“Suffer the little children to come to me ...”
All his life, G. K. Chesterton showed a love for children and the joys of childhood. Although he and his wife Frances were unable to have any of their own, they regularly entertained neighbors’ and friends’ children. Frances wrote poems and plays (especially Christmas plays) for them to read and to perform, which are still delightful today. G.K. wrote poems and made drawings of fantastical creatures for them, and loved to get down on his knees and play with them, as well. (One enthusiastic child startled his parents afterward with this report: “You should have been there to see Mister C. catch buns in his mouth!”)
The foregoing serves as background and an introduction to a remarkable observation which G. K. Chesterton makes about Jesus’ attitude towards children, as notably described in each of the three synoptic Gospels, for instance, in Mark chapter 10:
10:13 Now people were bringing little children to him for him to touch, but the disciples scolded those who brought them. 10:14 But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me and do not try to stop them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 10:15 I tell you the truth, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” 10:16 After he took the children in his arms, he placed his hands on them and blessed them.
(See also Mt 19:13-15 and Lk 18:15-17.)
Chesterton, like no earlier commentator of whom I am aware, points out just how remarkable these sentiments were for Jesus’ time and place. No one in the first century would have understood, or even have been capable of imagining, how children could possibly be superior to adults—especially in matters of religion. In chapter 3 of Part II of The Everlasting Man, Chesterton writes:
The exaltation of childhood is something which we do really understand; but it was by no means a thing that was then in that sense understood. If we wanted an example of the originality of the Gospels we could hardly take a stronger or more startling one. Nearly two thousand years afterwards we happen to find ourselves in a mood that does really feel the mystical charm of the child; we express it in romances and regrets about childhood, in Peter Pan or The Child’s Garden of Verses. And we can say of the words of Christ with so angry an anti-Christian as Swinburne:—
‘No sign that ever was given / To faithful or faithless eyes
Showed ever beyond clouds riven / So clear a paradise.
Earth’s creeds may be seventy times seven / And blood have defiled each creed,
But if such be the kingdom of heaven / It must be heaven indeed.’
But that paradise was not clear until Christianity had gradually cleared it. The pagan world, as such, would not have understood any such thing as a serious suggestion that a child is higher or holier than a man. It would have seemed like the suggestion that a tadpole is higher or holier than a frog. To the merely rationalistic mind, it would sound like saying that a bud must be more beautiful than a flower or that an unripe apple must be better than a ripe one.
In other words, this modern feeling is an entirely mystical feeling. It is quite as mystical as the cult of virginity; in fact it is the cult of virginity. But pagan antiquity had much more idea of the holiness of the virgin than of the holiness of the child. For various reasons we have come nowadays to venerate children, perhaps partly because we envy children for still doing what men used to do; such as play simple games and enjoy fairy-tales. Over and above this, however, there is a great deal of real and subtle psychology in our appreciation of childhood; but if we turn it into a modern discovery, we must once more admit that the historical Jesus of Nazareth had already discovered it two thousand years too soon. There was certainly nothing in the world around him to help him to the discovery. Here Christ was indeed human; but more human than a human being was then likely to be. Peter Pan does not belong to the world of Pan but the world of Peter.
This is just one of the ways, Chesterton notes, in which Jesus spoke for all times, and not just as a man of his own time and place. And for just such a reason, he concludes, we may know that Jesus was (and is) “the way, the truth, and the life.”
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