This coming Saturday, December 6, is the Feast of Saint Nicholas of Myra, for whom Santa Claus is named. There are many wonderful stories and legends around this beloved Saint, who is the patron of sailors and of children. Of course, for those who observe this Feast in praying the Daily Office or in a eucharist service, we will instead read the lectionary readings appointed for the day. These are beautiful readings, and one could almost wish to hear the dramatic account of the shipwreck from the book of Acts. Instead, though, we’ll hear about the children.
The gospel reading is incredibly short, only three verses from the gospel of Mark:
People were bringing little children to Jesus in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
There is a story I used to tell, about my two kids when they were much younger, when they were still little children as Jesus talks about, before they had grown into jaded, cynical teenagers. And so I’ll share this story again, because it is perfect for Saint Nicholas, perfect for this little gospel passage.
Some years ago, the night before Thanksgiving, I had the most wonderful, most blessed, holiest communion in my life. My son R and my daughter B and I were sitting at the dining room table eating roast beast and mashed potatoes and fresh bread. Suddenly three-year-old B held up her bread and said, “Take, eat. This is my New Covenant.” Then she broke off a piece, put it in my hand, and said “The body of Christ, the bread of Heaven.” I ate the bread and felt a tugging on my other sleeve. Four-year-old R had broken off a piece of his bread, and he put it into my hand saying “The body of Christ, the bread of Heaven.”
I smiled at them and kissed them and said thank you. But they weren’t done. Little B picked up her cup of milk, held it up to my lips, and said, “The blood of Christ, the milk of salvation.” I took a sip, feeling more then a little awed at the very real presence of God in the room with us. Not to be outdone, R picked up his milk and offered me the cup the same way, and I solemnly sipped it.
In the silence that followed, I thought, there may not be a priest here. This table is covered not with pristine white linen but with a blue vinyl tablecloth with fishies swimming all over it. There isn’t a gleaming paten and chalice, but bright plastic plates and cups with hearts and cowboys on them. But God is here – right here! And I experienced the body of Christ in a way I never had before.
What happened next was no less awesome. Robbie and Becca turned their Eucharist into a game, offering each other the roast beef of Christ and the mashed potatoes of salvation, and then laughing in sheer delight at their childish cleverness. I let them continue for a time because they were not being irreverent or blasphemous, just little children. Finally I had to stop their game, because I was afraid they would choke on their dinner from laughter.
On reflection, this episode reminded me of this gospel story about Jesus and the little children. The disciples started to rebuke the parents who brought their children to Jesus for a blessing, but Jesus stopped them. Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it. It was not my place to hinder Robbie and Becca from coming to Jesus, even if the way they were doing it may seem sacrilegious or even blasphemous to some. In fact, they were helping me to see the kingdom of God through the eyes of a little child, and that is a priceless gift.
It is so easy to get caught up in the seriousness and busyness of our lives, even in the seriousness of our spirituality. But Jesus is telling us here that laughter and play are important – and not only important, but essential for us. He wants us to believe in a kingdom of joy, not a never-ending solemn sermon. God is not about all those serious adult things – rules and laws, rights and wrongs, taxes and tithes – important though they may be. God is about the things come so naturally to the little children. God is about joy and laughter, trust and hope, happiness and love. God is about bread and wine, and God is about mashed potatoes and roast beef. God is about the little child who still lives within each one of us.
So this is my prayer for us all, on the Feast of Saint Nicholas of Myra, who is the patron saint for these little children. May we never forget the little children we once were, the little children who still live in our hearts. May we continue to see our world and God’s kingdom through the eyes of a little child. May we make every meal a Eucharist, and may we never forget to rejoice as much in plastic tableware with cowboys and fishies as we do in the finest silver and china. And when the day comes, may God see those little children within us, and invite us to play forever in God’s kingdom.