First Sunday of Advent
Several years ago, when I was teaching middle school math, I learned an important lesson about curriculum. There are larger goals and objectives that may not be immediately obvious in any given lesson. For example, when learning about fractions, a student may solve a problem by converting the fraction to a decimal and then performing the required computation. Although fraction-to-decimal conversion is an important skill, it may not be the point of the lesson. A math teacher may ask the student to correct their work by demonstrating knowledge of working with fractions as opposed to decimals. Occasionally, a parent gets upset about this, arguing that the student reached the correct answer and shouldn’t be required to do the work over. It takes patience to explain that in the big picture of the curriculum we are not concerned right now about computing the correct answer so much as demonstrating knowledge about working with fractions. This skill will become critical when students begin working with algebraic equations involving fractions. In those classes, they will no longer be able to convert the fraction to a decimal because the fractions involve variables and not just integers. In short, getting the right answer now with the wrong skill set will end up hurting them later on.
In educational theory, we often talk about scaffolding—a process of helping students to develop in knowledge and skill over time by gradually introducing them to new challenges as they are ready. When they become secure in a new skill, we remove the scaffolding, so to speak, and build upwards, allowing for incremental growth.
Advent gives us an opportunity to reflect on what the bishops, in the General Directory for Catechesis, call “the pedagogy of God.” Like the classroom teacher, God, it seems, takes time to prepare us for each new stage of growth and revelation. God promised a Savior at the very beginning of Creation, immediately after the original sin. We call Genesis 3:15 the protoevangelion, or first Gospel, because it contains this promise of redemption. Yet, Advent reminds us that thousands of years passed before Christ was born. The Incarnation would be an astounding event, and it would require that we be prepared for it. God did not “delay,” but instead began immediately to ready us for the Redeemer.
In today’s reading we hear Isaiah ask, “Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?” St. Paul’s answer, reflecting on the long period of time leading up to Christ, was to recognize God’s pedagogy. God gave us the law, in part, to help us to see how desperate for a Savior we were. We could not save ourselves. We could not be righteous, fully obedient to God’s will, even when it was spelled out for us in the law. And so Paul wrote, “the law was our disciplinarian for Christ” (Gal. 3:34). Everything that came before was preparing us for Christ, including the law and God’s willingness to “let us wander.” As we await the Second Coming, it may seem again that God is delaying, but this, too, is the pedagogy of God. St. Peter spoke about it this way: “The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard ‘delay,’ but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
With God, the pedagogy is Divine Revelation over time, incrementally forming a people ready for the Redeemer and prepared for the Kingdom of God. In some sense, this learning process will go on forever. Even in Heaven, we will not be capable of grasping fully the immensity and glory of God. Instead we might imagine ongoing revelation of the depth of the mystery of God, a revelation that never ends, an eternal sharing of God’s self with us, a spring that never runs dry (cf. Is. 58:11). Each new unveiling fills us anew with wonder and awe, and evokes the depths of love that are the proper response to a God who is Love (1 John 4:8). Heaven will be anything but static and boring. It will be the very essence of loving dynamism. We will be caught up in Love itself, ever new, ever exciting, ever creative, ever faithful and true, ever beautiful, ever good, and ever worthy of praise and thanksgiving!
Learning, especially when it is learning about someone we love, is life-giving and exhilarating, isn’t it? We always want to know more. We always want a deeper intimacy. With God, as the mystics teach us, we have already begun this eternal joy and ecstasy of learning about our Beloved, of falling deeply in love. “Because Christ is the Way,” said St. Catherine of Siena, “all the way to Heaven is Heaven!”