Shortly before Christmas we were at daily Mass about to enter the communion line when Maia called out "Eat Jesus!" A friend in front of us turned around and whispered, "Sounds like we've got a theologian back here!" I have to admit it was somewhat of a proud moment. Maia in some sense seemed to understand what we were doing - even if she still doesn't understand why we won't let her take communion with us.
Just a couple weeks later we were preparing to go to Sunday Mass. I was getting dressed, and I was telling Maia we were going to be leaving for Mass. She said, "Eat Jesus" and I said, "Yes, we eat Jesus at Mass." I bent down to put on my socks, and she said - this time more insistently - "Eat Jesus!" I could tell from the tone of her voice that she didn't think I was understanding her correctly. So I glanced up from the socks.
Maia was chewing on the crucifix of a Rosary. As I looked at her, she said, "Maia eat Jesus." Ah. Now I understood. I guess she figured if we weren't going to let her eat Jesus as we do, she'd have to find her own way to do it.
I've been constantly impressed by the flexibility of her little mind. I'd think it would be confusing to see Jesus - as a magnetic doll with his mom, as a wooden block in a nativity set, in Bible story books, and hanging on crucifixes - and yet grasp what's going on with this person. I remember a few months ago she was playing with the magnetic baby Jesus when all of the sudden she said, "Jesus sad." "Why?" I asked her. "Jesus fall down," she said, "Sad." "Fall down" here seemed to mean "died." So I told her, well, that is sad, but that's not the end of the story, right? And no, it's not the end of the story - or her Bible story to which she was undoubtedly referring.
My friend Deb tells this story of how, growing up Presbyterian, when her Catholic aunt sent her a Rosary, she thought it was mardi gras beads. A few weeks ago, Maia came home from playing with our friend Sue with mardi gras beads around her neck. "Maia," I asked, "what's this on your neck?" Without even hesitating, Maia said, "Rosary!" Hmm.
From an adult perspective, we know there's a difference between mardi gras beads and a Rosary. We know that the crucifix is different from the Eucharist. But I have to say that having a child has made me aware of how my imagination can be limited by distinctions, intellectual wanderings, and sophisticated jargon. Little by little, Maia is becoming immersed in the narrative of salvation history, and part of this is undoubtedly made possible by her curiosity, her sense of trust, and her imaginative interaction with objects. The rest, no doubt, is the work of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps this is why little children are a model for us in the Christian life.