What is the central identity that Jesus took upon himself? Surely it was his identity as the “Son of God.” That identity is what got him crucified. But what does that mean? While many theologians have interpreted “Son” to mean a divinely chosen king of an earthly kingdom, child liberation theology suggests we need to interpret it literally: the child and offspring of an adult. In becoming the Child of God, God decided to take on the full implications of childhood. By “full,” I mean not only the positive aspects of childhood but also the negative. God took on everything that being a child means, including having needs, being at the mercy of adults, and feeling powerless.[i]
In addition to the negative aspects inherent to childhood, God also took on negative aspects surrounding childhood, such as the possibility of child abuse. God took the risk of entering a world in which children were persecuted; and as the Child of God, Jesus ultimately suffered abuse at the hands of other humans during the Crucifixion. God entered such a comprehensive experience of human childhood because the childness of the Son of God is central to who Jesus is.
The childness of Jesus should also inform our understanding of the relationship between Jesus and Yahweh. As Jesus is the God Child and Yahweh is the God Parent, their relationship in terms of the Trinity is a parent-child relationship. When we see Jesus and Yahweh relate, he get a glimpse into the divine relationship between the God Parent and the God Child.[ii]
An example for understanding the parent-child relationship of Jesus and Yahweh is how Jesus prays to Yahweh in the Garden of Gethsemane immediately prior to his trial and crucifixion. In Gethsemane, after expressing that his soul was “very sorrowful, even unto death,”[iii] Jesus addresses the God Parent as “Abba.”[iv] “Abba” is the Aramaic word that Jesus uses in all of his prayers to address Yahweh, the first person of the Trinity. While translators usually translate “Abba” as “Father,” this rendering “misses the significance of the fact that Jesus used an infant’s ‘babbling’ sound, a ‘childish cry.’”[v] In other words, Jesus is not only addressing the God Parent as his Parent; he is also establishing that he, the God Child, relates to the God Parent as an infant relates to its parent.
It is poignant that Jesus so intimately prays to Yahweh as “Abba” on the eve of his trial and crucifixion. It was, after all, Jesus’s public declaration of being the Child of God that got him in trouble in the first place. In the Gospel of John, after Jesus justifies working on the Sabbath to his detractors by saying, “My Father is working until now, and I am working,” we are told that his identification as the Child of God is what enrages religious leaders: “This was why [they] were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.”[vi]
Jesus is not the only one who cries to the God Parent as an infant cries “Abba!” The Apostle Paul twice claims that the Holy Spirit channels the God Child in each and every Christian, the Spirit crying “Abba” to Yahweh and interceding for us.[vii] We as Christians relate to (or ought to relate to) the God Parent in the same way that Jesus does: as children. As Janet Pais writes, “To call on God as ‘Dada,’ as Jesus did, is to find…the young child in ourselves.”[viii]
Since God became Child in order to enter into relationship with us and into relationship with the God Parent, this seems to suggest that the purpose or end of the incarnational act is relationship itself. Perhaps God did not become incarnate to cosmically erase sin or to use Their death to guilt us. Perhaps, instead, God became incarnate so that They could experience the full significance of human-human relationships as well as give humans the experience of the divine-human relationship. “When God enters the human condition, walks again with us in the garden, the divine-human relationship is direct, revelatory and transforming.”[ix]
Note that the specific form of relationship the Incarnation enabled was not the relationships seen in the Tanakh: relationships between human beings and a formless God. Instead, the Incarnation enabled a new form of divine-human relationship by revealing God specifically as Child and giving humans the opportunity to enter into relationship with that Child.
In the Incarnation, we move beyond the traditional understanding of God as Father, Dictator, Patriarch. We are enabled to see with new eyes. We are enabled to see God now as Child, Sibling, Peer: “The Childhood of God, not the Fatherhood, is of primary importance for God’s self-revelation to us.”[x] Through the Incarnation, the Child in the Trinity is lifted up as important; the Adult in the Trinity moves to the background. This runs counter to the patriarchy and adultism inherent in our times. Through the Incarnation, God is putting a child at the center of Their Gospel, their Good News for humankind.
[i] Janet Pais, Suffer the Children: A Theology of Liberation by a Victim of Child Abuse, Paulist Press, 1991, p. 15: “God took on all the powerlessness, weakness, and neediness of human childhood for our salvation.”
[ii] Ibid, p. 58: “In the incarnation we can glimpse the inner divine relationship between the first and second persons of the Trinity, Father and Child.”
[iii] Mark 14:34.
[iv] Mark 14:36.
[v] Pais, p. 59.
[vi] John 5:16-18.
[vii] The first occurrence is Romans 8:15: “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’” The second occurrence is Galatians 4:6: “Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “’Abba, Father.’”
[viii] Pais, p. 59.
[ix] Ibid, p. 60.
[x] Ibid, p. 85.