The little girl broke free from her parents and made a beeline for the foot of the Cross. She couldn’t have been more than four years old, but she clearly knew where she wanted to be. Standing in the chamber in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, while the Greek Orthodox priests chanted Compline, I had just enough time to wonder how the emerging situation would play out before a young priest stepped in the child’s path and, scowling harshly, grabbed her arm. Her sweet face suddenly distorted by fear, she immediately broke from his grasp and ran towards her waiting parents. The little family made a swift exit.
The older priests never missed a beat, droning Kyrie Eleison (“Lord have mercy”) over and over without acknowledging the need for the Lord’s mercy in the drama of the moment. It was as if only I had seen the child throw herself at the foot of the Cross, only to be repelled by a self-righteous priest. I found myself praying that this frightening encounter would not impair her future Christian formation, as children’s memories are so often seared with images of moments like these. I grieved as I saw her childlike abandon rebuked, and I will admit to a certain amount of anger, recalling my students’ recent translations of “permit the little children to come unto me; do not forbid them, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.” (Mt. 19:14, translation mine)
Since then, that scene has often replayed in my mind. It is a heavy burden, not only because the faithful person running to the foot of the Cross was a child or even because she was a girl (so often women, historically, have been prevented by the establishment from approaching holy things), but because that little girl is in everyone the Church encounters. In a world where sexuality, sin, and shame so often hold us back from throwing ourselves on the mercy of Christ crucified, a small child fleeing to the foot of the Cross is a vivid model for each of us attempting to reclaim our innocence by breaking free and running to the feet of Jesus.
While most churchgoers would not knowingly prohibit anyone from approaching Jesus “as a little child,” fully reliant on his mercy, it is all too easy for us to unwittingly stand in the place of that zealous young priest. Seeking to protect the precious gifts of Christ, we so easily forget that the greatest of these gifts is the vulnerable, broken experience of the Cross itself. How after all, can the zeal of a little child sully that which grown-up sinners have already spat upon? What can our own sinfulness humiliate that has not already been paraded through the streets of Jerusalem and lifted up onto the Cross?
Perhaps the reason so many people outside the church feel the need to get their lives cleaned up before coming into the church is because we insiders have projected the message that only those with tidy, easy lives are worthy of entering God’s presence (or our community). As a result, many of them never find their way to the Cross of Christ, unable to get past the barrier of their own brokenness and the misguided notion that people in the church already have their lives completely in order. Have we asked ourselves if our own pride and lack of transparency have stood as barriers to others who should be running towards the Cross of Christ?
On the other hand, I have occasionally reflected on Jesus’s directive in Mark 1:17 that his newly called disciples would become “fishers of people” as being a rather difficult proposition— both for the fishermen and for the fish. We don’t know what sort of saints or sinners Simon and Andrew were before they met Jesus. Scripture doesn’t tell us because it doesn’t matter. We know Simon (Peter) had a wife, probably a family of his own, but we have no way of knowing whether he was a good husband or not. We know the brothers had good jobs, but we don’t know if they were ethical businessmen. James and John worked with their father, but we can only wonder whether they had any intention of caring for him when he couldn’t work any longer. We do know about some of the others: Matthew, after all, was a tax collector. The other Simon was a zealot, which is the nice word for an ancient terrorist. Even more were prostitutes, lepers, Roman soldiers, a persecutor of the Church, gentiles, women, slave owners, and slaves. These all found good news in the fishing net and Cross of Jesus.
Of course, once we’re caught, like Simon and Andrew, James and John, the tables are turned, we must become the fishers of people—pulling others out of the deep dark waters and dragging them to the Cross of Christ. As any fisherman knows, most of these fish won’t come in already cleaned up. Some of them may not be able to hold down a job or pass a drug test or identify their baby’s father or extract themselves from some rough entanglements and trauma. Some will clamor back to the chaos, while others will hide behind their own unreadiness and unhealth. Jesus came to call such as these.
Jesus calls the messy people of the world, those with sticky little fingers, trauma, and brokenness, to throw themselves at the foot of his Cross. To those of us who have already done so, even if our fingers remain a bit sticky and our hearts a bit scarred, he commands that we don’t hinder the next generation of broken and frightened people from doing as we have done. Instead, we are to go out and find them, fish them out of rough waters, and have the humility to carry them in gentle hands to the only one who can truly make them clean.