Dr. Margaret Carswell shows us how Scripture is not just for Christmas but enriches us throughout the year and life’s journey.
As I write this, there are 19 days until Christmas. The shops are full of decorations, gift suggestions and an urging to spend, spend, spend. Christmas trees, wreaths and sleighs adorn our homes and even our streets. In workplaces, Christ-kindle activities are underway; Christmas functions planned for and happening. It is a time full of excitement and anticipation. For Christians, the season of Advent is certainly one of joyful preparation, but it is also one of deep contemplation and of prayer as we grapple with what it means to say that God came and that God still comes into our world. In about 6 weeks, after the tree has gone and the tinsel is back in its box, what will all this activity mean? How will the two “word-pictures” that Matthew (Mt 1:1-2:23) and Luke (Lk 1:5-2:52) give us of the birth and early childhood of Jesus moved us, changed us? Will we have been convinced by them? Will their words have been transformed into eternal words: eternal Words?
Although Matthew and Luke record the details of the birth of Jesus very differently, paradoxically they still say the same thing: that, in Jesus, God took on human form as a child, vulnerable and weak; to live like us, with us, and, in the end, for us. Both Luke and Matthew call Jesus Son of God, Messiah, Christ. In Luke’s words, “to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Lk 2:11). In these titles, both writers announce that the incarnation has occurred. How does this theology find its expression in Catholic Schools?
The theology of incarnation, that God took on human flesh to live like us, sits at the heart of everything a Catholic school does. It is helpful to look at what this might look like from two perspectives: the formal classroom Religious Education and the wider Catholic life of the school.
Formal Religious Education presents the story of salvation found in the Bible and made visible in the lives of those who walk with God and understand their experiences in light of this. Through learning about the lives of Abraham and Sarah we explore what it is like for them to long for a child and then how faith can move us beyond that feeling when the Lord promised that she would have a son (Genesis 17:16). In Moses, Aaron and Miriam we see how courage, tenacity and vision can turn slavery and bondage into liberation and freedom (Micah 6:4). In Saul, David and Solomon we find that unity is a much stronger opponent than division. In Elizabeth, Zechariah, John the Baptist, Simeon, Anna, and Mary we learn that trust enables promises to be fulfilled (Matthew 1:18-22; Luke 1:5-79, 2:22-38). And, in Jesus, we see God’s dream alive, up close; a dream of innate worth, justice and fullness of life. Scripture in Religious Education enables pupils to learn of the common humanity of all who have tried to live in response to a relationship with God, and to find connections to their own struggles, successes, joys and frustrations. Knowledge of this will be assessed formally, placing Religious Education alongside other academic subjects intended to inform pupils and equip them to make choices, determine priorities and set boundaries. But while Religious Education might be the most visible expression of life in a Catholic school, it is just the beginning. Catholic Schools are to do much more than just inform their pupils; they are to form, even transform them, as well.
The task of forming pupils belongs more generally to the wider Catholic life of the school. It begins at the gate, moves through the office and around the corridors. It is inside and outside. It is carried by all.
However, within the wider life of the Catholic school the power of Scripture is still felt. The proclamation of Scripture stands at the centre of prayer, liturgy and services of worship. At Eucharistic liturgies (Mass) we are nourished from “the table both of God’s word and of Christ’s body” (Paul VI, 1965, 21). Scripture provides the rationale and impetus for charitable works, ethical and moral frameworks and even discipline policies and practises. Scripture helps explain (and challenge) what success is, what truth is and why some practises are discouraged while others are encouraged. Scripture inspires reflection days, chaplaincy programmes and retreat activities. In discipline areas other than Religious Education the vision of Scripture can bring debate, discussion and thoughtful contemplation.
Living Scripture in the Catholic life of the school, pupils will be challenged to act out of what they have learned. Taught well, but caught better, the message of the Bible becomes not the ‘satnav’ for life, but the topographical map littered with well-worn tracks.
The Sacred Word we call the Bible carries for us a message which continues to speak to us today. Beyond the lights and tinsel this message of God’s love waits to be uncovered by a new people, a new generation. In its pages, we meet people who are nothing like us, yet exactly like us. They searched for what it means to be human just as we do. They struggled with life lived with God, as we do; they even asked for forgiveness as they recognised their frailty and weakness, as we do. This is the message we invite our pupils to take with them as they move out of their school daily.
That God is still speaking might be very obvious at Christmas, when we celebrate the incarnation, but it is a message that clothes the Catholic school January through to December. With God’s help, it’s a message that can springboard pupils into the world with the sense that, made in the image and likeness of God, they are a tiny incarnation of God – called to act differently as they write their own chapter in the continuing story of God’s people.
Paul VI. 1965. Dei Verbum.
Dr. Margaret Carswell is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Religious Education, Faculty of Theology and Philosophy at Australian Catholic University.
She is the writer and publisher of the RE online resource, ‘In God’s Name’. She lives in Australia, but spends 4 months every year in the UK, supporting Catholic schools and teachers of Religious Education.