Consider the neediness of a child. Throughout Christ’s entire adult ministry we see that he retains this disposition as a daily reality: he depends on the financial contributions of the women who travel with him (Luke 8:1–3); he has no place to lay his head (Matthew 8:20); indeed, there is no pillow even for his final sleep, and had it not been for the tomb donated by Joseph of Arimathea, Christ would have been buried in a criminals’ pit. How similar all of this is to Jesus’ infancy, when a humble stable proved to be his first home. And just as he was swaddled as a baby by his mother Mary, so he would be swaddled by her after his death.
What of the Passion itself, in which Christ was led, like a child, where he “wouldst not” (John 21:18)? In every moment of his Passion he exhibited the vulnerability of childhood. He pleaded with his Father before his death, asking not to die while freely submitting to the Spirit’s illumination of God’s will. In his confrontation with Pilate, he refused to claim his rightful throne in the manner of the kings of this world, and was instead robed in scorn and crowned with thorns. In the end, he returned to the nakedness of his first days. Behold Christ the child.
Our Lord is truly meek and mild—and hidden like so many children who go unnoticed by us. His most obscure birth would be matched by an equally shrouded rebirth, his barely noted resurrection. Christ remains the invisible child in his ascended reign, concealed in the church’s sacraments and awaiting our response to his grace.
It should therefore come as no surprise that when we seek to encounter Christ today, we find him chiefly in the needy and helpless of this world. The Christ we meet in the vulnerable is the child Christ and none other. The hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, prisoners, refugees, the sick, and, of course, children themselves—all these carry in their bodies the vulnerability and dependency that never leave us, the openness to wounds and to love that is the privilege and risk of the child.
Children may be weak, helpless, needy, but they are not quiet: they demand the love that rightly belongs to them, the care, the affection, the embrace that will satisfy their small but capacious hearts. This cry of the Christ child is the weakness of God that St. Paul speaks of, and we are reminded of it every day by all the sorrows and disasters that befall us without heaven’s interference. Some of these take place on the world stage, others in the smaller theaters of our own communities: spouses divorcing, children abused and neglected, jobs lost, friends suffering from chronic illnesses that suffuse every conscious moment with pain—all these will not be overcome by the strong God, the God who storms in and brings justice to the brokenhearted in one fell swoop. I want my God to make bread from these stones, these stumbling blocks placed everywhere in life’s path. And yet my prayers for myself and for those I love rarely effect the visible change I desire. To claim God’s weakness is ultimately to own the inefficiency of a child in God’s providential ways.
Yet children can also break our hearts. And when our hearts break, the hardened soil is prepared to receive the good news of ultimately victorious love, which the Sower casts far and wide. If we come near to the suffering Christ child in our midst, if we pick him up and hold him, he will water our hearts with his tears; up will grow the fruits of faith, hope, and love. And if we, as the Christmas hymn invites us, “come to own him” this season, he will come to own us too, and we will know his strength—the strength of a child who grasps us by the neck and will not let us go.