If we but
consult the past, we can anticipate the future. And what does the
past tell us about children? Before Christ, children were not people;
at least in the eyes of the world. In his book, When Children Became
People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity, author O.M.
Bakke draws our attention to just how callous adults were toward
children. Indeed, an appalling indifference was quite prevalent in
the most civilized parts of the ancient world. In fact, there were
very few legal and social protections for children.
For instance, the father of the house was the arbiter of whether his children lived or died; whether they were cared for or abused; and whether they were kept or sold. Bakke adds, “Children and slaves were the father’s property, just material objects. To a very large extent, he could treat his wife, his children, and other household members as he pleased, without any fear of legal consequences.” This, of course, gave sanction to violence against children and sexual exploitation.
Lloyd de Mause, a source referenced in the same book, reminds us that what we call “abuse” in our day was mainstream phenomenon in the antiquity. He said, “[T]he child in antiquity lived his earliest years in an atmosphere of sexual abuse. Growing up in Greece and Rome often included being used sexually by older men.” In ancient Greece, home of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, man-boy sexual relationships (this was called ephobe love) were far from being taboo or considered “abusive,” rather, it was a social rite of passage in Greece.
Kenneth Dover, author of a book on homosexuality in ancient Greece, gives us four key insights about this socially accepted man-boy relationship:
(1) that most homosexual activity among free urban citizens in Greece took the form of pederastic relationships between adult men and boys aged twelve years and over; (2) that such relationships were considered normal and natural; (3) that neither ethics nor legislation forbade or penalized this form of sexual activity…(4) that this form of homosexual activity was seen as noble, as a natural part of growing into adulthood….”
This coldness towards children on the part of adults- and even parents -in the ancient world derived, at least in part, from the high mortality of rate among children. Approximately 50 percent of children in the ancient world died before the age of ten. With this probability, parents often expected at least some of children to die in the early years. Such an expectation fostered in parents a kind of detachment from their children. Sadly, in pagan antiquity there was no religious belief to offset this unfortunate development.
The fact is that children were seen as a liability because of their vulnerability and their inability to reason. As Bakke argues, “Children were not only considered to be weak in the sense that they lacked logos [i.e. the ability to reason]. The Romans held that they were physically weak, particularly vulnerable, and exposed to sickness.”
For this reason it was not uncommon for people to see children as a sacrifice, a burden and a mouth to be feed. Even the widely known Roman philosopher, Cicero, exhibited an appalling indifference towards the death of his granddaughter. He even referred to her as a “thing.”
Naturally, this indifference towards children led to the common practice of abortions, infanticide and “baby exposure” (i.e. literally, throwing babies away…taking them out to the garbage). Without blinking an eye, another Roman philosopher by the name of Seneca justified the killing of post-born babies under the guise of “reason.” He said, “We drown even children who at birth are weakly and abnormal. Yet it is not anger, but reason that separates the harmful from the sound.”
Sure enough, archeologist Lawrence E. Stager and his colleagues saw evidence of this practice about two thousand years later in one of his excavations in Italy. He said they made “a gruesome discovery in the sewer that ran under the bathhouse…the sewer had been clogged with refuse sometime in the sixth century A.D. when we excavated and dry-sieved the desiccated sewage, we found [the] bones…of nearly 100 little babies apparently murdered and thrown into the sewer.”
With this historical context in mind, we can better appreciate what Jesus Christ means to the dignity of children. He took their lot in this world and retrieved it from the sewer. How often have we heard the words spoken by the angel Gabriel to the St. Zachariah (Lk 1:17) in the Temple that the Messiah will “turn the hearts of fathers toward children”?
The promise that fathers would turn their hearts toward their children upon the arrival of the Christ is taken from the book of Malachi. And have we ever asked ourselves what that passage means? It would stand to reason that father’s hearts were not turned toward their children; that somehow their hearts were not in the right place; that their hearts had grown cold toward them in the absence of grace. But when father's hearts turn away from children, society follows suit.
Unfortunately, ancient pagans chose to focus on the limitations of children, thus casting them as a liability to society when in fact they were the very opposite: the future of society and a blessing from God! What was overlooked was that the more children there were the more hands existed to assist with labor, the more minds there were to invent and the more souls there were to love.
In contrast to the ancient pagans, the early Christians revolutionized the way the world looked at children. Scripture reminded the people of God that children were heaven’s blessing; that from conception to natural death children they are, as Pope Pius XI would say, a "true microcosm, a world in miniature with a value far surpassing that of the vast inanimate cosmos." Just as the slave was equal to his master at the foot of the altar, so too children were endowed with equal dignity to their parents. After all, they were created by God, for God and in the likeness of God just as their parents were. This is biblical truth is the basis and surest guarantee for human rights and the dignity of life.
What is more, the early Christians saw to it that all who would aspire to follow Christ had to become like little children; this, in order to inherit the kingdom of heaven. Indeed, all that was noble about children, such as their innocence, unquestioning faith and simplicity, were raised high for the world to see. And in so doing, men and women learned to see children as people; something that was quite foreign to the ancient pagans.
Although Christmas is behind us, the crèche, or any Nativity display for that matter, takes on great symbolic value in our day. After knowing how children were treated in the unbaptized world, the following words from the prophet Isaiah will never sound the same to me: “For a child is born to us, a son is given us.”
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.