Every Advent, my memory goes back to a moment when my son was six years old and our priest asked him if he would carry the Baby Jesus up the aisle on Christmas Eve.
I could tell how honoured he was to have been asked and, in a character trait forming for life, how much he was fretting about the task he'd just signed on for. He stuck close to my coat as we left the church and was silent for most of the trip home. Finally, he asked somberly: "Do we have a Baby Jesus at home? What am I going to bring instead if we can't find him?"
I reassured my son the church would provide the Baby Jesus, though I really wanted to tell him that he had already brought Christ anew to the Church by his open-hearted willingness to serve and his eagerness to bring whatever gift he could to God.
The explanation would have gone over his head, of course, but the moment never fails to open my eyes to the meaning of Matthew 18:3: "Verily, I say unto you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of Heaven."
In his delightful recollection of childhood Christmas in Saskatchewan, writer Alan Hustak reminds us that being like children—indeed being children—is not synonymous with a trouble-free, easy-peasy existence.
At the tender age of four, young Master Hustak found himself wrestling with the age-old conundrum of giving to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's. Or, to be more precise, of keeping to himself what he treasured even if that meant disobeying his grandfather and an enormous ceramic angel at the front of the church.
Most adults would bet on the angel in such a showdown, but that doesn't mean children always do. The iconic Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor tells of a game she invented as a child that she called Sock the Angel. It involved locking herself in a room alone, closing her eyes and swinging her fists wildly around in hopes of making a satisfying pugilistic connection with the jaw of the angel on her shoulder.
Yet it was also O'Connor who said, "Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days."
O'Connor, we know, did not trifle in information as mere data bits. Life's incessant stream of detail, her novels and short stories make explicit, matters ultimately only for its relation to Mystery—that is to Ultimate meaning.
And is not childhood the time in our lives, replicated perhaps only at the very end of life and at moments of deepest spiritual awareness, when meaning actually comes before information? Don't we, if we are Christians, know the crucial importance of a Baby Jesus even if we're unclear on the logistics of what a Baby Jesus is or where to find him?
If we have remained steadfast to our faith through our adult lives, don't we equally remember childhood as a time when we simply knew that the core truths of our faith were true without needing a theological instruction book on how?
Of course, as theologian Jason Zuidema notes in the second part of his Convivium series on religious communities in Canada, memory itself is notoriously fallible. He cites, as a case in point, his own vivid recollection of being present for an event that he later learned happened the day he was being born.
Yet Zuidema makes a persuasive case that the very fallibility of memory can, in fact, be its power provided we entwine it as an essential element of the trinity of meaning as Mystery. Monuments and markers to declining—dying—religious communities, he says, could easily be denigrated as self-serving, whole-cloth accounts of their respective histories. But they can more positively be received and celebrated as "proposals" to the remembrance of what those communities stood for.
"[T]hey will 'propose' memories of themselves that the surrounding culture can include in its own histories . . . These memories might have little to do with reality, but they have been grafted, for better or for worse, onto the narratives of what religious life means in our society," he writes.
Buddhist, writer, teacher and environmental activist Trevor Carolan echoes this theme of the narrative meaning of religious life for community. He recalls a moment in the 1990s when a multifaith coalition came together organically to protest offensive anti-Christian art being displayed at the publicly owned Vancouver Art Gallery.
Out of that came a friendship affiliation of the faith-based who have rallied together for a range of causes over the years. Or as Carolan puts it with a delicious turn of phrase: "Sometimes we just bump into each other at community festivals and share the laughter of comrades who've been through some stiff weather together."
Shared laughter of comrades who've been through stiff weather together: what a definition of community in 10 small words. Even if such comrades have never borne the Baby Jesus up the aisle of a church on Christmas Eve, surely they carry the meaning of Christ in their hearts and, as children, are not far from the kingdom.