As I stood at the Capello di Crucifisso on Sunday (discussed here), I noted that the chapel to my left had more attendees. There, front and centre was a Madonna and Child, with a little railing and kneelers besides the tables of candles and pews that it had in common with the Crucifixion.
More people were there to pray and light candles and kneel before an image — beautiful, certainly — of Our Lord as a child in the arms of His mother.
Later, in the galleries of the Sforzesco Castello, I saw more Madonnas. All equipped with a baby, thankfully. One such piece by Andrea Mantegna was originally for an altarpiece and has been extensivelly restored, and is visible here.
I am not opposed to images of the Virgin being painted. And if she comes equipped with the Child, all the better! Indeed, since her Son is the entire reason she gets any attention at all, she had better come with him!
But in the crowds of Madonnas, I fear sometimes that something is lost. Every once in a while, one of my evangelical brethren makes a scoffing comment in the direction of crucifixes, declaring proudly, ‘My Jesus didn’t stay dead.’
I know a priest whose response to this, when people note his glow-in-the-dark crucifix (he swears he didn’t know it was glow-in-the-dark when he got it), is, ‘Do you have a manger scene at Christmas?’
‘Yes,’ comes the answer.
‘Is Jesus a baby in it?’
‘Well,’ he says, ‘my Jesus didn’t stay a baby.’
My Jesus didn’t stay a baby. In fact, the baby Jesus didn’t atone for sin. Certainly, the fact that God was eight days old and held in the arms of His mother makes for the beginnings of a new reality, but it’s not until we take God as a grown man and savagely put Him to death and He rises from the dead that he atones for sin and makes possible the new life to which all may enter in.
What I see as the detrimental effect of all these Baby Jesuses, eight days old in the arms of His mother, is not an elevation of the Virgin so much as a confusion about Who He really is. Thus, the many mediaeval saints who saw visions of the Christ Child speaking to them.
Or the tale of the Jews who stole some Host to desecrate it, and when they stabbed it, they saw the image of a Child, and the Host bled. (Not giving credence to the story in any way.)
The Christ Who is present in the Heavens now, Who watches over His people and hears their prayers, Who sometimes even speaks to them, is, in fact, adult, not infantile. The Christ Whose death is commemorated and Whose body, by Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran and some Anglican theology, is present in the bread and wine, was and is an adult.
This is important, because acknowledging that the Child who was laid in a manger left this sphere of existence as a grown Man is an acknowledgement of the fullness of his human existence. Jesus lived a full human life.
I do not believe that the infant Jesus would have atoned for sin if slain. If what has not been assumed cannot be healed, then I believe that Jesus had to live at least long enough to be tempted to be able to atone for sin. How can one who has never been tempted by sin save me from it?
Irenaeus (or is it Athanasius?) takes it further, and says that Jesus lived to be an old man, thus going through and redeeming every stage of human life.
The Baby Jesus doesn’t save me.
The Man Jesus, crucified, risen, ascended, does.