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As a father awaiting the debut of baby number two, I find that childhood is much on my mind these days. Thus it occurred to me recently: Isn’t it odd that we have a childhood in the first place? Why should we not all emerge into being fully matured, like Adam and Eve? (It would certainly save on diapers!) Why does God make it part of each person’s life to be small and frail and helpless, with no knowledge of the world?
Usually with such questions about natural things, the answer resides above nature. So many aspects of our natural lives have a spiritual meaning or a supernatural analogue that is not always evident to us. Consider the sacraments. Each of these supernatural moments has a natural companion: We have our natural birth, and we have our spiritual rebirth in baptism; we have our earthly food, and we have our heavenly nourishment in the Eucharist. The natural and supernatural mirror each other.
Likewise, there is a spiritual lesson to be learned from the fact of our childhood, and it is this: Human beings are completely and utterly dependent on God. As with most spiritual lessons, it is something we ought to know already, but we usually require a refresher. Childhood reminds us that every shred of our existence is contingent upon the generous goodness of God. We did not create ourselves. We did not create the world. We did not bring ourselves into being, or choose what we would be like, or choose what would be good for us. All of these are gifts of God.
Children do not begin knowing about the world around them, but have to be taught and led through the experiences of their lives. Children are completely dependent upon their parents and their families, just as all human beings throughout their life are dependent upon God. We all of us, always, need God, like children.
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This truth is clear in Scripture. When Jesus says that we must receive the kingdom of God as little children (Luke 18:17), or when he says that God knows better than any human parent what is good for us (Matthew 7:11); when St. Paul says that we are to be adopted sons and daughters of God (Romans 8:17), or when he says that God the Father is the one from whom every family is named (Ephesians 3:15)—all of these speak to the fact of our dependence upon God, the dependence of a child upon a parent. And this relationship is perfected when we are incorporated into Christ and share in His sonship.
There is another relationship in the Church that is analogous to a parent and a child. We call God our father, but we also call the Church our mother. The Church gives birth to us as Christians, leading us into the Christian communion, forming us in the faith, and dispensing the sacraments to us. The Church instructs us with true doctrine, nourishes us with the Eucharist and the other sacraments, and accompanies us through our lives. Some bristle at the idea of the authority and motherhood of the Church, but as St. Cyprian of Carthage said, “no one can have God for a father who will not have the Church for a mother.”
My own childhood is a hazy memory, but when I look at my son (and soon when I look at my daughter), I see how totally and completely he needs me—and how I want nothing more than to give him everything. In my love for my children, there is some pale imitation of the love of God for us all; and in their dependence upon me, I am reminded that I should receive God in the manner of a newborn baby: with complete and utter openness, because I need Him to live.