Much has been made in the popular press in recent years of so-called “helicopter parents.”
Never heard of them?
Well, they of course have nothing to do with flying machines. The term refers instead to parents who seem to “hover” over their children constantly, making many of life’s decisions for them – sometimes giving them no room to make their own mistakes or, for that matter, to soar on their own to heights which the parents themselves might never have dreamed possible.
Whether this is a recent phenomenon or has always been a part of the parental and societal impulse to protect children we can leave to the experts to decide. Far too many parents are blamed – or take responsibility upon themselves – for developments in their children’s lives that are more or less out of their control anyway, no matter how much they hover. Even under the best of circumstances, parenting is not an exact science and probably never will be. In every generation, there are sure to be a lot of parents who quite understandably want their children to be like those of Garrison Keillor’s mythic Lake Wobegone – “above average, every last one of them.”
In our gospel text today, the people of the “the entire hill country of Judea” ponder the birth and naming of the child John – hovering closely over him and his parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah. “What then will this child become?” they ask in amazement mixed perhaps with some confusion. It is a question of course that parents and family members have asked for millennia at the birth of every child, whether in ancient Judea or contemporary New Jersey or Nebraska. For the birth of any child is a reaffirmation of life itself and its mystery. No one can hold a small child and not wonder – perhaps sometimes even fear for – what the future has in store.
There may not have been helicopters in the ancient Holy Land but, it seems, parents and relatives do not much change over time either. It is perhaps reassuring to learn from scripture that a child’s birth could stir an entire community and get them thinking and involved. Sometimes, it does indeed take a village – or an “entire hill country” – to raise a child. And Zechariah’s words are a profound declaration of one parent’s faith as he, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” begins to speak in prophecy to his own son. “You, my child,” he says tenderly and perhaps even with a parent’s pride, “shall be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.”
“What then will this child become?” This is the answer. This is what John will become. As we know well from our Christian perspective, he will become the last of the great prophets, the one to baptize our Lord and prepare his way.
But in some larger sense, the infant John – and every child – is already a “prophet of the Most High” because every child is paradoxically an image of the loving Father who sent to us not only John, but his very own Son Jesus, whose ministry John will grow to affirm. After all, “the child is father to the man,” as the poet Wordsworth reminded us. The Father knows well that only a child is truly capable of calling us back to the simplicity and fullness of divine love. John did not need to grow to manhood to prepare the Lord’s way. And the Lord did not need to hover. The child himself prepares the Lord’s way; and it is from John, and every child, that we must learn.
Yet sadly, it is exactly the child that our world today too often forgets. We read with horror of the abuse of children in our own country and elsewhere. Their images haunt us in scenes of famine and war in faraway lands, situations from which not even the most obsessive helicopter parent could rescue them. On the other hand, in some quarters of our contemporary consumer society, children seem to have become little more than nonessential commodities – neither profit centers nor revenue enhancers – perhaps at best parental status symbols and fashion accessories.
All children are in themselves signs of the abundance and bounty of a loving God. Zechariah knew this instinctively. It is a lesson that each generation of children teaches us anew. That is, if we are willing to understand. Our gospel text today ends ominously enough with John “in the wilderness,” surely not a place Zechariah – much less any self-respecting helicopter parent – could ever have wished his child to be. There was to be no Ivy League for John, no high-paying job in software development or finance. But what John learned in the wasteland, he proclaimed at the Jordan. And it is the most valuable lesson of all. It is the very thing Zechariah foresaw at John’s birth: that the Lord “has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.”
And it is a lesson learned from the child.