How can a God who is love reveal Himself to His creatures?
This, in slightly different wording, is what I asked a group of more than 40 children preparing to make their First Communion. The way I put it to them was: How do you teach a baby how to play soccer? It isn’t the sort of thing you can do overnight. First they have to learn to crawl; then you have to teach them to walk, so that they can learn to run. They also need to learn how to talk, what the words “goals” and “teams” mean, and how to put on a jersey. Only then can you start teaching them the rules of soccer. That’s a lot of different things to learn, and it’ll take a long time to get the hang of them all.
But what if God wants to teach us about Himself, He whose very existence and essence is a love we can’t even fathom? This is the question a Catholic must have in mind when he or she picks up a Bible, or when he or she hears the Scriptures read at Mass. This is always the question we have to keep in mind when we come across a confusing passage or an offensive verse.
As No. 53 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, salvation history as described in the Bible is a “divine pedagogy.” The “soccer game” here is the Incarnation, where God shows us Himself by showing us His love in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Everything that came before this was preparation.
St. Paul himself says this in in Galatians 3:24: the Law was our “schoolmaster” or “disciplinarian” (the Greek word is literally pedagogue) “to bring us to Christ.” This is why so much of the Old Testament consists of stories: children learn through stories. (Perhaps like you, I still remember the illustrations in the children’s Bibles I was raised with.)
I am a teacher, and the more experience I have teaching, the more I appreciate how God teaches us. I learned early on as a teacher that you have to have students do something before they understand it.
When I first tried teaching multiplication, I just explained to a hapless group of Grade 3s what the word “multiplication” meant and what that little “x” symbol stood for while they stared in silent incomprehension.
I quickly learned that they had to practise adding the same number over and over again, and only then could I reveal to them: what you’ve been doing all this time is called multiplication. They had to experience it before the meaning of it could be revealed to them.
This is similar to how God teaches us. That same paragraph of the catechism says that God reveals Himself “by words and deeds which are intrinsically bound up with each other.” To put it another way: the things that happened in the Old Testament, in and of themselves, already teach us something about Christ.
Sometimes the New Testament explains this clearly, like when 1 Corinthians 10 says that the Exodus through the Red Sea prepared us for baptism and the rock that gushed forth water was Christ. But a lot of times, the events speak for themselves. Hebrews 8:5 confesses that “we cannot now speak in detail” about the symbolism of the Hebrew Temple, but there’s something about the image of a sinner placing his hand on an animal’s head before killing the poor creature and offering it to God that tells us as much about our salvation as St. Paul wrote in the entire Book of Romans. A picture (or a deed) really does say a thousand words, and sometimes something which words can never explain.
I think this new generation is uniquely able to understand this. One of the biggest entertainment trends these days is the “cinematic universe,” where a series of movies (usually superhero movies) are not only self-contained stories but also relate to each other as part of an overarching story that takes several films to tell and which usually build up to bigger “event” movies.
Viewing the Bible as itself being not so much “the Book,” but as a collection of Sacred Scriptures all telling one overarching narrative, has great potential for catechizing our young people into God’s Word.
One final thought: the doctrine of the Trinity teaches that the Father and the Son reveal their love for each other in the Holy Spirit. When baptized people, who have Christ within them, pray for the Holy Spirit to reveal God to them in the Scriptures, God is revealing Himself to Himself within us. This is why we should heed our Archbishop’s counsel to take time with the Scriptures: when we prayerfully read them, we join in the eternal dance of the Trinity.
Brett Fawcett is a teacher and writer in Edmonton who has a master of theological sudies degree from Newman Theological College. This article is a part of Grandin Media’s Open Book series, an introduction to the Bible with the goal of opening both hearts and minds to the Word of God.