Rorate Caeli

Christmas Octave: Devotion to the Child Jesus
First part

The devotion to the Child Jesus

Fr. Alban Cras, FSSP - Conference 

The devotion to the Child Jesus goes back to the very origins of Christianity. There are somewhat legendary depictions of the Child Jesus in the Apocryphal Gospels (cf. Infancy Gospel of Thomas, that presents a super-hero Child Jesus). We then see the Child Jesus appear notably to Saint Jerome, and also to Saint Catherine of Alexandria.

In the Middle Ages, the entire world is aware of the closeness between Saint Anthony of Padua and the Child Jesus. But it was in the 16th century that the devotion to the childhood of Christ received a great boost thanks to the Theresian reform; therefore, it was mainly the Carmelite spirituality that favored it. In all her travels, Saint Teresa of Avila took with her a statue of the Child Jesus, and she placed a new one in each new Carmel. It was thus that the Child Jesus was considered the true founder of each new monastery.

You are aware perhaps of the famous apparition of the Child Jesus to Saint Teresa of Avila, whose name in religion was Teresa of Jesus. The Child Jesus appeared to Teresa on a staircase in the monastery of the Incarnation, and told her: "You, you are Teresa of Jesus, and I am Jesus of Teresa."

All those sisters who accompanied Saint Teresa shared this devotion, and those who came to France to found the reformed Carmels naturally brought it with them. And precisely in France the arrival of the Spanish Carmelites was in great measure the work of Cardinal de Bérulle, one of the main founders of the French School of spirituality, that is so insistent on the Incarnation. Bérulle's theological choices prepared prepare him therefore to encourage the development in France of the devotion to the Child Jesus, and the Carmelites would play a great part in this.

One Carmelite in particular, the Venerable Margaret of the Most Holy Sacrament, entered the Carmel of Beaune at 11 and died, at 29, in 1648. She would have an immense influence, even in the Court of Louis XIII, because Queen Anne of Austria goes so far as to join the confraternity founded by her. The famed baron Gaston de Renty offers the Beaune Carmel a statue that will become famous under the title of King of Grace. It is a crowned Child Jesus, at once childlike and majestic. Margaret of the Most Holy Sacrament establishes a confraternity (the Family of the Holy Child Jesus), creates a "small rosary" of 15 beads, distributes thousands of images, and has the Child Jesus feasted on the 25th of every month.

But why this devotion to the Child Jesus? Because the childhood of Our Lord has something to teach us, it is filled with lessons, and the first lesson is certainly the path of spiritual childhood. And when we speak of the path of childhood we clearly think of another Carmelite, a successor of her mother Saint Teresa of Avila, but also of the first French Carmelites. This is obviously Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, or rather Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus. At the Lisieux Carmel, the statue of the Child Jesus that Thérèse was charged with decorating with flowers is preciously kept.

And why is it necessary for us to have a deep devotion to the Child Jesus? Baron de Renty describes the spirit of childhood as "a state in which life is lived day by day, in a perfect death to oneself, in complete abandonment to the will of the Father."

Marianne Stokes, Madonna and Child (detail)

The Child Jesus is, first, in the manger, an infinitely feeble and dependent being. He is Almighty, but He is reduced to helplessness, to swaddling clothes he cannot even move. Then he is forced to flee from Herod. "Exinanivit," says St. Paul: He reduced Himself, taking upon Himself our condition of captivity. Swaddled, he cannot move, as up on the Cross - or the Host. (cf. Bérullian portrayals of the Child Jesus). The state of childhood is primarily a state of confidence and abandonment.

[Published in Communicantes (Newsletter of the French District of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter), December 2012]