Suffer the little children!

Sometimes we think that is what is required of us. That we need to suffer the noise and fidgeting and inconvenience of having little children in the Liturgy with us. We are trying hard to concentrate and to be in a prayerful state, while little children are moving about and making a disturbance and asking questions at the wrong time. Why don’t they all go to the Crying Room? Isn’t that what it is for? To allow us to worship in peace and quiet as God intended?

Of course when we read Matthew 19:14, the words “Suffer the little children”, don’t mean this at all. In a more modern English translation our Lord’s words say,

Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.

I return to this this theme often, because it is important to me and should be important to us all. This commandment of the Lord has three aspects.

i. Let the little children come to me… The situation was not so different in Palestine in the first century. There were many people who wanted to see Jesus and speak to him, and it seemed reasonable to the Disciples that they should send the women and their small children away so that the adults could have some serious time with Jesus. But he stops them in their tracks. The Disciples were already telling the mothers that they should have more respect, that they should keep their children quiet, that this was not the time and place for them. But the Lord Jesus stops them. Let the little children come to me.

He says this to us still. Let the little children come to me. And we should make it our concern to be obedient to his command. He desires that these little ones be brought close to him, and he desires that our own little ones come to enjoy being in the Liturgy where he is present, and that they also participate in the communion and receive union with him by grace. They do not belong anywhere else. There is no special place for children in the Liturgy other than with the Church to which they belong in the presence of their own God and Father. Let the little children come to me.

ii. Do not hinder them… The Lord warns us elsewhere of the penalty for placing a stumbling block in the way of one of these little ones. Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to fall away—it would be better for him if a heavy millstone were hung around his neck and he were drowned in the depths of the sea. How hinder them? It is surely when we send them away, or when we fail to support and encourage their parents so that they feel obliged to leave the worship of the Church. It is when we prevent these little ones from participating in their own way in the life of the Church in the divine presence. Do not hinder them. We have good intentions. But our children belong with us in the Liturgy. There is nowhere else that they should be. A distressed little infant may well need to be settled outside briefly. But the ordinary and excited noise of a little child, learning to worship God, is no cause for their exclusion.

iii. The Kingdom of God belongs to such as these… This is not saying that it belongs to adults who become like children in some sense, but it doesn’t really belong to little children. On the contrary, it already belongs to little children, and they need no excuse or permission to enter into God’s presence in the Liturgy. It is we older people who are struggling to prepare ourselves for the worship of the Church. The kingdom belongs to these little ones, and when we exclude them then it seems to me that we exclude Christ himself. These children are already in his Kingdom, and where they are he is, and where he is, they are. It is the little child who believes without doubt. It is the little child who is innocent in all his ways. It is the little child who kisses the cross and the icons with unrestrained devotion.

Rather than sending these little children away, we should be seeking to learn from them. There is nothing more precious to me in my priesthood than to give the communion of the Body and Blood to a little child. These beloved ones are not a problem that needs to be solved, but a gift to be welcomed and cherished. The worship of a small child is most precious in the eyes of the Lord. It is their simple prayer and devotion which God hears and which draws down his mercy upon us, stained with sin and burdened by weakness.

Be sure, a parent is already helping their child to be attentive and participate in the worship. Our stern and disapproving glances do not help, and every child sent out of the congregation by such attitudes, represents Christ himself leaving our gathering together. Is there a little noise and disturbance. Rejoice! This is the sign of life in our Church, and the love of God who gives such precious gifts to us in these infants. These are not someone else’s problem but they are the children of us all. What can WE do to help support a young family with a little infant. How can we be truly Uncles and Aunts, older Brothers and Sisters to these. We have not gathered for a performance in a concert hall, where silence is required. But we are the family of God, the Body of Christ, and each one of us, whether a new born baby or the oldest uncle or aunt, belongs here together with all.

If there is a little noise then pray harder. Do not blame others for your lack of attention and concentration. And if you find frustration and irritation in your heart then confess your own sin and do not blame others. Nor is this an excuse for chaos in the Church. Older children should have learned how to behave and how to participate. My concern here is for the youngest, the little children, of whom our Lord commands us… Let the little children come to me.

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