The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The bridge of grace

Some additional thoughts on today's Gospel. A mistaken notion--even among devoted Christians--has persisted for centuries. In some small measure, at least, we all give in to it. This is the idea that the Old Testament and the New Testament contradict one another, that the Old Covenant is about punishment, and the New Covenant is about mercy, and that Jesus came to do away with all that came before him. Somewhere along the line, it seems, God changed his mind about how to deal with us.

This short-sighted view overlooks what Jesus himself says very clearly: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfill" (Matthew 5:17).

God promised us a Redeemer from the very first moment after the Fall of our first parents (cf. Genesis 3:15). Jesus, the incarnate Logos (or Word) who reveals God the Father, pre-existed from the very beginning of creation, and through him all things came to be, as St. John tells us in the poetic opening lines of his Gospel (cf. John 1:1-5). In the Gospel of St. Luke (4:16-21), we are told that Jesus went to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, where he was handed a scroll from the prophet Isaiah to read a passage (Isaiah 61:1-2; 58:6) to those present:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
This shocked his listeners--his own townspeople!--who then tried to throw him over a a cliff. But he was there in the flesh--Emmanuel, God Among Us--just as the prophets had foretold, to bridge the gap between old and new, and to demonstrate God's love for the poor, captive, blind, and oppressed--terms that describe us all in one way or another. All of Scripture and Christian revelation is a unity, with Christ--fully human, fully divine--at the very center. All of it -- Old Testament and New Testament--points to, or is fulfilled in, Christ. God is One (and, as we know, One in Three), and God is love (1John 4:8, 16).

So, in today's Gospel (Matthew 22:34-40), Jesus draws on two Old Testament passages (Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18) to summarize God's "greatest commandment": "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments."

And in St. John's Gospel, during the Last Supper on the night before he died, Jesus tells his apostles (and us): "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you" (John 15:12).

During the second reading at Vigils this morning, we heard from St. Augustine on all this. Here is what he has to say:
Open the Bible at any page and you will find it extolling love. [The ancient peoples of the Old Testament] saw that all the precepts and promises of the old covenant, geared to the capacities of an unregenerate people, prefigured a new covenant, which the Lord would bring to fulfillment in the last age. The Apostle [Paul] says this quite clearly: The things that happened to them were symbolic, and were recorded for us who are living in the last age. When the time for it came, the new covenant began to be openly proclaimed, and those ancient figures were expounded and explained so that all might understand that the old covenant promises pointed to the new covenant.

And so love was present under the old covenant just as it is under the new, though then it was more hidden and fear was more apparent, whereas now love is more clearly seen and fear is diminished. For as love grows stronger we feel more secure, and when our feeling of security is complete, fear vanishes, since, as the apostle John declares: Perfect love casts out fear [1John 4:18].
From this perspective, both the Old and New Testament are in perfect harmony. What is being revealed to us through both is this: human frailty (nature) gives way to divine power (grace) -- with Christ as the bridge supporting our journey from one to the other.

Scripture must be read with a view toward the whole, in the light of Christ. And when we do this, we see that from the very beginning the message has been clear, simple, and consistent in the Old Testament and in the New: God loves us. We are to love God. We are to love ourselves as created by God. And we are to love others as God loves each one of us. Period. That's it in a nutshell. And Christ--given to us in Word, Sacrament, and the Living Tradition of the Church--is what makes it all possible from our end.

But we have to accept this Good News on the basis of faith first. Contrary to the world, we must believe, and then see. And this doesn't mean everything will be crystal clear or easy as pie from that point onward. This is why we cry out along with the father of the disturbed child in Mark 9:24: "I believe; help my unbelief!"

That is the most powerful confession of faith we can possibly utter. In it, the human longs for the divine, nature for grace. And if we accept and respond to it, by divine grace we become what we desire.

"Behold," God tells us, "I make all things new" (Revelation 21:5).

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