent cannot acknowledge one with out the other; no child left behind. “Whoever receives one such child in my name, receives me.” I’m learning to accept that this “one such child” is oftentimes myself.

As mentioned earlier, Jung suggested our inner child required “unceasing care, attention, and education.” These three interplay in concert, I think, but Advent must always be a season of re-education. There is much to learn and unlearn!

What child is this? Of course Advent would have us exult, “This! This is Christ the King!” But Advent comes for the child in us also. Did not the child in Mary’s womb cause the child in Elizabeth’s womb to leap? Let us inhabit our childishness with Advent abandon, humble ourselves, and receive the heavenly kingdom by welcoming this child in Jesus’ name.

This is at least what I am attempting at present, if for no other reason than to honor the delight of that 4-year-old risking life and limb to place the Christmas star in it’s rightful place. He couldn’t know what all was coming, but I believe Advent came for him after all.

Advent means “to come,” does it not? May the child in you – no matter his or her manners – be permitted to come and be united with the Christ child; suffer them come together and never forbid them.

Amen.

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