I had the great privilege to teach the Old Testament to the 6th grade CCD this year in a local parish. At the very beginning of the year, I called up the religious ed director and asked her how things look. The last time I taught, there were a lot of boys in the class, and I wanted to see what the roster looked like this time around.
“Right now, there are 12 boys and 5 girls,” she told me. 12 boys, I thought. 12 apostles. That is special.
So I had an inspiration that I would use a timeline during the year for teaching class. I thought it would have been helpful the last time I taught the Old Testament, and it seemed like a good idea for teaching. Well, about a week or so before the classes began, I went to a demonstration by the book publisher, one of those workshops that are supposed to help the teacher utilize the textbook well. After the presentation, I went up to the woman and thanked her for her time. She asked me which grade I was teaching. I said the 6th. She looked at me excitedly and said, “You’ve got to use a timeline.” Case closed.
So the first day I got to class, I looked at the roster. The first student’s name was Peter. 12 boys, and the first name is Peter! Then, I looked some more. The second name? James. The third? John. The first girl’s name? Mary. Then we got another boy, the 13th. His name? Paul. We also had a Timothy in the class and a Rebecca. Oh, and a Noah.
I usually make up names for people in the blog, but I am not making these names up. They are the real names.
So, in the first class, we covered Revelation, how God reveals Himself to us. Then, we covered Creation. The whole class made a giant timeline together, about 15 feet long. We learned first-hand how God creates, and that He doesn’t create alone. The next week, each student received a sealed greeting card, with the heading, “Open to see an image of God.” Inside each was a little mirror. Man is made in the image of God.
Next we moved on to Adam and Eve. We learned that Adam and Eve failed in temptation in the garden of Eden, and that they got separation from God, suffering, and death. They weren’t praying in temptation, and they got an F on their test. But, we saw how God was going to put everything back right-side up. He would send His Son into another garden to be tempted, but this time He would pray. He would earn an A+ in temptation, and all the opposite rewards of what Adam and Eve got. But it’s what He did with His A+ that turned everything right-side up. Jesus traded His rewards for those of Adam and Eve. He took the separation from God, the suffering, the death for Himself, and gave Adam and Eve His union with God, His joy, His Life. Jesus took Adam and Eve’s Cross, and gave them His Life. He does the same for us. He wants to trade His A+ for our F’s. It’s His Love. All of life is about making the trade.
Well, this took a while to go through with discussion and questions, and by the time we were done, it was the Feast of Christ the King. Why did God make Jesus the King? Because He made the trade for us.
So, at this point we had a test. Who scored highest on the test? Peter and Paul. They each got a 105. For the girls, one girl got a 97, but she ended up leaving the class. So the highest score was Mary’s 93. The lowest grade was RJ. He got a 48. But RJ is special to me for two reasons. First, he often shared his special devotion to Jesus and Mary, to the Eucharist. Second, because he has cancer.
After the test, we moved on to the story of Noah and Flood. We learned that Noah and his family were saved in the ark, while everyone else drowned in the flood because they had completely rejected God from their lives. But by the time we finished this story, it was the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. We talked about the water of Baptism, how it represents the flood. When Jesus came many people were getting baptized and admitting they “deserved the flood.” Why then did Jesus get baptized? He doesn’t deserve the flood, why does He get baptized? He’s taking the flood for Himself – now everyone else gets into His ark. His ark is the Church. Jesus is making the trade. This is why God says, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” So we took a little trip into the chapel and dipped our hands in the water fonts, and saw all the saints on the stained glass windows – everyone in Christ’s new ark called the Church.
By this time, I was able to do something I felt inspired to do with the tests. I gave back the tests to the students, and then I sat down. I told them that I want to raise up the ones at the bottom, the students who failed. I can’t do it alone. So, I asked the students if they would be willing to give me back their grades, so that I can trade them, to raise up the failures. They could each write a yes or no next to their grade on the test, whether they would be willing to give me their grade to be traded, and I would collect them again.
Now, this was the real test.
All the kids can have different motives. Of course the kids with the lower grades all said yes (thankfully!). James said yes. John said yes. Mary said yes. In this moment, I saw Peter wrestling in indecision. Peter is the well-known brainiac in the class. All the kids know that Peter always gets the A+, and he knows it and I know it too, even though he has nothing of the nerd in him. At first he seemed sure – I heard him say, “I’ll take the F.” But now he was wavering. Finally, I heard him say, “I want to be like Jesus.” I looked at his test after I had collected all of them. It said, “yes.” “This is gold!”, I thought, “Now, I can raise up RJ.”
Now, by the time everyone took the test and got it back and had a chance to respond and hand it back, well, that takes a long time. So, in the meantime, we learned about Abraham, how he was willing to offer up his only son, even his own life, to God, because he believed that God would raise him from the dead and give him back to him. We learned how Joseph was cast down by his brothers, but that after God switched the tables, Joseph had mercy and God reconciled the family.
Then I bought little books on saints, a different one for each student, doing my best to match them. Peter received a book on St. Maximilian Kolbe, who had traded his life for another man’s in Auschewitz. Each student also received a little book on Marian apparitions.
And after that, to prepare for Moses, I brought in a real shepherd’s staff that I had bought on the internet. We learned what the shepherd’s staff was made for, and we watched a video that explained the story of Moses.
Well, by now, we had reached the end of the year. The week after Easter Sunday, Divine Mercy Sunday, was the last class of the year. Finally, by then, all the grades and trades were set up. The evening before, I sat down. What am I going to do for the last class? I had no idea. I had no idea how to wrap everything up. What do I do with the timeline? What about the trade the grade, what’s the final point? I didn’t know what the kids got out of the year.
So, I began to sketch up a summary. While I was writing, I was thinking, what about me? Where’s my trade? I have to do what I ask them to do – we do it together. And then something came to me. Of course! I thought, “Wow.” Then I knew …
Later that evening, I said to some friends, “God is going to do something great tomorrow in the CCD class.” “What is it?” “I can’t tell you until afterwards.” That was it. But I knew what I was going to do.
“The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified. Truly, Truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If any one serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if anyone serves me, the Father will honor him. Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say, ‘Father save me from this hour’? No, for this purpose I have come to his hour. Father, glorify thy name.” (John 12:23-28)
So the next day came, Divine Mercy Sunday, and we began the class as usual. Then, I began to review the year on the blackboard, together with the class. Short summaries of Revelation, Creation, all the way along, until finally, we needed a break.
Then I sat down. I told the students that I appreciated everyone who said yes to trading their grades. I was able to raise up 4 students who had failed, and I was very happy. I began by thanking the kids, one by one, by name, who scored below the class average. Then, I said there were some who scored above the class average and said yes. I thanked each of them by name.
Then, I said, “There was a student who scored the lowest. RJ” – the boy with cancer – “had scored a 48. But Peter had scored the highest with a 105. Peter had given up his grade for me, and I’m able to give it RJ. So now, RJ, you have a 105. You have the highest grade in the class.”
Oh, his face was beaming. What a great moment! How happy I was!
Then I said to Peter, “And Peter you have a 48.”
And then I paused.
“For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again; this command I have received from my Father.” (Jn 10:17-18)
I said, “Now Peter, I am going to trade with you. I am going to take your 48 and your seat, and I’m going to give you my seat, and I’m going to give you the whole class. Come up, Peter – the shepherd’s staff is yours to keep, and I am going to give you our timeline.”
At that moment, everything changed. A big commotion – but everything was new.
Peter came up and took the teacher’s seat, he took the shepherd’s staff in his hand, and I gave him the timeline. I said to him, “Peter, the class is yours. There are 15 minutes left in the year. We’ll do whatever you want to do.”
Amid all the commotion, he thought for a moment as everyone waited for his first words as pope. Holding the shepherd’s staff, he said, “We’ll talk amongst ourselves for a little bit, and then we’ll finish the review.” Exactly what I was thinking.
Now, the others kids loved him. Yes, they wanted that shepherd’s staff and a few bribes were thrown around, but the whole class loved him, the class responded to him. RJ, with a big smile, came up to shake his hand and thank him.
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” (Jn 10:27-30)
So, I went out about the class, talking to each of the students, thanking each one and telling them how glad I am that they were here this year.
Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be clung to, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and become obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:5-11)
In the middle of the class, I looked up at Peter and was amazed. There he was, a little crowd around him (with John trying to take his staff from him), holding the shepherd’s staff and the timeline. Now, the timeline is a symbol of eternity – it gives a sense of the eternal. Peter is holding the signs of the Eternal Shepherd, and behind him on the blackboard was written:
God reveals Himself; What God speaks, happens; God doesn’t create alone; Man is in the image of God; Jesus trades His A+ for our F; Christ the King; This is My beloved Son; God lowers the high and raises the low.
It struck me clear as day. We did it. Everything we said, we did. We lived the Old Testament. Everything, from Revelation through Moses, to the coming of Christ, the whole Old Testament happened in this class. All of scripture was fulfilled in this class.
When I was done walking around, I went back to Peter and said, “Peter, would it be OK if we skipped the part about finishing the classwork, because I think the bell is about to ring.” “Whatever you want to do,” he replied. “Would you close the year then by leading us in prayer.” He stood up and, holding his staff, said to the class, “Let’s pray.” He led us in the Hail Mary, and then the bell rang. On his way out the door, he turned to me and said, “Thank you.” He was so happy. I just smiled. Nothing needed to be said.
“I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.” (Jn 10:14-15)
After the class piled out, I peered out down the hallway. There in the middle of a tumbling crowd of 12 year-olds was Peter with his shepherd’s staff and timeline. Today is Divine Mercy Sunday. Next year is 7th grade, and they will be following the life of Christ.
“He who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens; the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.” (Jn 10:2-4)
There are a lot of problems with the CCD program, with religious education in the Church. Most of these kids don’t go to church regularly, and neither do most of their parents. In our parish, we have 20 classes in the year, but we missed 3 because of a variety of reasons. The classroom is borrowed from the school, and it’s meant for second-graders, so the chairs are too small for the kids. Plus, every week the desks are in different positions because of the teaching plan of the classroom teacher. There is no grading system or penalties for attendance, no being kept back. If a student misses something one week, you have to wait a whole week for making it up. The textbooks leave a lot to be desired, and my requests to the pastor for an activity in the chapel got the neg.
And then there’s the teacher. In this parish, we are not trained. I often came to class on 5 hours of interrupted sleep, because each night before class, at 3am, I went for my scheduled hour to adore the Lord in the Eucharist in downtown Boston. And you won’t hear my name in any of the teacher-of-the-year awards for the Archdiocese.
But I am not complaining. I am not looking to change or fix any of it. No, all the better. Because the Lord and the Blessed Virgin used every bit of it. It was the very brokenness of the CCD program, the very brokenness of the Church and society, that made all this possible. God loves to work with brokenness, with nothingness. He does His greatest works with them. With them, He can speak the loudest: “I am not dead, I am alive. I have not left you, I am with you. I am the Good Shepherd.”
And the way He could do it was through little yes’s. That’s it. The only thing He needed was my little yes’s, week in and week out. All He needed was the kids’ little yes’s, week in and week out. Nothing more. Just little yes’s.
With your little yes’s, all the brokenness in our hearts, in families, in countries and institutions becomes the very thing that God uses to heal it all. With your little yes’s, He can say loud and clear to the world, “I am not dead, I am alive. I have not left you, I am with you. I am the Good Shepherd.”
“Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.” (Jn 20:27)