Before I begin, I must thank all of you who contributed in any way to our celebration of Christmas and the Christmas season—with your donations in money and in kind, with your labors, with your song and service, and with your assistance at the Masses of the season. And I must thank, as well, those who showed me personal kindness with your gifts and good wishes. All of your efforts are appreciated—may God bless you for them.
“When the fullness of the time was come, God sent his Son, made of a woman, made under the Law: That he might redeem them who were under the Law: that we might receive the adoption of sons.”
Saint Paul tells us that our Lord was “born under the Law, that He might redeem those who were under the Law.” The “Law” of which he speaks is the Law of Moses, the Mosaic Law, or, more accurately, the Law of God as it was revealed to Moses in the desert of Sinai. We can read about the circumstances of that revelation in the Old Testament books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy.
It is important to recognize that the Mosaic Law consisted of two parts. The first part is what we call the Natural Moral Law—the law which we should be able to know even without the benefit of revelation—the law which tells us that we must worship only the one true God, not murder, not lie, not steal, not commit adultery, and so forth. Those precepts of the law really ought to be intuitive to us, simply for the reason that society quickly falls apart when people tend to violate them to any significant degree. But, because not all men are particularly philosophical, God determined to remind us of these self evident truths through His revelation to Moses. Again, this Natural Law is found written in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy—and is summarized in the Ten Commandments.
Quite obviously, the Natural Law part of the Mosaic Law always was and always will be binding on all of mankind. Only the person trying to deceive himself will suggest that the “progress” of modern man—the TV sets, the Internet, and the microwave ovens, and such—somehow reduce the Ten Commandments to the six or seven he wants to keep.
The second part of the Mosaic Law can be referred to as the ritual prescriptions of that Law. It included things like the kosher food regulations on what Jewish people could eat, prescriptions on ritual cleanliness (like not touching blood, not touching a leper or the corpse of a dead man or of an animal), and a detailed set of regulations for the worship of Almighty God with animal sacrifices and offerings of wheaten flour.
This second part of the Mosaic Law was binding on all Jewish people up until (roughly) the time of our Lord’s Crucifixion, or, perhaps, His Ascension into heaven. In fact, we will see how our Lord and the Holy Family observed these ritual prescriptions as we celebrate the major feasts of the Church’s liturgical year. Our Lord’s Circumcision, celebrated today, marked Him as a member of God’s chosen people. Thirty-odd days from now we will celebrate Mary and Joseph presenting Him in the Temple and offering the customary animal sacrifices to redeem Him, their first born Son; and to signify her ceremonial purification from the ritual uncleanness of childbirth. Several times throughout the year the Gospels will speak to us about the journeys of the Holy Family or Jesus alone to Jerusalem to celebrate the animal sacrifices which marked the Jewish year—for the Temple on Mount Moria in Jerusalem was the only place in the world where those sacrifices could be offered and accepted.
These ritual customs of the Mosaic Law are interesting—in some ways, they relate to our Catholic Faith. You will hear me explain them once in a while during the liturgical year. I urge you to consider them when you hear about them in the Gospels, and perhaps to read a little further about them in the Old Testament or in a reference work like The Catholic Encyclopedia.
Understanding the Jewish ritual customs very often raises one of two questions. Some people will ask, “Why don’t we still continue to follow the same rituals as the Jewish people?” Others will ask, “Why did Jesus and the Holy Family submit to such rituals at all?” Lets take the second question first.
It is clearly obvious that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, required no ritual whatsoever to be counted among God’s people. It is likewise obvious that no sacrifice at the Temple was necessary to “redeem” Jesus or to “purify” Mary from anything. Their following of these (and other such) rituals—instead of claiming exemption from them—was an example of obedience for us. If Jesus Christ could walk the seventy miles or so from Nazareth to Jerusalem several times a year, even though it wasn’t really necessary for Him to do so, perhaps we can drive a few air-conditioned miles to attend Mass two or three times a week. If sinless Mary could go to the Temple and offer a sacrifice for her unnecessary purification, perhaps we can make the effort to go to Confession even when it isn’t absolutely necessary due to mortal sin—or at least not postpone it when it is necessary!
From the Holy family we can learn not only the spirit of obedience, but also the spirit of cheerful enthusiasm for the things of God. They loved the opportunity to be close to God the Father—with them we can enjoy the practices of the Faith.
Our other question was “Why don’t we still continue to follow the same rituals as the Jewish people?—why don’t we keep kosher, and go to Jerusalem to offer animal sacrifices, just as our Lord did?” The answer, of course, is that these things have been replaced. A “new and eternal covenant” between God and all of redeemed mankind has replaced the old covenant between God and a small group of people. Not that God has rejected His originally “chosen people,” but, rather, the Incarnation of His Son expanded His “chosen people” to include every land and nation.
Saint John’s Gospel records that a little while after beginning His public ministry, our Lord had a conversation in Samaria with a Samaritan woman. The Samaritans, you may know, were a sort of outcast half-Jewish people who lived between Galilee and Judea, and had a Temple of their own, on their own mountain, a rival to the one in Jerusalem, where they offered their sacrifices to God. Our Lord told the woman: “the hour is coming when neither on this mountain [in Samaria] nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.... the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth.” He told the woman that He could give her “living water .... springing up unto life everlasting.” Baptism would replace circumcision, designating all of the people of God, not just a few Jewish men.
A few chapters later Saint John records the promise of Jesus to give “living bread.... the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.... he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has life everlasting, and I will raise him up on the last day. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass would replace the animal and cereal sacrifices of the Temple at Jerusalem—it would be offered anywhere and everywhere, “in spirit and in truth.” Those who partake of the Holy Sacrifice receive not the showbread placed before the Holy of Holies, nor the flesh of an animal roasted on the altar at Jerusalem—we receive instead the Body and Blood of Christ. All other sacrifices are obsolete, and have no value in comparison with the renewal of the Sacrifice of the Cross.
We have now celebrated the feast of Christmas, and our Lord’s becoming man. Please make a point as we go through the year together, of doing two things. First, make the effort to follow the progress of our Lord’s life, step by step, and become aware of how he changed the outmoded ritual prescriptions of the Old Law into the Sacraments of the New Law of spirit and truth. Second, try to capture some of the religious enthusiasm of Jesus and Mary as your own—taking delight in the practice of our holy Faith even at times when it may not be strictly necessary.
Today we begin a new year. May it be for all of us a year of greater penetration into the mysteries of our salvation—may it be a year of great joy in the practice of the Catholic Faith. Happy new year!