Between the Lines / The Jesus sandwich
I was driving my granddaughter Charlotte through town the other night and she was fascinated by all the Christmas lights. She nearly jumped out of her car seat as she spotted polar bears, deer, angels and fir trees all glowing with festive colors. The early evening sparkled, and we shared the beauty of the season together -- Grandpa, who has seen 61 Christmases, and the little girl, who has just become aware of her second.
She is at that delightful age when so much of the world is new to her. Sometimes she has to struggle for words to describe the things she sees. For a 2-year-old child, language is so concrete -- kitty, moon, toys and house. She knows her numbers, her colors and body parts and proudly names almost anything that can be taken in hand. But she doesn't yet know about the ideas that connect the world beyond the mere identification of things.
I wanted her to know that these Christmas lights were for the holy season. She can't grasp this concept yet, so I tried a simple, down-to-earth approach.
"This is Christmas time, Charlotte."
No reaction from her. Then I said to the little girl, "Can you say Christmas?"
She hesitated for a moment as if practicing the big word in her mind. Then her little voice piped the word, "Christmas." It was very sweet and I swelled with pride, the way a grandfather will. However, I could tell that the strange-sounding word had little meaning to her. Back to concrete examples.
"Christmas is tree lights," I said. "See the Christmas trees!" She looked out the window to confirm my statement. "And Christmas is cookies and presents and Santa Claus ..." I waited for her response.
She repeated "presents" with real authority and approval.
I had one more card to play and I wanted to see her reaction. "Christmas is the Baby Jesus' birthday, Charlotte." No response at all. She already knew shopping malls and tree lights and Santa, but the centerpiece of the whole season was beyond her. As I was driving, I asked myself how much God a tiny child needs. Some of the best and worst moments of my own 1950s childhood came from being raised in a devout Irish-Catholic family. Religion can be one of the greatest gifts in life as well as a source of distress for the impressionable.
"Do you know Baby Jesus? I said.
"No," she answered matter-of-factly.
I wondered now if I should say something more about God. But how could she possibly understand? Besides that, my experience of God is not some bearded old man on a throne with a thunderbolt and taste for vengeance. Been there, done that. I was thinking this through, but why my halting reluctance here? Was it out of caution, indifference or awe?
"Jesus," she said out loud, not quite distinctly. "I like Jesus."
Well, I have to admit I was stunned there for a moment. What an excellent preacher I turned out to be!
"You like Jesus?" I said.
"I love Jesus," she replied enthusiastically. Wow! This was going better than I expected. Then she said it again somewhat differently. "I like Jesus samwich." I thought about that for a minute and then a light dawned, but it wasn't exactly the heavenly sort.
"Oh! You like cheese sandwiches." I roared with laughter. She obviously was doing her best to try to understand what I said to her and the closest word she could think of to "Jesus" was "cheese."
My preaching stock suddenly tumbled but my sense of humor was restored. I had made my first tentative foray into the God-talk arena with my little Charlotte and came out not with a holy book in hand but a cheese sandwich.
Then I had a very comforting thought. A thought that made me feel blessed and loved and lucky to be alive on this earth. I suspect that Jesus himself might have laughed heartily at being compared to a cheese sandwich. I know that's not something St. Paul or St. Augustine or any of the evangelists ever did. Leave it to a little child to lead the way. Where there is hunger in body or soul there is fertile ground for faith. I couldn't wait to get home and heat up the frying pan for our sandwiches.
Barry Wallace's "Between the Lines" column runs every Wednesday in the Fairfield Citizen.