LUKE 2: 1-14
“Eat your spinach,” my mother would say to me when I was a little boy. I looked at the green mass of vegetable. It did not look very appealing. I obeyed my mother. I ate my spinach. Mom gave an order. Eating spinach was one of her rules. She did not teach me anything about spinach. I just ate it. When I grew up and moved away from home, I said, “To heck with spinach!” I stopped eating it, along with other green vegetables. One day I befriended a person who was a nutritionist. I told her I did not eat spinach. I was a competitive athlete at the time. She told me all about vitamins and minerals and which ones did what for the body of an athlete. Then she said, “And by the way, spinach has all these things.” She never told me to eat spinach. She educated me. She was teaching me, not commanding me. I began to eat spinach again.
The difference between commanding or rule giving, and teaching, though clear, are often blurred, especially by authority figures. In the gospel, the emperor is not a teacher. He is a commander, a rule giver. There will be a census says the emperor’s decree. No discussion. Go to your tribal home and be registered. Joseph goes. No one cares to teach Joseph why there is a census or what good it might do for Joseph. It is simply a rule to be obeyed. When I was a boy I heard the command, “Go to mass on Sunday or burn.” It was a command, a rule. No one bothered to explain it to me. Maybe I was too little to benefit by an explanation. When I got to my adolescence in school, I said I had questions about this Sunday mass rule. Whack! Came the ruler from the teacher. No questions on that one.
Was I going to learn to be a good Catholic by following a rule with no explanation? If someone wanted to learn how to play a sport, would you simply give them a rule book? Do rules alone teach skills? No. A good coach is a teacher. They show you how to do something, and explain why. Unless you understand and can make something your own, you do not really learn a skill or sport. Sometimes the church says it is teaching when in fact it is simply giving rules. Recovering Catholics are not people who have left the church. They are people who left a church of too many rules and too little teaching. Teaching includes listening and responding to questions, trying to come up with ways to help understanding. Jesus was a teacher. God only gave ten commandments. When someone asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus told a story or parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus took the question seriously. He never yelled at the person. He never condemned. At the end of the story, Jesus asked, “Who was neighbor to the man beat up by robbers?” Jesus let the questioner, the searcher, draw a conclusion. This is teaching.
In Genesis, when Adam and Eve messed up, God came to find them and asked, “Where are you?” God knew where they were. God is God. The question is one of a teacher. “Where are you at? What are you about? Who are you?” Adam and Eve are full of guilt and do not respond. They blame one another or the serpent. If a parent brings dirty dishes into the kitchen from the dining room and the child tries to help by bringing in the same number of dishes in their little hands and drops them, the parent can yell or give a rule, or use it as an opportunity to teach. The parent says, “Look at my hands and compare them to the size of your hands. Are not mine bigger? (Child agrees). Do you think it might be a good idea if you carry fewer dishes in your little hands then I do in my big hands?” This is a teachable moment.
At the Annunciation God’s angel did not tell Mary to do something or else. The angel announced a plan and when Mary had a question, the angel gave her an answer. Then heaven waited. God did not demand a yes. Mary made the response her “Yes” and not something she thought God wanted to hear. In the gospel, the shepherds too are visited by an angel and given some information about God’s plan. They are told that a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger would be a sign for them. They were never told to go to the stable lest they burn in hell. They were left to decide for themselves. God waits. Rulers rule and wait for no one.
So when I grew up and moved away from home I gave up going to mass along with eating spinach. Then I realized I missed the Eucharist. I began to go back to mass, but on weekdays, when there were no sermons telling me what to do with all the rules and punishments. Why give up the Eucharist simply because we don’t like a sermon? Why punish myself? Would I stay at home all the time because there was too much traffic or the whether was cold? I would see these as inconveniences to put up with to get something or somewhere I wanted to be. People who do nothing but give rules in church are inconveniences. I want the Eucharist. God waits for me in the host, body and blood, just like Jesus in the manger waits for the shepherds. Both the host and the baby are tiny and unassuming. God does not overwhelm us. God waits.