What impact has the birth of Jesus had on us, our culture, and our morality?
Much of what we take for granted today is the direct or indirect result of the rise of Christianity, including “just-war” theory, the equality of men and women before God, the abolition of slavery, the first schools (for those unable to afford private tutors), the origin of hospitals and universities, the rise of modern science, and the revolutionary idea that children deserve special care and equal protection under the law.
Our culture’s concern for child welfare was virtually unknown in antiquity.
Infant mortality was high, with perhaps 50 percent of all children dying before their tenth birthday.
Even worse, infanticide was unapologetically practiced not only in Greco-Roman society,. but in many cultures worldwide, including India, China, Japan, the Americas, and Africa.
Exposing unwanted infants on garbage heaps and dung hills was common, often for no other reason than the child was female.
The Roman philosopher Seneca wrote, “We drown children at birth who are weakly and abnormal.”
It was not unusual for fishermen in Rome’s Tiber River to dredge up the bodies of infants in their nets.
Aristotle taught that parents should be compelled by law to expose deformed or handicapped infants, a result of his belief that children are to adults as animals are to humans.
Early Christians, in contrast with their Greco-Roman neighbors, saw children as complete human beings, made in God’s image, and redeemed by Christ.
To destroy God’s image was an offense against God himself, and given the biblical prohibition of murder, the early Christians were resolutely opposed to abortion and its corollaries, infanticide, and exposure.
The ancient Christian tombs or catacombs beneath the city of Rome are filled with tiny graves and accompanying inscriptions such as, “the adopted daughter of…” or “the adopted son of….”
Christians routinely rescued exposed infants, adopting them into the family or caring for them until they died and giving them a proper burial.
The Christian Emperor Valentinian outlawed infanticide and criminalized child abandonment in AD 374.
Christianity also had a profound impact on reducing the number of children (especially boys) forced into sexual relationships with men.
Today, sexual abuse of children is a serious crime, but it was not so in antiquity.
Sex between adults and children was widely accepted in Greco-Roman society.
Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, writing in “The Week,” argued that childhood sexual slavery was the result of paganism’s view of the cosmos as a celestial hierarchy, ruled by fate, in which those in positions of power and authority could justify any abuse of those below them as being in the service of the social order.
Into such a world God came, clothed in flesh and, of all things, as an infant, giving dignity to those who are the most vulnerable in the social order.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Jesus gave time to children and assigned them great value.
“Let the little children come to me,” he said, “and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall in no way enter it.”
The Gospel of Mark records that Jesus then did something amazing. He took little children into his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them!
A blessing is a bestowal of God’s grace, the same grace adults require and receive, and Luke’s gospel records that these recipients of grace were infants.
Jesus not only ministered to little children, he also identified himself with them, and they believed in him!
In fact, he pointed to them as examples of genuine discipleship.
When his adult disciples were arguing about who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus called a little child to himself, set him amid the adults and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”
Christ’s inclusion of children as disciples, fully human and requiring the utmost care, was in sharp contrast to paganism, and it set the tone for his followers.
Therefore, when the Apostle John wrote to the church, he addressed his letters to “little children” as well as to adults.
The high value Jesus assigned children influenced not only his followers, but the world.
Christianity’s condemnation of abortion, infanticide, and child abuse was the result of its radical understanding of children as fully human image-bearers of God, created to be cherished, cared for, and to be object lessons of discipleship rather than objects to be exploited.
We might assume that the care and legal protections afforded children today were always the norm, but that is not so.
The cultural transformation wrought by Christianity was so complete that we no longer recognize its importance.
God’s coming into the world as a child rescued childhood from the literal garbage heaps of paganism and elevated it to the prominence it deserves.
Rev. John Armstrong is pastor of Grace Lutheran, Columbus, and may be reached at gracecolumbus.org.