Remember Death by Matthew McCullough, Free for CAPC Members
Matthew McCullough suggests that death awareness allows us to find joy in the problems of this world.
Every Wednesday in Holy Relics, Martyn Jones explores artifacts unique to Christian subculture.
Made of polished wood — warm and smooth and curved away from the carpeted floor — and in its recursive motion a single point of stability at the center of a raging pandemonium, the rocking chair sits slightly off-center in the nursery. Into it have collapsed untold numbers of adult helpers. Harried parents sit and keep the watch during their quarterly assignments, and there they listen to what issues from the mouths of babes. Sometimes, they clean it up, too.
Surveying a landscape of jigsaw foam letter tiles and piles of plastic figurines, the adults in the room are a visible analogue for the Lord. Belief comes naturally to Church kids before they even graduate to Sunday School because the nursery teaches them the unspoken signs of providence. Each week the toy bins are full before the children arrive, even when left in disarray the preceding week. Something like justice is meted out when towering judges arbitrate in cross-family disputes. Like Elijah, some of these kids have even been swooped away into the air, usually to be pulled away from edible-looking substances of uncertain origin.
Besides justice and safety, of course, there is also love of the sort being professed through the crackly overhead speaker, by which means the pastor’s sermon arrives in static fits as though he is preaching to WWII-era pilots. God’s love and knowledge are coincidental, in the case of humans, and what knowledge is more personal and singular than the knowledge of your name? Unbeknownst to these kids, the presiding adults are not omniscient; in their finitude, they have recourse to information-rich stickers on the children’s backs.
These charges are small, and there are others that are smaller still. They rest in padded wall-mounted crates with retractable wooden railings. Japanese capsule hotels seem novel until you enter a church nursery, where American Christians have been keeping their babies in modular units since someone had the original and very American idea to stack a bunch of bassinets. In the house of God, there are many tiny rooms.
The newest additions to the great, raucous family of the Lord are also those closest to the eternity out of which they were born. Before words, before the understanding of the body as a unified system, before existing as anything other than a bundle of abyssal need, before all of this there is still life in a recognizably human form. Fingers with knuckles and pinhead-sized fingerprints, noses the size of garlic buds. The fineness and fragility of our little ones reminds us that we came from dust, which is a very shifty foundation from a durability standpoint. Babies exist; we are heading swiftly for sheol. QED.
But to look at a newborn is also to catch sight of the eternal nascence of the kingdom of God. Babies keep on getting born with the ancient regularity of the rising sun. Individual ones grow up, but the nursery remains full. No wonder they’re wrinkled; they’re as old as sin, and primordially innocent in a way that theologians like to argue over.
Rocking in the chair, the attendant adult can ease a fitful baby into a nap while keeping an eye on the surrounding chaos. Having laid the baby across a padded mat, she might mist a disinfectant across a tub of Duplo blocks, or pick up a scattering of wax-paper cups. A wall-mounted television might distract her other charges from their sundry courses of destruction, but in this room, destruction is always hanging out in the wings.
The toys — Bible-themed, agnostic, and otherwise — lie strewn about as though a cartoon fighter plane has strafed the room with gaudy projectiles. Name stickers hang off shirt-backs in sticky tatters. The space underneath the curved wood of the chair’s base is jammed with Noah, Noah’s family, some of Noah’s animals, and the Batmobile, but the closing part of the service is not the best time for sitting anyway.
When parents come, they peer over the lower half of the bisected stable door and call to their kids. Were they good today? Did they play well with their friends? I don’t know whether parents actually ask these questions, but I do know something about how fraught an exchange like this can be in the wake of a toddler’s misbehavior.
Like mother hens, these parents finally gather up their kids and leave. The blocks go back in the box and the TV cools. Order and cleanliness have befallen the room. Freed of impediments to its movement, the rocking chair looks as though it is already in motion. Whether this is a function of its design or the spiritual residue of its surroundings is impossible to say.
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