We sat in a darkened church just before Easter Vigil. I was with a young family, good friends of mine. Their four-year-old girl twitched next to me, teetering toward an oddly polite version of desperately bored. I leaned back in the pew and cocked my head at her: “What do you think Jesus was like as a child?”
This particular child scowled at me, smooth face suddenly stark and stern. “I don’t know.”
“Well, I wonder about it,” I said, unfazed. “I think he played games, had fun. Like you.”
“I don’t know,” she said again, displeased with me. She hung on her mom as she watched me, one arm around her mother’s neck while she leaned her whole body weight in the other direction. This is simply what one does with moms.
I smiled, not quite sure what bothered her. Perhaps it was the impossibility of knowing concrete facts about Jesus’ childhood, or the lack of stories about it, or some kind of preternatural sensitivity to historical verisimilitudes, or that it was getting kind of late. I didn’t mind. I love talking to children about almost anything, especially religion. They really do think about things with all their hearts. And I really do take them very seriously.
“So,” I tried again, “What do you think Jesus was like as an adult?”
“I don’t know,” she groused, tone sharp. Her mother tenderly scolded her. This is not how one speaks to adults.
I raised my eyebrows. “Why do you think it’s so hard to know?”
The young girl twined her hands around her mother’s neck to leverage herself up over her mother’s lap. Her mother gently steered her daughter’s thin frame, folding her away from disaster without a second thought. The child released her mom and sat down – laid down, really – half on the pew, half on her mother’s lap. “I don’t know,” she said again, softer.
“It’s just hard,” she said, staring at the ceiling of the church. “Jesus is pretend.”
Out of the girl’s line of sight, I saw her mother twitch at the words. She wants her daughter to know Jesus is real, wants this very much. And it is hard, answering a child’s questions about infinite things. It is hard, repeating the words we ourselves barely understand. How is one supposed to raise anyone among mysteries anyway?
I stared at the empty tabernacle – it was Easter Vigil, remember – and thought carefully over her words. This, especially, is what I love about other people. Trying to imagine what they mean on their own terms. I could see the young girl’s mother frowning, trying to think of what to say too. It’s hard, trying to know that.
“Yes,” I said after a moment. “Jesus is so hard to picture. We can’t see him, so we have to imagine him. So it’s like pretend.”
Her mom’s face lit up. “Yes, that’s right. But he’s always with us, too.”
The girl twisted around and crawled over her mother’s lap to slump against her dad at an awkward angle. She shifted immediately, back to using her mom as a swing set. I took this as agreement.
“He’s hard to picture,” the child said.
I grinned and folded my arms. “Yes, but in the Mass he’s very near to us. We meet him in the Eucharist. We get to see him.”
The little girl did not respond – too busy working on some new impossible way to sit – but I didn’t expect her to. Nor did I expect her to understand a word I’d said. It should be like that, I think. Or I should say that it is like that, the world we’re in: people saying things we don’t even realize we don’t understand. But that doesn’t mean the words don’t sit with us. Or that the strangeness of it doesn’t follow us. These ways of speaking, the ones we don’t get, are friends that walk with us in the dark. Right next to the words we do understand.
Because knowledge, real knowledge, has a certain infinity to it. And faith only makes it more infinite. This is why it is okay if someone doesn’t understand – as long as we never treat them like they never will. It’s why it’s okay that we also don’t know, can’t know – as long as we don’t act as if we never will.
God is the one who walks among the words we do and don’t understand.