Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.
Upon surveying the landscape of the Gospels, it is impossible not to marvel at the sweeping drama played out by its main actors. Towering saints and hopeless sinners, cruel despots and lamentable victims, all traverse the dusty roads of the backwater of empire. And at the heart of this swarm of activity—this bustling and gritty narrative—is the central figure and single-most consequential “event” in all of human history: the Presence, the God-Man, Jesus Christ.
Now, consider this.
If we take account of God coming to earth in material form—if we truly reckon with this incomprehensible fact—we cannot escape the one obvious conclusion: this event is indecipherably stunning. The Incarnation is simply too wondrous. As such, it is the province of mystery. But then we are left with the question: How are we to encounter the living yet unfathomable God in any meaningful way?
What softens the ineffability of this divine encounter is when people like you and me start schlepping into the story. Peter the Rock and Matthew the tax collector, Mary Magdalene the broken and John the disciple whom Jesus loved, Thomas the doubter and Judas the traitor. Each, in their unique way, bring their own (and incidentally our own) brokenness and hope, confusion and earnestness to their relationship with the Lord of the Universe. Like us, they worry and ask stupid questions. They plot and argue. They disbelieve and run away. They love and rest in his assurance. Moving further from Scripture, we encounter Augustine and Jerome, Thomas Aquinas and Catherine of Siena, John Henry Newman and Thérèse of Lisieux, who bring their gifts and their warts to the Creator of all things. To be sure, in this unparalleled drama, God is the main act, and these are his best-supporting actors and actresses.
But what of all the bit players, the extras, and the cast-offs in this sprawling narrative? What of all the “little ones” who are stepped over (or stepped on) in the midst of the swirling drama surrounding Christ?
Recently, I came across a poem from the Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney. Republished in London’s newspaper The Times, Miracle is a four-stanza epiphany. In the dead of night in 2006, Heaney awoke with a start to discover that he was incapable of moving his left side. Half-paralyzed and panicking, he recalls the deep sensitivity of a friend who was present when it happened, the medical team that gently carried him to the waiting ambulance, and holding the devoted hand of his lovely wife as he was raced to the hospital. Miracles is not about Heaney’s complete recovery or the brilliant physicians who attended to his ailing brain. Rather, it speaks about the nameless men who carried him down the stairs when his fear was at a fever pitch. He likened it to the forgotten men who strapped, carried, and engineered a way for their paralyzed friend to gain access (through a roof, no less) to the healing touch of Jesus. These were dear friends who troubled themselves to help a suffering mate. But, in the crush of crowds and the wonder of miracles, they are forgotten. And yet they are precisely the reason their friend had the opportunity to pick up his mat and walk. In Miracle, we are transported to witness the friends as they gazed down through the roof’s hole watching the miracle unfold. Heaney reminds us:
Be mindful of them as they stand and wait
For the burn of the paid-out ropes to cool,
Their slight lightheadedness and incredulity
To pass, those ones who had known him all along.
These men, even in the Bible, have been obscured—as little ones—by history. But our God is the God of all, especially of the little ones.
In a brilliant essay entitled Pray for Chekhov: Or What Russian Literature Can Teach Conservatives, Gary Saul Morson contrasts the mistaken notion of history by radicals and romantics against history’s proper understanding according to the Russian novelists Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, and Anton Chekhov. Morson writes:
Radicals and romantics picture life in terms of dramatic events. The ordinary incidents between crises are viewed as trivial or despised as bourgeois. Tolstoy and Chekhov believed the opposite: Life is lived at ordinary moments, and what is most real is what is barely noticeable, like the tiniest movements of consciousness.
Tolstoy explains with an anecdote: The painter Bryullov once corrected a student’s sketch. “Why you only touched a tiny bit,” the student remarked, “but it is quite a different thing.” Bryullov replied: “Art begins where that tiny bit begins.” Tolstoy concludes:
That saying is strikingly true not only of art but of all of life. One may say that true life begins where the tiny bit begins—where what seem to us minute and infinitely small alterations take place. True life is not lived where great external changes take place—where people move about, clash, fight, and slay one another. It is lived only where these tiny, tiny infinitesimally small changes occur.
Tolstoy’s novels describe the infinitesimal movements of consciousness, our smallest choices, and the mistakes we instantaneously forget but which the novel records: and that is one reason his novels are so long. In our brief lives, every instant matters. The Russian novel is so long because life is so short.
As William Blake would phrase it in a selection from Jerusalem (The Holiness of Minute Particulars),
Labour well the Minute Particulars: attend to the Little Ones;
And those who are in misery cannot remain so long,
If we do but our duty: labour well the teeming Earth . . .
He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars.
Our God is the God of the little ones. He is the God of Minute Particulars and small miracles. The lost sheep, the missing coin, the prodigal son—the small events and invisible people—are never lost to a loving, searching Father. Political platforms, ideologies, and secular philosophies of appetite and achievement, which promise an all-loving attentiveness to the least among us, fail just at the moment they begin wildly clamoring over “noteworthy” events and honored names.
But this is not our God.
For he is the God of the little ones. He speaks not to masses, but to the soul of each person. God attends to our hidden guilt and unrealized desires, our impossible hope and inexplicable recovery. He comforts us in the depths of loneliness and anonymity, and chastens us in the heights of honor and prestige. He advises us when we succeed, supports us when we limp, carries us when we fall. He fills in the cracks and attends to the Minute Particulars. In our utter complexity, he loves us in simplicity. And in our brokenness, he heals us to perfection.
In the narrative of Christ, you are not forgotten. I am not forgotten.
And we never will be.
Thanks be to God.
This piece was originally published on October 28, 2019 in the Word on Fire Blog.