“Jesus Christ gave Himself that He might redeem us from
At a number of places in the Gospels we are likely to pause and ask ourselves why our Lord was bound by the customs and laws of the Old Testament.
For example, many Catholics are bound to wonder why our Lord had to be circumcised, and why the Church makes mention of it in Her liturgy today. Circumcision was a physical rite that marked the bodies of the men of Israel as the sons of Abraham and the chosen people of God. Why would Jesus Christ, the Son of God, need any such mark? Does the fact of His circumcision indicate a lack of understanding of the divine plan on the part of Mary and Joseph?—or, perhaps, a fear of rejection by the Jewish community if they failed to follow the custom?
We can ask the same questions about the presentation of our Lord in the Temple. The Mosaic Law held a woman to be ritually unclean until the fortieth day after the birth of a male child—she was required to offer a sacrifice of purification at the Temple—and, if the child were her firstborn son, she was required to redeem him, or “buy him back” from the Lord, for the firstborn of every man and beast in Israel belonged to God. Again, it is reasonable to question whether or not Jesus and Mary were bound by the Old Testament Law in this regard. How could any sort of “purification” be required as a result of Jesus’ birth?
We also read that the Holy Family, and, later on, Jesus and His disciples, made regular trips from Nazareth to Jerusalem in order to be present at the sacrifices which were offered up on the great feasts of the year. Nazareth to Jerusalem is about a seventy mile journey, and in our Lord’s time, those seventy miles took a substantial effort to travel—instead of the hour we might spend on an Interstate highway, those miles took something like a week, over relatively rough roads. Again, we might ask why Jesus and His Family would have to make such trips—wouldn’t they have had something even better by just remaining in the house at Nazareth?
There are, of course, several answers to these questions. To begin with, Jesus did not live to disturb the lives of those who piously followed the Mosaic Law—only the ignorant try to portray Him as some sort of “revolutionary”; religious, political, or otherwise. Jesus was a “traditionalist” in the very best sense of that word—one who understood and observed the customs of His people, as God wished them to be observed, and for the reasons intended by God. His confrontations with the Pharisees were not about observing the Law, but about their exaggerated ideas of the Law, their use of the Law for personal gain, and their hypocritical desire to be seen practicing the Law. Our Lord and Lady were models of obedience to the Law, even in those cases where they might have reasonably considered themselves exempt—an obedience which we may very profitably imitate.
Recall, please, that our Lord did not “come to destroy the Law, but, rather, to fulfill it.” He did not abolish circumcision, but rather replaced and fulfilled that rite with the Sacrament of Baptism. Instead of a bloody alteration of the flesh, the people of God—both men and women—would receive an eternal character imprinted on their souls by the waters of Baptism—a character that would be with them even beyond the grave and the destruction of the flesh.
Our Lord did not abolish sacrifice, but rather replaced and fulfilled it with the Sacrifice of the Cross. The sacrificial offering for the Purification was “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” The sacrifices of the feast and ferial days of the Temple were lambs and the other clean animals, cereal offerings of fine wheaten flower, and sometimes the offering of incense. With the Sacrifice of Calvary, God no longer demanded the lives of the firstborn of the flocks of Israel, but deigned, instead, to accept the perfect offering of His own Firstborn Son, the true Lamb of God—the offering which we renew in Holy Mass as our Lord becomes truly present in the fine wheaten flower of the Communion bread, and in the Chalice of eternal salvation. It is no coincidence at all that these things resemble the customs of the old Law, for they are its fulfillment.
We ought to recall, as well, that the religious observances of Jesus and His Holy Family were joyous events. The various festivals of the Jewish year were perpetual memorials of God’s interest in His people, and reminders of His benevolence toward them. The journey to the Temple was less an inconvenience, and more a renewal of good memories of family and friends, and the wonderful works of God for those who are His people. And, here again, our Lord has come to fulfill the old Law. We would do very well, indeed, to adopt His joyful outlook about visiting the Divine Presence, and celebrating the memorials of God’s interest in us, which make up the days of our own liturgical year. God’s Presence is even more tangible in the tabernacle than it was in the Temple—and, certainly more accessible, for none of us need to spend a week traveling in order to get here for Mass.
Let me conclude by suggesting that our Lord’s observance of the Mosaic Law was primarily for our benefit—in order that He might gather that “acceptable people” of which Saint Paul speaks today. We would do well to emulate His respect for tradition, His obedience, and, perhaps above all, His zeal for the holy things of God.