This Sunday marks the annual Christmas play by the children and youth of Forest Home. It is a time when those smaller in stature have a chance to shine light on the kingdom of God for those older. Well Jesus did say, “The kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Luke 18:16). So we gladly learn from what they say, how they say it, and their manner of “flocking to Jesus.” Our children are precious. They naturally help us appreciate that Jesus was once a child Himself, as were we all. Now it is possible that Jesus could have appeared among the human race instantly and full grown, but he did not. He fully embraced our whole humanity, which meant living our infancy and childhood.
This is a marvelous act of the Lord’s Incarnation as God with us. Jesus redeems and affirms our humanity as created in the image of God—which is most deeply the image of the Lord Jesus. Humanity as God’s image bearer means every human is a creature of great value and worth. In the ancient pagan world, the Christian understanding was remarkable and revolutionary, particularly in regards to the value of children. We are so steeped in good Jewish-Christian teaching that we have trouble even imagining a time in world history that children were not held in high esteem. Yet being a child in the first century Roman world was fraught with danger. This is because “exposure of unwanted female infants and deformed male infants was legal, morally accepted, and widely practiced by all social classes in the Greco-Roman world” (Rodney Stark, summarizing the data).
Illustrating this is the famous 1 B.C. letter written from Hilarion to his wife Alis telling her he must remain in Alexandria, Egypt. They are expecting the birth of a child, about whom Hilarion makes this request: “I ask you and entreat you, take care of the child, and if I receive my pay soon, I will send it up to you. Above all, if you bear a child and it is male, let it be; if it is female, cast it out.” “Casting out” refers to the common practice of infanticide, leaving unwanted infants outside and exposed, often in the garbage dump. We find this picture highly offensive and even nauseating, yet it was a “normal” everyday occurrence in the pagan world.
Why did infanticide largely stop in Western culture? This is due to the influence of a Christian understanding of the dignity of each person as created in the image of God. Significant too is how the Christian God actually dwelled among us, first of all as an infant child, lying in a manger. Christianity as a culture of life eventually overcame the pagan culture of death. By not killing their own, there were more and more Christians whose lives were truly salt and light to those around them. Children in general began to be treated with a wondrous and fitting dignity.
Stopping infanticide is not the only way followers of Christ affirmed the value of children. From early on, Christians took in abandoned children and raised them as their own. They were soon building orphanages and using monasteries for orphan care. Not surprisingly early Christians offered a culture of life in stark contrast to a weary paganism that encouraged sexual promiscuity, adulterous relations, and widespread abortion.
Closer to our own time, another Christian affirmation of the value of children took place with the introduction of child labor laws. The Industrial Revolution of the 1800s saw the exploitation of children to work overlong and grueling hours in coal mines, chimneys, and factories. The impetus for improvement and change came from socially minded Christians like William Wilberforce, and especially in this area, Anthony Ashley Cooper, known as Lord Shaftesbury (1801-85). Like Wilberforce with slavery, Shaftesbury worked for years in England’s Parliament to pass bills to address child labor concerns. The Factory Act of 1833 was the first of several laws resulting from Shaftesbury’s tireless efforts for children.
Christians today have similar challenges in affirming the Jesus-given-value of children, for our society is now influenced by a powerful “infatuation with paganism” that is uninformed and forgetful of the many gains in human dignity made possible by the influence of the Christian worldview. But Christians know from whence they’ve come and where they are going. And we have solid reasons to enjoy and affirm the value of those smallest among us. Because of Jesus’ creative redemption among us that began in a manger, the arrival of a newborn child has been called over time, “a bundle of joy.” Let us rejoice in Jesus’ coming, His redemption, and His culture of life touching even, and especially, our children. Lord Jesus may you compete your work in us. Come Lord Jesus. LH