‘Bless All the Dear Children in Thy Tender Care’

A girl with a nativity scene on Christmas Eve in La Paz, Bolivia, in 2004. (David Mercado/Reuters)
This is not a story about inevitability but a story about choice, a choice that it is not given to us to understand entirely.

If you have never learned to hate the human race but would really like to get started on that, try volunteer work. There is nothing quite like trying to help your fellow man to convince you that your fellow man is hot garbage piled high.

I once did some work with prisoners, which involves more or less the challenges you would expect. I am not an especially patient or naturally sympathetic man, and our prisons are full of conniving and dishonest lowlifes with a talent for trying what patience one has in the first two minutes of any encounter. I was not very helpful helping there. A friend who has worked with female prisoners found the women about as sympathetic as I found the men.

But food banks are the worst. Give me the murderers and burglars eight days a week over the people you meet at food banks. Nobody actually said, “Hurry up and give me that Christmas turkey — I’ve got heroin to procure and children to ruin!” but that’s pretty much what you hear all day, if you have ears to hear.

Some people are utterly resistant to the possibility of moral choice. Toward the end of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, the pitiless killer confronts a woman he means to murder, offering to flip a coin to give her a chance to save her life. She refuses to play his game. The coin doesn’t have any power, she tells him, but he does. The choice is his. But where she sees choice, he sees inevitability:

“I got here the same way the coin did.”

The most popular kinds of philanthropic projects are those that serve children and animals. The moral dynamic there is pretty clear: Children and animals are innocent. They have not done very much that we can blame them for. There are no bad dogs, and not very many bad children. We love the goodness and innocence in animals and children for its own sake and because it reminds us that we had that once, too, and gives us some hope that maybe, in spite of it all — and I have a lot more in common with those prisoners than I might care to acknowledge — we might somehow find it again.

As listeners to the Mad Dogs & Englishmen podcast know, I have a little dachshund, who sometimes gets very excited when a deliveryman comes to the door, and listeners can sometimes hear her barking wildly in the background. We like to keep it real on MD&E. She’s very territorial, and she doesn’t know that she’s small. It’s sweet. Loud and sometimes aggravating, but sweet.

She recently needed a minor surgery. No big deal, but she had to have anesthesia, which means that she had to miss her breakfast before going to the veterinarian and getting put under. Whether you are sitting down to Christmas lunch or remembering an evening at Le Bernardin or the French Laundry, know this: You have never in your life enjoyed a meal as much as this little dachshund enjoys her breakfast every morning. She is an older dog, but she is a puppy at breakfast time, sprinting around the house like somebody accidentally pushed a secret turbo button behind her ears, running to the kitchen and stopping every few yards to look back at me, to make sure I am still following, with a look on her face that says: “Is this really happening?” She jumps up and down when I open up the dog food and runs in tight little circles as I place it into her bowl.

So, she was, as you can imagine, distraught at being denied breakfast, and even more distraught at being put into the car. Her brain is about the size of a peanut, but she knows that the car normally means a trip to the veterinarian or a stay in the kennel. (It is the Ritz-Carlton of kennels, but, still.) She was shaking, terrified, looking at me pleadingly as I handed her over to the nice young woman at the veterinarian’s office. They don’t understand. They don’t know why this is happening to them. That is the hard part. You cannot explain it to them. All they know is that something is being done to them, that they have no power over it, and that it hurts. There is something in human beings (and, I suspect, something especially strong in men) that instinctively seeks to protect that which is vulnerable, to defend that which cannot defend itself. And one of the things that falls to those who care for things that cannot care for themselves is to put them through short-term discomfort, even pain, for their own good in the long term. But, oh, those big, scared puppy eyes.

“My God,” I thought to myself. “How do people with children do it?”

I have some old friends who are model parents. Terrific parents. Everybody should have such parents. You’d cast Gregory Peck in full Atticus Finch mode and Rosalind Russell to play them in a movie, if it weren’t 2018. They have the benefit of being well-off and educated, and they were raised right themselves, but they aren’t the “helicopter” parents so common in their social milieu. What they are is attentive and protective, energetic and wise, and kind and strong.

They had one of their children badly injured while in their care. It is one of those stories that sometimes start with that most terrifying sentence in the English language: “We turned away for just a second.” The child is fine now, but the injury required hospitalization and extensive ongoing medical care for a significant period of time. It happened literally in a second. I do not want to imagine what that father felt carrying his children into the hospital in unthinkable pain, the child not understanding what has happened or why, only that he has no power over it — only that it hurts. The father hadn’t done anything wrong — but do you think that made him feel any better? What a relief — what a joy — it would have been to him if he could simply have snapped his fingers and transferred all that pain onto himself. He could bear it, and would even rejoice in bearing it, because he would know why he was bearing it.

Innocent things — children and animals: There is a reason for that primordial Christmas scene: mother, father, child, the ox, the ass, the lambs. Every king — even the King of Kings, the most powerful Entity in the universe, we are told — was once a baby: innocent, defenseless, in need of our protection. We try. We fail. That’s our role in this drama. The lambs are an omen — we know what happens to lambs, in the end, at the very hands of the shepherds watching over them in that dark night — as are the mysterious visitors from the East with their perplexing gifts of royal, clerical, and funereal character. Christians attending Advent services see in this the fulfillment of the prophesy in Isaiah:

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.

But that isn’t exactly what happened. Not really. He was not called wonderful or mighty — He was called criminal and heretic. We may call Him the Prince of Peace now, here at 2,000 years of safe reserve, but He knew very little peace in His own time. He was rejected even before His birth: We hear in the traditional account of the Nativity that “there was no room at the inn,” but many contemporary scholars believe that this translation represents a mishandling of the Greek, which specifies not a pandokheion, an ordinary commercial inn, but a kataluma, something quite different: the guest room in a family home. (I am indebted to the Reverend David Rea of Providence Presbyterian Church in Dallas for this insight.) That is a very different story: Mary and Joseph were not turned away by an overbooked hotelier but by their own family, who were no doubt filled with shame and indignation at Mary’s irregular condition. All the best people, the straight and the good and the true — they never really change. They’ve been insufferable since 6 b.c., at least.

Wonderful, counselor? No, no: illegitimate, scandal.

His earthly life began the way it ended — being pushed around by sniveling politicians and petty bureaucrats with agendas of their own to which His life was at most incidental. His family was sent off to Bethlehem — not a trivial trip, especially for a woman in the late stages of a pregnancy — so that they could fill out tax paperwork in compliance with the princely decree of the Roman version of the IRS. Pontius Pilate, the chief magistrate, had Him publicly tortured, ritually humiliated, and murdered because throwing Him to the mob was more politically expedient than doing justice.

Christianity is a strange religion and a carnal one, insisting that the true kingdom is not of this world but defined by an act done in the flesh, to a body — the body belonging to the little baby in the manger. How do people with children do it? How do you look at that tiny, defenseless little baby, and tell Him the truth? And let’s not be shy — not out here in the cold and the darkness with the shepherds and the lambs who don’t know what they’re really in for come Passover — about what that truth is: that He is to be scourged and beaten, denounced, and publicly executed in the most gruesome fashion that the most vindictive minds of the greatest political power on Earth could devise, and that this is part of some inscrutable master plan cooked up by His Heavenly Father, Who alternates unpredictably between raining down on His people manna from heaven and floods of extinction. A Father who insists He loves His only begotten Son and is well-pleased in Him: This is His program, understand. The Romans are only instrumental. What would that baby say to all that, if a newborn could speak? Would He plead with us, “Let this cup pass from me”? Or would he say something else?

Maybe: “I got here the same way the nails did.”

No, that isn’t it. This is not a story about inevitability but a story about choice, a choice that it is not given to us to understand entirely. But we can understand it in part, because we know and mourn that it is a choice denied to us shepherds and travelers and other temporary concatenations of fear in a handful of dust — a choice denied to fathers above all: We do not get to take our children’s pain on ourselves. We do not enjoy that privilege. Ye shall be as gods: That’s the old promise, and the old lie. Why is that tempting? Knowledge of good and evil? Oh, please. You can keep it. We’ve never done anything useful with it, anyway. Eternal life? I want to see the fine print on that, first. But which of us seeing the unendurable sight of an infant in terrible pain would be so low and so cowardly that we would not, if given the choice, take that pain on ourselves? Even if the child in question were not our own? It would hardly even be a decision. That is in our nature.

But the men who nailed that baby in the manger to the cross did not see an infant. They saw a grown man, well into adulthood, a heretic and a criminal who had made his choices and was only reaping the consequences of them in keeping with the law and with the administration of justice. He could have made other choices. And that’s what we see, too — not you saints gathered there in the light around the manger with your gifts and your hymns and your holy devotions — but we who are still out here in the dark and cold night, barely able to make out a pale, flat lambency in the east, very possibly a false dawn, one that may or may not be enough to see by, uncertain of what — if anything — it means because we have been up late on this midnight watch, far from our families and our homes, and we are tired, and our minds may be playing tricks on us. We do not have the eyes for this kind of light. What we see, we see dimly: in the penitentiary, at the food bank, in the methadone clinic, even in the cancer ward. They made their choices — let justice be done. Just take your damned Christmas turkey and get back to your squalid little life and out of mine. We are off to church to sing “Away in a Manger”: “Bless all the dear children in thy tender care . . .”

We don’t have the right kind of eyes to see what it is we are holding here in our own arms or the right kind of ears to hear those screams of pain and terror, or the understanding to know what the choice in front of us really is, what a trivial price it is that we might be asked to pay — or what a privilege it is to pay it.

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