As traditions abound this time of year, my family hastily put up a tree, wrapped gifts, and cooked all kinds of complex dishes, culminating last night with Christmas Dinner. My dad and I always attend Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, and this year was no different. I could see my breathe walking up the hill in Sierra Madre to St. Rita’s Parish, perhaps the greatest sign of winter that will come to Southern California. My dad and I found a seat in a pew almost in the very last row, off to the side. Normally, my dad sits front and center. As we sat down, he muttered something about the people who only come on Christmas and Easter. “But they’re here,” he corrected himself. “That’s good.”
Midnight Mass at St. Rita’s looks the same every year. I mean, exactly the same. The same carols welcome everyone to their seats. About 15 minutes late, we all stand as the procession of altar servers, deacon, and priest come down the center aisle to the altar, where they bow and take their places. The priest and deacon “visit” the nativity scene off to the left side, sprinkling the scene with incense. The first and second readings remain: Isiah (the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light) and the letter of Paul to Titus (the grace of God has appeared). The gospel rotates from Luke to Matthew to John each year. In elementary school I learned to remember: Luke= shepherds, Matthew= wise men, John= The Word. Everything else, down to the beginning of the priest’s homily, remains the same. Tradition, ritual. Sometimes, we find relief in the expected. Truthfully, I fought sleepiness the whole time.
There was one essential difference that woke me up. During the homily, the time when the one who says mass teaches the congregation about the readings and offers lessons, the priest acknowledged that our brothers and sisters of another faith were also celebrating: our Jewish neighbors were celebrating Chanukah, the festival of light and rededication. “We must pray for them, and for people of all faiths that they experience peace, enjoy relaxation, and welcome a new year just as we hope to,” he said. 1000 people heard that message, a message of interfaith cooperation in the form of prayer. The priest, our teacher, offered us an important lesson. I believe one of the most important teachers, Jesus, taught that lesson over and over.
Yesterday among the cinnamon rolls and piles of gift wrap scattered around the family room, I reflected on the importance of teachers and the gift of learning. Teachers come in many forms: people, sacred texts, books, stories, experiences…anything can be a teacher if our persons are open to learning. One of the most powerful things about Jesus as I see is that his teachings transcended a particular time and place, and often related to the divine potential of each human being as a steward of resources. Many of the prophets and founders of great traditions of wisdom were also first and foremost teachers, and they were concerned with the flourishing of humanity. The Buddha traveled across Southeast Asia, teaching crowds of hundreds about suffering and liberation. I concluded that teaching is one of the highest forms serving human kind, especially because in teaching, we learn continuously.
Many of us will admit to spending too much money on something in particular: fancy food, clothes, alcohol, sporting events, you name it. I have much to work on in this regard. In particular, books are my downfall. The last time I walked in to a bookstore, there was a table with a “sale” sign, and I walked out with four new paperbacks. In this moment in time, memoirs and books dealing with race, gender, and religion are stacked in my “to read” pile. Besides my students who always prove to be my best teachers, books offer me a constant window into learning, the process that makes me feel most alive. Over my lifetime, the people who have most impacted me have been teachers: they have challenged me, believed in me, journeyed with me.
I closed my eyes with everyone else as we prayed for our neighbors celebrating Chanukah. I remembered something my friend Steven, an Orthodox Jew, taught me while we were on the Interfaith Council at USC: “When we light the Menorah, we take the first candle and light the others with it. Lighting one candle with another does not diminish the light in either.” Such is the case with great teachers, the more we learn from one another does not diminish the vast capacity we have to continue.