Acton Commentary

The Hopes and Fears of All the Years


At some point, sooner or later, all new parents experience that moment when they realize that this new little life is their unique responsibility. It can be a bit surreal. Holding your little one, it strikes you that a tremendous gift has been given to you, a gift that brings with it significant and life-altering responsibilities. I, who am a bit slow on the uptake, took some weeks to realize that I was not only able but also allowed to bundle up my tiny son in his car seat and take him out of the house to run errands.

Mary feeding the infant Jesus detail

For mothers like Mary, I imagine the realization hits home a bit sooner. What a morning it must have been the day after Jesus’ birth! Were the new parents awoken after the excitement of the previous night with the squalling cry of the newborn babe? Did the wonder of the evening before seem like a dream? Or were they too excited to sleep at all, spending the night instead intently watching their son doze peacefully? Much like my wedding day, I remember smiling so much at the birth of my children that my face actually hurt.

There has been some significant and ongoing conversation about the meaning of marriage and family in today’s society, as well as serious worry about economic and demographic trends. These topics are timely and important, but one of the perennial lessons we must take from the birth of Jesus Christ is that God is radically invested in this world. His care, to the point of sending his Son to be born, live, die, and rise again, provides us with a model for dealing with our own hopes and fears in a world so often full of despair and darkness.

One of the common concerns that drives prospective parents to put off having children is economic, specifically that they won’t have the financial resources to support a growing family. This is a worry that’s been around as long as there have been families. The complaint was prevalent in Martin Luther’s time, and he called it “the greatest obstacle to marriage.” Luther, in perhaps one of his less pastorally-sensitive moments, didn’t give much thought to such worries, but instead denounced this objection as showing “lack of faith and doubt of God’s goodness and truth.” After all, he argued, marriage and family are ordinances of God’s grace, and someone tempted to doubt that God provides for persons in this estate must instead realize “first, that his status and occupation are pleasing to God; second, that God will most certainly provide for him if only he does his job to the best of his ability.” It’s an old adage, and yet a true one, that if you wait to have children until you can afford them, then you will never have any.

Having children is, in this way, fundamentally an act of faithful hope in the face of sometimes overwhelming fearfulness about the brokenness and corruption of this world. We don’t need to look very far or very long to see stunning illustrations of human suffering and evil. It was right into the middle of this fallen and seemingly hopeless mess that the Christ child was born. Thus the classic carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” rings true: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Where evil leaves us speechless, God speaks the Word of hope and salvation.

In the same way that God sent his Son through the power of his Spirit to live, work, and die in the midst of the dust, dirt, mud, and muck of this world, we too are called to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28) in patient expectation and hopefulness for God’s purposes in this world. To the extent that we shirk this calling, unwilling to sully ourselves with the troubles and cares of parenthood, it shows a fundamental lack of faithfulness and hope, or as Luther puts it, is evidence of a people who “trust in God as long as they know that they do not need him, and that they are well supplied.”

Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, put it this way in a lecture earlier this year: “As you get past a certain level of prosperity, it will become not cost-effective to have children. If you don’t have beliefs that transcend your life you won’t have [children] anymore.” Brooks describes instead a society in “which people dedicate themselves to a higher purpose, most notably to God,” and in which therefore “people will live on into the next generation. The future of a prosperous society depends on a lot of things, but the fundamental currency of the success of any society is people, is humans. When you stop having the humans, your life is limited and your prosperity is doomed.”

Not everyone is called to have children themselves, of course. God has a plan for each individual, just as he has guidelines for how marriage and family are to be arranged. But as Christians within a larger society we are called collectively to promote the cause of life and flourishing. For many that will mean having children in a committed, two-parent household. For others it will mean the struggles of single-parenthood. So too it will mean for many the adoption and integration of those who need parents into a loving home, a particularly powerful way of modeling God’s love. For those who do not or will not have children themselves, it means offering support to those in their own families and communities that do bear and nurture children.

But key to all this is recognizing the critically important place that families and children play in the broader health of a society, and therefore the significance they have for God’s work in this world. “From generation to generation and from century to century,” Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck wrote, “the struggle against sin must be continued, and the spiritual and moral nurture must begin afresh with each person.”

Given the complex of relationships we are each born into, the family is the bulwark of civilization in this sense, and on that basis Bavinck expressed the hope that “from the family outward, blessing and prosperity will once again spread across all the nation.” This is a hope that we too ought to share in fear and trembling, as it echoes across the centuries from that little manger in Bethlehem.