"I pray always with joy in my every prayer for all of you, because of your partnership for the gospel from the first day until now I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus. God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.
"And this is my prayer: that your love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God." Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11.
In the first reading for the second Sunday of Advent, St. Paul 's message almost casually ambles into the theme of discernment raised by the Responsorial Psalm of last week. From knowing ourselves in humility we are directed to know what is important and what is not. It almost sounds like a platitude, but is another stiff challenge to us. We--teachers--like to think we are good at discernment.
After all, we read student papers, assign grades, prepare what we think are necessary and appropriate presentations, lectures and activities, and discuss and correct student behavior so that these young people might be shaped into knowledgeable, worthwhile and contributing adults. We create lesson plans, follow the assigned curriculum, work with our administrators and peers to help the school be worthy of its stated mission and worry about how all of this will serve the needs of today's student, about whose abilities, study habits and inclination to learn we often have serious doubts. All of these genuine concerns press on our consciences and cause us a degree of day-to-day stress. It's part of being a teacher who cares, but it's a burden to carry.
St. Paul seems completely aware that those to whom he is writing are in need of the prayers that he offers for us. We should be thankful! He knows perfectly well that God's good work is only just begun in us, or he would congratulate us on having achieved perfection. But he gives us some time to get it right: "until the day of Christ Jesus." We're in our grace period, maybe even our extended time, and we must honestly acknowledge that we genuinely need every minute to even begin to exercise Gospel charity for those in our care in the same manner that St. Paul cares for his apprentices, for whose good and whose presence he longs "with the affection of Jesus Christ."
St. Paul's community has something to learn and a goal to achieve if they will be worth something in their vocation as partners for the gospel. The content of the curriculum is "knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value." The goal of our teacher-formation program is to "be pure and blameless" and "filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ." Kierkegaard, the pastor's boy and an astute, if odd, reader of Saints Paul and Augustine, understood that the category of true Christians was a finite set of one: Jesus. (I know he wasn't Catholic, and so did not avail himself of Marian doctrine, etc.) The point is well taken. We need help.
Let's remember that Advent is the "grace period" par excellence. The Creator has extended our time and our expectation forward into the fulfillment of all history. Let's pray this Advent that we continue to receive St. Paul's prayers and that we be open to his teaching. Let's pray that we learn our calling and our craft better. Let's pray for perception--to find and acknowledge the person of Jesus newly born in every one of our students, because that is "what is of value" for each student and for each of us as well. Let's pray for discernment, that we receive the grace to speak of what is best in our students (and our peers) and know and live what is best in us. Finally, let's be encouraged that our teacher for this week, St. Paul, expresses "confidence ... that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus."