Taking a Child by the Hand

SCRIPTURES & ART: The 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year B)

James Tissot (1836-1902), “Jesus and the Little Child”
James Tissot (1836-1902), “Jesus and the Little Child” (photo: Public Domain)

Last week, we reached the midpoint of Mark’s Gospel, the Gospel that has occupied pride of place in the Sunday readings this year. Up until now, Mark has put a lot of emphasis of how Jesus establishes his identity (which he constantly enjoins his disciples not to disclose prematurely, i.e., before the Resurrection), especially by miracles. (The Eucharistic interlude in late July/August came from John). In Mark, Jesus now shifts to teaching, especially pointing to his Passion, Death and Resurrection.

Jesus’ path demands humility: “Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at. Rather, he emptied himself …” (Philippians 2:6-7). It is clearly on display in this week’s Gospel where, again, Jesus is stressing the necessity of his Passion, Death and Resurrection. He had already noted the necessity of his Suffering, Death, and Resurrection last week, and Peter earned a rebuke for trying to divert him from it. Jesus instead repeated the necessity for his disciples of self-denial and following the way of the cross.

That self-emptying, that kenosis, stands in sharp contrast to the attitude of the Apostles, whom we learn today have been debating among themselves who was the greatest, who was most important. We got a taste of this in last Sunday’s artwork, where I suggested that the Apostles who witnessed Peter’s rebuke in Hole’s painting might have enjoyed a bit of Schadenfreude in seeing Peter taken down a peg.

This week it’s their turn.

Jesus has just reiterated the necessity of his being poured out on the Cross and the Apostles are jockeying for position. Peter got a straightforward rebuke. This time, the Apostles get an object lesson. (St. Paul later “gets it” — see 2 Timothy 4:6).

Jesus takes a child and insists that welcoming a child is like welcoming him. 

Our society sometimes gets maudlin about children, a sentiment not unknown in the saccharine religious art (especially from the Romantic period: see here) depicting today’s Gospel scene. Our sentiments toward children are somewhat divided, given the flight from childbearing in modern Western societies as well as the Anglo-Saxon preference for children to be seen and not heard. If we really loved children as much as we claim to, would we really be ending the lives of more than 40 million a year worldwide by abortion?

That’s why I chose this painting by 19th-century French artist James Tissot. Tissot has been regularly featured in these discussions about Scripture and art because of his prolific depictions of scenes from the life of Christ, generally faithful to the scenery of the Holy Land which he visited in the 1880s and 1890s. 

The painting exhibits the typical color palette Tissot employs when depicting his Holy Land scenes, with a predominance of stone and of white, gray, and dark colors. Jesus is at the center, the seated teacher. He holds a child protectively; the child clings to him. The child both wants and feels secure. He sits on the third set of a courtyard — his disciples stand at the first step. Are they ready to ascend his teaching?

The Apostles and listeners are gathered in front of him. Five have downcast faces, suggesting both their grasp of the teaching and their recognized deficiencies after examining themselves in that teaching’s light. Most avert their eyes; all fold their hands. 

A sixth Apostle, looking equally disappointed in himself, braces himself on the wall, looking out at the viewer and thus drawing him into both the scene and the question. Two people sit in the background with their backs turned: passers-by on the scene, or disciples even more rejecting of the teaching? A lake and a fishing boat appear through the half-opened gate, common elements in the lives of these self-inflated fishermen. 

I personally find it interesting that Tissot places this lesson in a stone courtyard. Many artists have often depicted this scene in a more open countryside (like Benjamin West), often under a tree (like William Blake). Without suggesting it was Tissot’s intention, could it also be that the artist’s depiction is prophetic? The readiness to “welcome a little child” is increasingly a stumbling block to many contemporary people, a rock on which they falter.

Just consider the reception of the teaching of Humanae vitae. Openness to life, readiness to welcome a child, is not a feature of contemporary culture. Sure, we confess every Sunday that the Holy Spirit is “the Lord and Giver of life,” but we in fact act as if God’s gift of life must meet our approval, must pass muster with us. Our contraceptive culture makes that clear.

Parenthood is increasingly a phenomenon in which human beings seek to play God, whether in deciding if a child is to be, how a child is to be, and whether a child will live. Is Jesus’ question about our readiness to “welcome a child” not just directed at his Apostles’ ambitions, but at the worldview of today’s people who call themselves his followers?

Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris once commented how much he liked a modern French pop song by Yves Duteil, “Prendre un enfant,” “To Receive a Child.” The lyrics speak about taking a child by the hand, receiving a child into one’s arms and, above all, taking a child into one’s heart. “Take a child for a king … Take a child as he comes … Take a child for his own.” Not for my parental ambitions, not for anything else than the gift of God that he is, in a real sense, an alter Christus we are called to receive.

That’s why I chose this painting. I know some will look at the Church with a kind of j’accuse attitude, and in some sense they’re right: ecclesiastical sex scandals suggest we have not received some children as we would have received Christ (unless we are into sacrilegious reception of Jesus). But, that admitted, the evisceration of the understanding of Catholic parenthood also suggests a commonplace refusal on the part of many laypeople to accept the children God continues to offer.

Jesus presents the child, who is safe in his hands. Will that child be safe in our hands? Will his followers measure up to the challenge of “welcoming” that child as they claim to welcome him? Will they welcome the child as they would welcome the one who sent Jesus, the Father from whom “all fatherhood in heaven and on earth takes its name” (Ephesians 3:15)? Or do they need to hang their heads a little as they compare their innermost thoughts with what Jesus is asking them to do? Are they willing to step up to Jesus’ level, along those hard stone steps? Or are they encountering their own stumbling blocks and are their hearts as rocky as the environment of this painting?