My daughter is in kindergarten, and we had the following conversation last night:
Sophia: In school we were making these leaves, and we had to put things that we were thankful for. Everyone else was just putting their family. But I didn’t.
Me: Oh? What did you put?
Sophia: I just put Jesus. Our family is TOO BIG.
Me (a little taken aback): It is? Do you really think our family is too big?
Sophia: Yeah! It has alllllll these people in it!
Me (thinking, “Rash words from child number six!”): Well, which person do you think is extra in our family?
Sophia: The new baby. Yeah, the new baby is definitely extra.
Me: (really kind of stunned now, because this kid loves babies): Sophia. Are you telling me that you wish we had a smaller family?
Sophia (stunned herself): NO!
Me: Well . . . why do you say our family is too big, then?
Sophia: BECAUSE WE DIDN’T ALL FIT ON THE LEAF! So that’s why I put Jesus. It’s hard to draw God. But He fits on the leaf.
So, that was a relief. She hadn’t suddenly turned all ZPG on me; she was just trying to deal, at a crayon level, with a very familiar problem: what to do when your logistical capacities can’t handle what your higher self knows? What’s a flesh-and-soul creature to think, when we know we don’t belong in this world—and yet we love it so? The things we treasure the most don’t always fit on the leaf. We’re hybrids, and don’t feel comfortable anywhere.
Even thoroughly secular people seem to bump up against this flesh-vs.-spirit dilemma around Thanksgiving time, and everywhere you see that familiar half-guilty scramble to put aside all the material trappings of the holiday and remember, for a moment, something larger, less fleshly, more spiritual. So we pay lip service to gratitude for a minute, and then put our lips to their other main work: eating pie.
But this is why I love being Catholic: most days, there is no real reason to make a sharp distinction between the two.
At a certain age, my kids have each come to me, a little worried because eternity with God sounds so darn boring. They know Heaven won’t really be fluffy clouds and golden harps, like a combination of Care-a-lot City and the longest rosary ever; but they can’t really figure out what else it might possibly be like. Will there be Snickers bars in Heaven? How about Mario Kart? If not, how good could it possibly be?
As with so many other aspects of partenting, these conversations are all about walking that fine line: we want to let them know that we are not made for this world. We shouldn’t get too comfortable here: it’s fitting to feel restless and hungry in a life that can’t satisfy us, because our bodies will die but our souls will not.
On the other hand, we don’t want them to feel bad for loving the things of this world. That’s how we’re made, too: to enjoy what we have, while simultaneously remembering that our very enjoyment points to the future. Everything that is good comes from God, and it pleases Him when we both relish what He’s given us (even things like Snickers bars), and show that we’re ready to trust Him when it’s time to move on, to seek the things that make worldly pleasure look like mere shadows.
My kindergartener was right. Our family is too big, and doesn’t fit—but God does (even if He’s hard to draw). Our life here is so messy, too big, too full of yearning and unfulfillable desires, cramped and burdened with the pull and strife of flesh and spirit, gratitude and yearning, pleasure and desire.
But on that night in Nazareth, this flesh-and-spirit dilemma is resolved.
Somehow, for some reason, in the strangest, most glorious, most unmerited gift, Alpha and Omega can be written in crayon on a leaf—or in a small, round Host—or in a manger. In the Christ Child, what do we have? The very embodiment of potentiality—a needy, voiceless, newborn baby—and at the same time, the accomplishment of the union of Heaven and earth. Right there, right in the manger, is all that we should desire, and all that we have already been given.
This is why it is good to say “thank you” at this time of year: because Christmas is coming. It makes perfect sense to begin with gratitude for what we have, and then to move on to preparing for what we are about to receive: the miracle of the Incarnation. Because of it, God is not too big.