The disciples came to Jesus and said, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ So he called a little child to him and set the child in front of them. Then he said, ‘I tell you solemnly, unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. And so, the one who makes himself as little as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Apparently, it is littleness that gets you into heaven. Little is in, big is out. You don’t get in if you’re big and heavy on ego, if you get pulled down by the gravity of the past or by all the grave “matters of consequence” that obsess grownups who would rather live in the future. You get in if you’re little, and you just might enter the kingdom of heaven if you would be light on yourself, on others, on the earth, and on God.

One good way to make you little is to gaze at the evening sky every so often. It helps if you can imagine the sheer scale of the universe. You don’t have to be an astrophysicist to know that we know so little of what we see, let alone what we do not see. If you are wonder-impaired, try watching the movie, Gravity. Watch it again if you’ve seen it already. Again and again, the way children seem to never tire of watching cartoons or being read their storybook in bed. The point is to make the newness never grow old, the bigness around you to never grow small.

The other night, I got a text about a mysterious halo around the moon. People were wondering what it was, and because they didn’t know, they were frightened. They feared it was an eerie portent of something terrible about to happen. After the trauma of Yolanda, this was most understandable. I’m glad I went on facebook to assure some of them that it wasn’t climate change or anything apocalyptic, that it was just moonlight bending through ice crystals in the sky. To make icedrops and to have light bend through them was something to marvel at and not be worried about.

This got me thinking about our default reaction to the unknown and the ease with which fear gains a foothold in our lives. Why would we rather believe in ghosts than in angels roaming the dark and empty corridors? How many angel stories have you heard or told? How is it we allow fear to stalk our lives and haunt our relationships? Is ours a religion of fear? Is our faith more a recoil from the fires of hell than an enchantment with love and the mysterious gifts of God?

There is of course such a thing as holy fear, the kind of fear you experience with the holy and ineffable, the mysterium tremendum et fascinans (the “fearful and fascinating mystery”). There is nothing like this kind of holy fear to inspire awe and reverence in us. A halo around the moon, a vicious vortex of wind and rain, or a round piece of ordinary bread you hold to be the body of Christ can turn your life around in holy fear and trembling. But you won’t get awe and reverence if you don’t see your littleness.

I don’t know how it is that we can lose all sense of scale and proportion as we grow old. Perhaps there is less looking in and up as we grow up. There are those who are fortunate enough to recover some sense of size in the twilight of their lives. There is nothing like the mystery of death to cut us down to size.

Another good way to make you little is to gaze at a child. Some time ago, in a plane flying somewhere in the US, one of the flight attendants sat beside me to chat. She was nearing 40 (I didn’t know her from Eve but she had no problem sharing that piece of information) and she told me how excited she was about her baby. She asked me, “Do you know what a child does to you?” Hmm, I fumbled for an answer. “I don’t know. Makes your life more stable?” “No,” she said, “a child makes you less selfish.”

There she was, Eve, right there in the plane, and there too, Mary, telling me why she was carrying the child in her life. Of course, that is what a child does to you. Silly me who works in a school for not seeing it so clearly as this woman.

A child makes you less selfish. It shrinks your ego to size. That must have been how it was with our parents and all those who carried us in their lives. We are the ripening of their selflessness, the consequence and cause of their love.

Gaze at the Sto Nino whose feast we celebrate today and in whose small hands this round universe is held. This child has the power to make us less selfish. A child makes us less afraid. Become as little as a child, he tells us, as little as he is, and we just might make it to heaven, with nothing to fear about ghosts roaming dark corridors or halos wrapping rings around the moon.

[by Fr. Jet Villarin, SJ]

About Jett Villarin, SJ

Fr. Jett is a Filipino Jesuit priest and scientist, who is the university president of Ateneo de Manila University. He received the National Outstanding Young Scientist award in 2000, and the Outstanding Book Award for “Disturbing Climate” in 2002. He is also an active member of several local and international environment and climate committees, such as the United Nations’ Consultative Group of Experts for Developing Countries, and the Inter-Agency Committee on Climate Change, among others.

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