When I was young, we used to sing a song in church that went like this:
Jesus once was a little child
A little child like me
So far so good. It’s a sweet song. But then come the next lines:
And he was pure and meek and mild
As a little child should be.
So little children, let’s you and I
Try to be like him. Try. Try. Try.
It’s a lovely song, but let’s face it, it is also adult propaganda at its finest. Are little children always meek and mild? I don’t think so. Would we like them to be meek and mild (especially when sitting in church, thus the true motive behind the singing of this song)? Sure. But is it fair to give the little kiddies a guilt complex because they just can’t be like Jesus in this regard no matter how hard they try try try?
I love paintings that show Jesus as a real child, one with slightly impish tendencies. Yes, he was still perfect but he was also human. This painting by Rogier van der Weyden (Madonna in Red c1440) is a great example.
I love the way Jesus is pawing through the book like a real baby. He’s just plain curious, and not too concerned about bending the corners of the pages or getting in trouble with the grouchy librarian. The look on Mary’s face is priceless. She’s perfectly content to let him play with the book. Or maybe she’s just plain tired. I wonder if she’d be labeled as an overly permissive mother if she lived in my neighborhood. My word! That Mary. She lets her kid do whatever he wants. He’s always wandering off and “going about his father’s business,” whatever that means. Once she even lost him on a trip to Jerusalem and didn’t even realize he was missing until they were half-way home!
If you look at the top and bottom of this painting, you can see that Mary and Jesus are set into an architectural niche—the kind of space where you would usually see a sculpture. It’s as if van der Weyden has replaced the stone figures with ones made of real flesh and blood. He has warmed them up and given them a bit of humanity. I think that if we want to be like Jesus, it’s nice to have images of him that remind us he was once a little child, a real child.