Today, being Ash Wednesday, is the beginning of Lent for us Christians in the West. Today, we take the first steps in our journey to Easter, the celebration of Christ’s resurrection. As we enter this season – one of fasting, prayer, and repentance – there are particularly valuable lessons that teachers and parents should take with them.
In the early pages of Alexander Schmemann’s definitive work Great Lent, he describes the season of Lenten preparation in the Orthodox Church, a period of five Sundays, the emphasis of each tied to a particular Gospel lesson. In this post I’d like to contemplate what we can learn in these first two Sundays.
1.The Desire (Story of Zacchaeus)
As a young child at St. Michael’s Catholic School, I learned a Bible song about Zacchaeus: “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he. He climbed up in the sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see!” As an older child I heard the song again in a Baptist church (apparently, it is quite the ecumenical anthem).
Zacchaeus was short, so as the crowds amassed around Jesus, he was unable to see Him. But, his longing for just a glimpse of Christ was so strong that he ran ahead of the group and climbed up in a sycamore tree along the road so he could see Him. Jesus, seeing Zacchaeus and knowing the desire of his heart, said “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house” (Luke 19:5).
“Thus,” Schmemann writes, “the theme of this first announcement (of Lent) is desire… A strong desire overcomes the natural limitations of man; when he passionately desires something he does things of which ‘normally’ he is incapable. Being ‘short,’ he overcomes and transcends himself. The only question, therefore, is whether we desire the right things, whether the power of desire in us is aimed at the right goal, or whether – in the words of the existential atheist Jean Paul Sartre – man is a ‘useless passion.’”
Granted, this applies the lessons of pre-Lenten preparation too narrowly, but the desires of a teacher or homeschooling parent have such great effect upon classroom culture and the “feel” of our teaching. Do we desire the right things? Do we desire to show Christ to our students and to see Him in them? Or are we driven by the “practical concerns” of test scores, college admissions, impressively long book lists, teacher reviews, getting through the material, or pleasing others – all of which may be nothing more than manifestations of our pride? Do we teach that our students may see us and our impressive knowledge, or that they may see Christ?
2.Humility (Story of the Publican & the Pharisee)
Luke 18:10-14 records this parable from Christ: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The tax collector saw himself as unworthy even to pray, unable to lift his eyes to heaven as was customary. The Pharisee, on the other hand, not only felt worthy of lifting his eyes to heaven, but worthy of gazing upon the sins of others and declaring them guilty. Schmemman comments that this parable “pictures a man who is always pleased with himself and who thinks that he complies with all the requirements of religion. He is self-assured and proud of himself. In reality, however, he has falsified the meaning of religion. He has reduced it to external observations and he measures his piety by the amount of money he contributes to the temple.”
Generally speaking, teachers and homeschoolers do not struggle with the feeling of being “too good” – either in what they know, their effectiveness, or their mastery of classical pedagogy. But humility involves something more than lack of confidence. Schmemman continues:
“In our human mentality we tend to oppose ‘glory’ and ‘humility’ – the latter being for us the indication of a flaw or deficiency. For us it is our ignorance or incompetence that makes or ought to make us feel humble. It is almost impossible to ‘put across’ to the modern man, fed on publicity, self-affirmation, and endless self-praise, that all that which is genuinely perfect, beautiful, and good is at the same time naturally humble; for precisely because of its perfection, it does not need ‘publicity,’ eternal glory, or ‘showing off’ of any kind. God is humble because He is perfect; His humility is His glory and the source of all true beauty, perfection, and goodness, and everyone who approaches God and knows Him immediately partakes of the Divine humility and is beautified by it.”
Pride and false humility (which is a form of pride) are deceptive. Those who are outwardly arrogant often use it to mask great insecurity, while those who too frequently speak of their shortcomings often do so out of thinly veiled pride or the love of being reassured by others.
Homeschooling our children can exhaust, frustrate, exasperate and all kinds of other cringe-worthy verbs. School teachers work very hard, for little money, and even less praise, but we should all be careful not to spend too much time reminding everyone of it. Before the Lord, humility is required of all, a humility that is gained only in contemplating Christ.
Again, Schmemman writes, “The Lenten season begins then by a quest, a prayer for humility which is the beginning of true repentance. For repentance, above everything else, is a return to the genuine order of things, the restoration of the right vision.” Let us, unlike the Pharisee, not lift our eyes in pride to the Lord or to others, but acknowledge our need of genuine humility before the Lord and our students, that we may learn and model genuine repentance.
To be continued…