Friday, January 22, 2010


This article was also posted at the Amazing Catechists website.

One of my enduring images of Jesus is in a stained-glass window in St. Francis de Sales Church (now a co-cathedral) in Houma, Louisiana.  Jesus, during his 40 days in the desert, vigorously rebukes Satan, who gestures dramatically toward all the earthly goodies he tempts Jesus with.  Before I mastered the written word, I learned this, and many other stories, through my ears and eyes.  More than learned's imprinted.

In the West we don't refer to stained-glass images as icons. No reason we should, they don't function as icons anyway. Their job is to teach: stained-glass windows catechize. But when I observe that stained-glass images are a terrific teaching tool, I think of the Greek word εικονογραφία (iconography).
I'm not an iconographer in any formal sense, but I like to draw as part of catechism class. Do I draw well? I do not. But guess doesn't matter. As the Chicagoan Martin Luther might say, draw boldly, badly, and often in your class, it makes learning easier. Let's look at the whiteboard from my last class to see what I mean, and how even bad drawings help the kids learn.

The Mass draws from earlier ideas & events that have been the main subjects for the last two periods, including the Last Supper, the Passover, Memorial, Sacrifice, Substitution. We'll spend about 7 classes on the Mass; these first two lessons should provide the students with a basic framework on which they can hang more knowledge later. Let me digress a bit: I don't believe anything should be learned in isolation; the teacher should relate all new knowledge to what the children already know. Even something as self-contained as memorizing the Hail Mary should include learning about the Annuciation and the Visitation, maybe a little John da Baptis', some Sarah'n'Isaac, right? Enough digressing already, on to the whiteboard:

I have numbered the images 1 through 9 in the order that I drew them, which reflects the flow of the class. (If you can't see all the items 1-9, right-click the image and open it in another window.) Notice that the sketches aren't drawn in order, but in a way that puts #5 in the middle of the board. I planned that ahead of time with my, you know, lesson plan. I don't usually have quite this sweep of illustration, but it's a rare class that I don't draw something.

OK then, here's a synopsis focusing on the drawings, more than the actual lesson itself. I'm stripping out most of the speaking and reading that goes with the pictures.

1.  God doesn't require the sacrifice of Abraham's son, but does require a substitute sacrifice, the ram.

"Hey ya'll, what's this class about? Well c'mon, for the love of God, did anyone read the chapter? I did! Yeah, did you retain any information? What's it about? The Mass. Yes, particularly the sacrifice part of the Mass. Let's see.....if we're gonna talk about sacrifice, we gotta talk about Abraham 'n' Sarah...they were sad...why was that? Cause they didn't have any children! Yes, and remind me please, what does love want to do? Create! Yes, and married people's love wants to create...? Children! Yes. So they were sad but then what happened? God gave them Isaac! And Isaac is Hebrew for...? Laughing! Yes, why? Because they were so happy to have a baby. Yes, happy, happy!" (Note: this is all review for the kids, they learned it during the Marriage and Sex class. Review is constant because old information supports the new.)

"But then God told Abraham what? He had to sacrifice Isaac. Yeeess...(I start to draw Abraham) here's Abraham...what's this? The knife. Yep, and this is...Isaac (badly drawn, but we all know who it is). Yes, and what's this he's on? An altar. Yes." You can see where this is heading without hearing the whole discussion, and can see the fairy-winged angel that was added as part of the process. Also notice the really bad ram. I had a tough time with the curved horns. When a picture is coming out extra bad like the ram, I joke about it and the kids will make fun, too. I'll say "Hey now, do you know how much I get paid to do this? Nothing. So don't complain about my drawings!"

2.  The Passover Lamb, like Abraham's ram, is a substitutionary sacrifice in lieu of a household's firstborn. Plus the Lamb has to be eaten as well as killed, for the 'passing over' to work. Sometimes I'll take a red marker and cut the lamb's throat as a prelude to the bloody doorpost, but didn't this time.

We review what they already know about the Passover, as we did with Abraham and Isaac.

3.  This is a standard drawing in our class of a Body and Soul. It's always badly drawn because the kids recognize it as fast as I draw it. It's an inside joke. It depicts a person as a unique creation comprising a unity of Body and a Soul (as opposed to being, say, a soul stuck in a body). Because of this unity, there's often a physical component to spiritual things. In the case of Passover, for the Angel of Death to pass over, physical actions had to be performed: get a lamb, kill it, and splatter the blood on the door. The Hebrews then had to eat the lamb, make it a part of themselves, just as we still do at Communion. The Bodynsoul Pic shows up every time we discuss a Sacrament, since they all involve the physical and the spiritual. I'll refer to it more than once in this class period.

4.  This is of course the Last Supper. I draw it to the far right to leave room in the middle for the Mass. The arrow from the Passover Lamb to the Last Supper reminds us that it was the Passover meal for Jesus and the Apostles. I'll usually read or tell a bit from Luke 22: 7-15 to emphasize the Passover-ness of the Last Supper. "Let's see, who's this in the middle? Jesus. And these other monkeys? The apostles! So how many people are there? 12!....No, 13! Ha! Trick question, ya gotta pay attention!"

5.  "Here's the sacrifice part of the Mass. We see the priest offer the sacrifice just as Jesus did at the Last Supper. The arrow from the Lamb reminds us there's a sacrifice presented at Mass, so what's that thing the priest stands at? An altar? Yes, and the arrow from the Last Supper means that Mass is also a...meal? Yes, so what else is that thing the priest stands at? Umm, a table? Yes. Y'all tell me please, where was the Lamb at the Last Supper? It's Jesus. Yes, did he offer himself?  Umm, yes? Yes he did: remember He said, "this is my body which will be given up for you"....then did he sacrifice himself? Huh? No! So when did he get sacrificed? Oh, when he was crucified!"  Yes, so now I draw...

6. ...the Crucified Christ above the altar just like at Mass. As with the Passover Lamb, I will sometimes add blood to this sketch with a red marker. "Who killed Jesus? Roman soldiers. What did Jesus say about them? Well? C'mon, "Father forgive them...they don't know what they're doing!  Yes, they sacrificed the Lamb, Jesus, and had no idea. And how many times was Jesus crucified? Once? Of course once. But even though Jesus was sacrificed only once, He is offered all the time at every Mass. By the way, the priest is standing in for someone at our memorial Last Supper, who's that? Judas? Ha, no, Jesus!" Yes, the priest stands in for Jesus, and Jesus works through the priest, as we see by this....

7. line from the crucifix which radiates out from the priest. "Y'all know when y'all are paying attention and learning and being good honorary sons and daughters, I see God's goodness bursting out of you. That's sort of like how Jesus works through the priest at Mass to make that bread and wine miracle happen....boom! bursts right out!

When you're at Mass and you get bored, recall Abraham, Isaac and the ram; the Passover Lamb; the Last Supper, and Jesus the new Lamb, who was sacrificed on Calvary; and how Mass pulls all these things together for us. That's it for tonight. Oh my, we still have a few minutes of classtime, so tell me: why do we have these two statues at the front of the church?" I draw....

8. ....these two red blobs. "Well, who are they? Tarzan and Jane? Ha! That's silly, it's Mary and Joseph! Yes. They remind us that at Mass, they and all the saints are there with us. If you get bored, look around you and imagine all of them there at Mass with us. I bet they are glad to see you."

9.  "Since we still have some time, the Hebrew word for Passover is Pesach. Quien aqui habla Español? Yes, how do you say Easter in Spanish? Pascua. Yes, Pascua comes from the Hebrew word Pesach. In Italian they say Pasqua; in French Pâques; in Denmark or in Iceland or somewhere like that it's Paask. Many languages say something about Passover when they say 'Easter.' We miss out on that in English; but we do call Jesus the Paschal Lamb, which means what? The Passover Lamb? Yes! Look, we ran 30 seconds over! See you next week...for the love of God, read chapter 19!"

And in all its ineptitude, isn't that big picture a great learning opportunity?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


I posted this article earlier this month at the Amazing Catechists website.

Look at this pic of the Jordan River. Wouldn't you like to jump in that muddy thing?

When I remember my best teachers, Kindergarten through graduate school, I notice they all had something in common: none of them used the textbook during class. Some of my best teachers taught so well I barely needed to look at the book myself. Their classes were so interesting that to simply pay attention was to learn. I don't know if they even had a copy of the book; I never saw them bring more than notes to class. Now, just because those teachers didn't teach from the textbook, and I don't teach from the textbook, doesn't mean I don't use a book in class. I do. I use the Bible.

Haven't you all heard "use da Bible in ya class?" Of course you have. And you'd like to, but it's not easy: read more than two lines out loud and eyes start glazing over. And it's big & dense & disorganized & hard to know what the point is half of the time; isn't there a shallow end to this pool? Can't I just use the textbook and the Catechism? They're sensibly organized, with an index & logical table of contents, written in regular English, y'know? They're comfortable. They're like other books I've read....normal books. They have the information I need. Just gimme the data.

But Fellow Catechists, if ya ain't usin' da Bible, ya missin' da fun, and the kids miss out on seeing Catholicism spring from Scripture. Of course, getting started on the fun can be tough. Discussing how to use the Bible in the classroom will take more than one article, but for now let's try a toe-dip in the shallow end.

Earlier this year we spent one class period on Baptism (it wasn't enough time...must edit further). I treat the subject with a series of Bible stories & passages, so the kids can understand the Bible iceberg under the water that supports the Sacrament that we see poking up. One of the stories is the Cure of Naaman (I imagine most teacher's manuals would reference it). I always forget where it is in the Old Testament, and I hate flipping pages. Here's how I find it, and almost anything else I can't find on my own.

1. I go here: It's a keyword search of the 66-book Protestant Bible. It can be optioned to include the 73 books of the Catholic Bible, but there's not a Catholic Bible version at the site.

2. I enter my phrase: Naaman. I pick my Bible version: King James Version.

3. In Options, I pick Limit Search to Old Testament, and click Search.

4. I get 14 hits. I see the story is in 2Kings 5. Now I go here and here to see the chapter in two Catholic Bibles: the NAB, which is the American Bishops' 'official' Bible; and the RSV-CE, a more stately translation. I also find 2Kings 5 in my paper NAB Bible, and selectively highlight the story. (Note: If I know where to find what I'm looking for, I just skip the keyword search and go straight to the Catholic Bibles.)

5. I decide to print an edited version of 2Kings 5. It's better if the kids see me teach from the Bible itself, but the Baptism class has 11 passages, and that's too much page-flipping while kids fidget. Here's the edited version:

2 Kings 5: Now Naaman, captain of the host of the king of Syria, was a mighty man, but he was a leper. But Naaman's wife had a slavegirl from Israel, who said the prophet Elisha could cure Naaman's leprosy. So Naaman came with his horses and with his chariot, and stood at the door of the house of Elisha. Elisha sent a messenger unto him, saying, Go and wash in the Jordan river seven times, and you will be clean. Naaman was angry, saying, "I thought that he would surely come out to me, and wave his hand over the place, and cure me. The rivers of Damascus are better than all the waters of Israel. Could I not wash in them, and be clean?" So he turned and went away in a rage. But his servants said, "My father, if the prophet had told you to do something extraordinary, would you not have done it? All the more now, since he said to you, 'Wash and be clean,' you should do as he said." So Naaman went down and plunged into the Jordan seven times. His flesh became again like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.

And I add this concluding note to myself: Washing in water effects miraculous physical healing.

Cutting the text down this much does two things: it prevents me from reading the whole story aloud which doesn't suit the kids (not the story, it's great; too much reading aloud bores them), and many details aren't relevant to Baptism. But it gives me enough text that I can read out loud a little. (You may want to look at 2Kings 5 just to see how much was cut.)

Here's how this edited passage works in class:

"Hey, do y'all know what leprosy is? It's a disease that eats up your body. Yes, your nose dies and falls off, your fingers & toes fall off, eventually you die. The Bible's full of lepers that no-one wants to be around. Everyone was scared to death of touching a leper. But our subject isn't leprosy...what's the subject? Baptism. Yes. So this next Old Testament story about a leper is also about....? Baptism? Yes. The story starts off like this: "Now Naaman, captain of the host of the king of Syria, was...a mighty man, but he was a leper." Naaman is a general in Syria, a country that still exists next to Israel. He's got money, power, camels, iPods. But he's caught leprosy, his lips and ears are falling off, and his wife won't kiss him anymore.

"But Naaman's wife had a slavegirl from Israel, who said the prophet Elisha could cure Naaman's leprosy." So Naaman took a pile of money with him and traveled to Israel. "So Naaman came with his horses and with his chariot, and stood at the door of the house of Elisha." Hey, old man in the shack, get out here! Don't make me wait! But "Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, Go and wash in the Jordan river seven times.....and you will be clean." Naaman has a fit! He says,"I thought that he would surely come out to me, and wave his hand over the place, and cure me." Naaman wants some respect! Elisha should come out of his little hut and take care of business instead of handing out instructions to a general! Seven times!? And Naaman objects to having to bathe in that murky water: "The rivers of Damascus are better than all the waters of Israel. Could I not wash in them, and be clean?" So he turned and went away in a rage." This trip isn't working out....who does this Elisha think he is? Naaman's puffed up like a frog, he ain't doin' nuthin' stupid! I guess he'd rather be a leper. "But his servants said, "My father, if the prophet had told you to do something extraordinary, wouldn't you do it? All the more now, since he said to you, 'Wash and be clean,' you should do as he said." Alright! Alright already! "So Naaman went down and immersed himself (in Greek: baptized) into the Jordan seven times."

"So what do you think happened? He wasn't a leper anymore! That's right! "His flesh became again like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean." So Naaman got himself some humility, did as he was told (everyone hates to do as they're told) and his disease was miraculously washed away by the water. So what does this have to do with Baptism? It was a miracle with water! Yes, it foreshadows Baptism.

Trick question #1: Suppose Naaman decided the water was just a symbol, and instead of getting in the muddy water, he just stood beside the river and went through the motions of washing (act it out), would that have worked? Ha! No! Why not? He had to use the water. Yes. The water was part of the miracle. The water wasn't just a symbol. God worked through the water.

Trick question #2: Naaman's leprosy was washed away; were Naaman's sins washed away? Ummm, no? No, they weren't. Jesus hadn't been born yet, so there were no Sacraments. No spiritual cleansing for Naaman. By the way, what river did Naaman immerse (or baptize) himself in? The Jordan. Yeah. Remember the guy named John who baptized people, what's he called? Ha, John the Baptist! Yes, what river did he baptize in? The same one, the Jordan! Yes...imagine that. We'll get to John in a few minutes, but first, Ezekiel has something prophetic to say about Baptism (and we proceed to Ezekiel).

That wasn't too bad, was it? Some reading, some telling, some acting, some questions, some answers.

And maybe some fun, and some learning.

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