By Msgr Ambrose Vaz
Dear teachers and friends, we come to celebrate this Mass today, not so much as to celebrate a day – Teacher’s Day – but more to celebrate a vocation – a call from God – to teach. The success of our mission, how we carry out our vocation, depends very much on the understanding, the conviction, of our identity. If we’re not clear about our identity of what it means to be a teacher, it will be quite impossible for us to effectively carry out our mission.
We see this in our gospel today (Mark 8:27-35): Jesus asking his disciples who do people say he is and finally asking them: “Who do you say I am?” Not so much for an ego-trip; not because he wanted to know if he was well-known, but because he wanted to share with them and to clarify what their understanding of his identity was and what was his understanding of his identity.
So we find that he [had] asked them “who do people say I am”. The disciples said that [his] identity is John the Baptist, others Elijah, others one of the prophets. What Jesus would say was, “Well, that was far from true, but what do you say?” Peter comes up with the right identity: “You are the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one of God.”
Jesus would say that that was the right answer but then he was quite sure they didn’t really understand the implications. In terms of the terminology, they got it right: he was the Christ, he was the Messiah, but there were so many different opinions – expectations, you could say – as to who and what the Messiah would be all about.
The most popular opinion was that the Messiah would be a powerful figure in terms of earthly, political, even military power. They were hoping that the Messiah would come and defeat the Romans [and] take Israel to the time of King David, victorious in war, extending the borders of the land, and so on. Some would say that besides that, he would be a political figure, one that would also perhaps bring them up to a level of prosperity; material prosperity that would far exceed anything Israel ever knew. They had their idea of a Messiah, but it was wrong. Jesus deepens this conversation so that he could clarify what the world thinks the Messiah is all about and what God expects the Messiah to be.
Jesus began to teach them the true identity of the messiah. He would be like the Son of Man. A title that would describe obedience – obedience to God. Such obedience that would even require him to submit to suffering, destined to suffer grievously, be rejected by the elders, chief priests and scribes and ultimately to be put to death but eventually to rise after three days. Then of course we see Peter, who started to remonstrate with them: “This is not what we understand of the messiah; this is wrong!” But Jesus had to tell him: “Get behind me, Satan“. “Your way of understanding the Messiah is very wrong, that is not the identity of the Messiah.”
Today my dear friends, this Gospel is very apt for us as we celebrate Teacher’s Day; very apt as we reflect on what the identity of a teacher is all about. Because that is, of course, the popular opinion or understanding of what a teacher is all about and God’s understanding of what a teacher should be. Most of the time perhaps, people tend to think that a teacher is one that imparts knowledge – the one that dispatches information. As long as I tell you and give you some information, I have taught you. But God’s understanding as he did in Jesus, the teacher, would be much more than imparting knowledge, dispatching information.
The understanding of the identity of a teacher as seen in Jesus is to communicate, to pass on an experience of God. Essentially, a teacher is one that communicates to the one they had taught, the experience of truth, essentially consisting of a relationship with God, the ultimate truth. And so we make use of the opportunities we get as we pass on knowledge, whether it be secular sciences or any other type of knowledge. Even in the process of communicating this knowledge, it is good to ask ourselves: Do we pass on the experience of a loving God?
This is what we see in our Responsorial Psalm (Ps 116:1-6,8-9): “I will walk in the presence of the Lord, in the land of the living.” This what a teacher is ultimately all about: The teacher, sharing from his or her own experience of what it is to walk in the presence of the Lord and remind others to experience that same joy.
We know today therefore, how difficult it can be to be a teacher. Not only is it just telling others about the ultimate good, but first being able to experience it, to live it out for ourselves, to be able to be convincing in passing it on to others.
When we look at the first reading (Isaiah 50:5-9A), the Prophet Isaiah as a teacher, and his conviction of who God is in his life, that he is able to say: “I set my face like a flint. I know I shall not be shamed. Despite all the difficulties, I’m going to go through, for my part, I made no resistance. I offered my back and did not cover my face.” Basically, a teacher is being very thick-skinned in communicating the truth, in communicating the essential ultimate truth, the experience of a loving God in our life. A teacher will face much difficulties. Sometimes perhaps in total resistance from students who do not want to accept being formed, being taught, being loved, being cared for, being shown the meaning of God’s love; there would be those who completely reject and refuse such instruction. Then there will be others who will perhaps belittle the effort that you make [and] who will not appreciate the need for us to do that.
Yet the true teacher continues to communicate, firstly in our own lives, by the way we live out this conviction of God’s love for us, and secondly, by showing it in practical example. And that is why St James tells us in our second reading (James 2:14-18). Faith is not just something that we believe in our minds or in our hearts, but [it] has to be shown, expressed in the way we live. Faith is like this, St James tells us: Good works must accompany it. And so as teachers, our task will be to express, through the life we live – our dedication, service, commitment to our students – our willingness to express in our life the love of God. Sometimes it is difficult. We find children who are not willing to learn, not willing to cooperate. We find systems, maybe, that do not really encourage us to give of ourselves. Nevertheless that is what faith is all about, expressed in good works.
If we go back to the Gospel again, we see Jesus, the ultimate teacher, who comes to teach us the recipe of life. The whole role and purpose of life is to be able to experience truth, communicated in love, that we see in Jesus. Today, we ask ourselves, as teachers, [if we are] effective in bringing this love of God to the people we minister to, to our students, even as we are called to instruct them in the different sciences, subjects that we teach, all bearing in mind that our ultimate goal is much more than helping them to pass exams but to help them to understand the meaning of life. Sometimes we can do well, we can pass exams, but we still miss out the real meaning of life. The real meaning of life is to be able to experience the joy of God who calls us into his life; to be able to experience him through experiencing love. A love that we cannot teach but can only show; we can only express [it] in the way we live our lives.
Today, dear teachers, we thank you on behalf of the Church and the Archdiocese. We thank all our teachers for being that example of God’s love in the education of their lives, in the way that you carry out, not only instructing your students [and] teaching them many new facts, but essentially and hopefully, teaching them the joy of being called by God to be his children. See him principally in your own joy in being called to be a teacher, to communicate this important message to your students.
As we celebrate this Mass today, we pray for all our teachers, as well as our students. We pray principally for our teachers that they never get too tired of ministering to the students [that] they are called to; that they never get too tired to express the love of God in their own lives, especially in moments when they are burdened, tired, sometimes even perhaps rejected. We pray for our teachers. We pray today that God will continue to send as many good teachers who will be desiring to communicate much more than knowledge but would be desiring to share their lives [and] to share God with their students. We pray for this [and] we pray for one another as we celebrate this Mass.