Familiarity and Wonder

By Mark Michael

The summer before you become a teacher for the first time is one of those periods in life when everyone seems to have some bit of advice for you — like when you first get your driver’s license or when you get engaged.  All the teachers in my family, all my friends who are teachers, and many acquaintances who hadn’t been in a classroom in decades had some bit of advice to offer, and most of it is about “the normal student.” The normal student can manage this much homework a night. The normal student needs to be disciplined this way when he calls out in class. Watch out, because the normal student will cut corners like this.

When I arrived on campus two months ago, I was on the lookout for normal students, ones who fitted all the advice I had been given. And I found plenty of them: goodhearted kids, pretty respectful, a bit lazy on the playing field and in essay-writing, talkative. The ones who keep getting Henry IV of France and Henry VIII of England confused, the ones who make so much noise before check-in in the evening, you know the type. It makes teaching a bit easier, expecting the normal student. Most of the advice has worked fairly well

But sometimes, when I think I have a student all figured out, when I “know” that he or she is normal, well I discover something special, something quite profound lurking just below the surface. Like the other day, when I went to the J.V. Football game and saw A.J. bursting through the defensive line, putting all he had into pushing that ball forward—there was real heart there. I saw something in him that I had never seen before. Or when I sit here in chapel, and listen to the choir sing an anthem, and I can hear that clear tenor voice of Will’s, as he uses all his skill to sing out to the glory of God — that’s a pretty special gift, well used. Or like that day when I saw Hannah comforting another student who was deeply disappointed with such obvious compassion and sincerity, like a picture of Jesus himself. In such moments as these, I am able to see beyond the normal in my students to that in them which is the noblest, the most beautiful, to that which is truly inspiring.

For St. James, whom we honor today, this very ability, the ability to see the profound in the midst of normal was very important. The New Testament calls James the “brother of Jesus.” Brother here probably means cousin — the terms are interchangeable in Hebrew and the related languages, and the Tradition has always said that the Virgin Mary remained a virgin all her life.

But it really doesn’t make much difference. First century Palestine was a land of small towns and close-knit families, and as a cousin, James would have known Jesus very well. They’d played together as kids, had long talks around the campfire, maybe worked together in Joseph’s carpenter shop.

James knew Jesus just about as well as he knew anyone, and that was probably why he missed, at least on one occasion, what Jesus was all about. The story is the one our Gospel lesson tells, about how Jesus returned home after he had been on the preaching circuit for awhile. He had barely gotten started on this calling of his, but things had gone pretty well. All over Galilee people were recognizing that he was the Messiah, the one God had sent to bring salvation.

Up and down the countryside people had left everything behind to follow him. But he wasn’t getting too far back in his hometown. His family and his old neighbors, James among them, just couldn’t see that he was that special one God had called. They thought they had him all figured out, and this Messiah talk was a bit much for old Jesus the carpenter’s boy. They knew him so well that they just couldn’t see.

The old saying is that familiarity breeds contempt, but I think that more often it breeds indifference, a sort of dullness of the mind, an inability to recognize the important, the profound, when we just expect the normal

Eventually, James would be able to recognize the profound in his cousin. St. Paul tells us that after Jesus was resurrected he appeared to James. Maybe it was only in that unique moment, as his once dead cousin stood before him, that he was really able to see beyond what he thought he already knew.

In any case, once he had recognized Jesus as God’s Son, there was no stopping James. He poured the rest of his life into serving this new Christian movement. He was an important leader in the early church, the first Bishop of Jerusalem. He wrote the New Testament book which we have in his name. He chaired the council that settled the Church’s first major dispute. He would give his own life for the sake of this most important discovery in the end, hurled from the pinnacle of the temple at the instigation of the Pharisees.

Our worthy patron surely has many lessons to teach us, but perhaps the most valuable is this one, the importance of recognizing the profound in the midst of the familiar. As a student in this school, the Christian faith will become familiar to you. Your day begins with prayer and the hearing of God’s word. The prayers of the Mass and the words of the hymns may still be pretty new and unfamiliar to some of you, but in time you will know them well. You might not be able to do without the Prayer Book entirely, like Winston and Lauren, but things like the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, the school hymn will become a part of you, whether you like it or not. You will repeat them over and over again, and so you will know them, in time, as well as the Pythagorean Theorem or the conjugation of the verb to be.

And this is as it should be. As the plaque in the refectory reminds us, when Dr. Kerfoot made his plans for this school, he envisioned a place where learning would be conducted “beneath the sacred auspices of the Catholic faith and worship.” The sacred auspices —a charming phrase. It means under the guidance and protection of the faith, with the faith like a mighty tree extending its shadow over everything else. It means that the faith should permeate all that we do, and so that it will become something familiar to us. It must be this way for everyone who seeks to live according to a religion, to give unchanging truths room to grow and flourish in the midst of a world that is ever changing. We must repeat these truths, allow them to penetrate deeply into our subconscious, to become a part of who we are, a part of the vision of life we take for granted.

But of course, the danger is that like that crowd at Nazareth, when the faith is all so normal for us, we can lose sight of how profound, how moving it all really is. We can forget that when we pray to God he stands ready to listen and grant us what we ask. We can forget that when we say “Holy, holy, holy” we are praising God with all the angels of heaven, with all the saints on high. We can forget that here in the Mass earth meets heaven, that our Lord comes down and gives himself to us again in this bread and this wine.

We can miss it all, if we fail to give God room to make it real for us. For God spans the familiar and profound, he is the same yesterday, today and forever, all of life is in his hand. And by his Holy Spirit, he works to make the unchanging real in a changing world. He works to open our eyes when they are blinded, to wake us up when we nod off, to help us perceive the deep things that we can so easily miss. But for God to work, we must give him the chance.

Let me suggest that you try something today that I often do. After you have come up to make your communion, go back and sit quietly for just a few moments and take something from the service, something normal, a bit of a prayer that you have always loved, part of the Bible reading, a verse from one of the hymns, and ask God to open your eyes to see what profound meaning lies behind those words. Ask him to make those familiar words real for you in a new way. When you do, you will be going back to the very heart of what a place like this school is all about, and you will take your place in the footsteps of our patron, James of Jerusalem.

The Rev. Mark Michael is rector of St. Francis, Potomac, Md., and editor of The Living Word. He preached this sermon in the Chapel of Saint James School, St. James, Md., when he was serving as verger there.

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