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Welcoming the Emmanuel we know well


“You have very truly remarked that if we are to reach true peace in the world ... we shall have to begin with children. ... [W]e shall go from love to love and peace to peace, until at last all corners of the world are covered with that peace and love for which, consciously or unconsciously, the whole world is hungering.”

-- From a letter from Mahatma Gandhi to Maria Montessori

The celebration of Christmas revolves around an elemental life experience, the birth of a child. We believe the birth of the Christ Child is unique (though I know many an ordinary firstborn who’s been heralded -- if not by angels, by brand new moms, dads, grandparents and such -- as God’s gift to the world). What can this humble birth to a poor family in the Middle East say to us today? How might we connect the way Mary and Joseph welcomed their child with the ways we welcome children?

In many ways our world is hostile to children. They’re assaulted by a media-retail complex with advertising directed at the Barney set. Even on public television one sees light and sweet ads from sponsors such as Baby Gap and Juicy Juice. My three-year-old could recognize them practically before she learned to speak.

I can’t bear to think about the other ways children are victimized by individuals and systems. Many are forced to care for themselves as parents work to make ends meet, or they suffer from being warehoused in schools and day cares, or they’re neglected or abused by caretakers, or they grow up too soon in a world that doesn’t know how to teach children that sexual activity is not equivalent to adulthood or independence.

In other cultures the systems may be different but the victimization is similar. Girls in some African cultures are genitally mutilated in the name of tradition and family honor. Irish children are killed by bombs, and Iraqi children starve or die from treatable illnesses because the adults running the show can’t resolve political differences. Egyptian, Malaysian, Indian, Pakistani children work in sweatshops for a pittance instead of having freedom to discover their gifts, to learn, to play, to dream, to ask, “What will I be when I grow up?”

Kids in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia get high on glue and paint and sell their bodies because there is nothing else for them to do and no way to support themselves. Young boys and girls are traded as sex slaves in an evil black market in Europe. Chinese daughters are aborted because they are considered less preferable than sons in a society with a restrictive family-planning policy.

These signs of our times are wounds crying for healing. But unlike my 3-year-old who scrapes her knee, a kiss and a Band-Aid will not work. We must work and pray for conversion of hard hearts and unjust structures that don’t respect the spirits of children, for a world that welcomes children for who and what they are, not little adults, not responsibilities, accessories, burdens or namesakes, but as God with us.

There are lots of things we can do -- refuse to buy from sweatshops, volunteer to help children, give money to charitable organizations that support children.

Most important, we can love the children in our own lives. Be patient with them. Stop yelling. Praise them. Compliment them not on their appearance but on good behavior or good work or good effort.

I would like to thank those who offer signs of hope for the children and for our world. I would like to thank all adoptive parents, especially those who welcome children who are rejected or neglected in their home countries. I know many couples, gay and straight, who have welcomed children from China, Korea, Peru, Guatemala, Russia and Romania. It seems to me that there is less ego and even more unconditional love involved in adopting children than bearing them. I love my children for who they are, but if I am gut-level honest with myself, I also am gratified when they reflect me.

I thank those who work on behalf of children, those who run and volunteer with crisis nurseries and family shelters. I thank the people who operate good quality day-care centers or homes. I thank the teachers who don’t give up on the difficult or hard-to-love kids, who recognize potential and nurture it, and who in an average week spend more waking time with our children than we do. I thank all the anonymous individuals who care about children and take time to give even one child attention and guidance.

Mary, mother of God, and Joseph, adoptive parent extraordinaire, loved and raised the child Jesus, allowing him to be as fully human and fully divine as he was intended to be. Because they loved him well, he grew up to fulfill his mission here on earth as Emmanuel.

This Christmas, we herald once again that peace and love for which, consciously or unconsciously, the whole world hungers. I pray that we recognize Emmanuel in our children all year long.

Kris Berggren lives in Minneapolis.

National Catholic Reporter, December 18, 1998