"If there is glory in the ministration that condemned,
There are a few passages from Saint Paul's epistles that can be a bit misleading, particularly to those who are not familiar with God's Law as given in the Old Testament. Today he speaks of the Old Law as "condemning" and "killing," and sometimes he speaks about the "dead works of the Law." In spite of the fact that our Lord came "not to destroy, but to fulfill the law," it is possible to misunderstand Saint Paul in such a way as to think that the Old Law has been abolished.2
To understand what Saint Paul is saying, we need to go back to the Exodus, when God decided to free the children of Abraham from bondage in Egypt. He had Moses lead them through the desert toward the Promised Land, and on the way He called Moses up to the top of a mountain in order to give him precise instructions about what God wanted from His people. When Moses came down, he carried God's Law engraved on stone tablets -- and as Saint Paul mentions, Moses' face was so bright from his encounter with God that the Israelites could not bear to look at him.
What was engraved on those tablets of the Law? Often they are portrayed with just ten numbers on them, either in Hebrew or Roman characters; the Ten Commandments. But Moses actually brought back much more than just ten concise statements. God had given him, first of all, a rather detailed statement of the natural law. Now, the natural law is something we could (and even should) know without God's revelation. The natural law includes the things that are simply necessary to make human society work -- man must recognize his God, and must refrain from those destructive behaviors that make communities and nations fall apart. Even without revelation we should recognize that a God-less, cheating, lying, murdering, adulterous society just cannot work. And we also should recognize the duty to help our neighbor, as exemplified in today's Gospel of the Good Samaritan.3 The natural law is God's unchanging will, built into creation. The natural law will always be with us.
Moses also came down from the mountain with information as to how God wanted to be worshipped. Again, there were a goodly number of details, but it came down to Moses consecrating his brother Aaron and Aaron's sons as priests, and those priests offering animal sacrifices to God, in order to adore Him and to beg His forgiveness for their own sins and the sins of the people. As Bishop Sheen used to say, the sacrifices of the Old Testament were "a river of blood," and Saint Paul reminds us that "without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness."4 From that day forward, Jewish people would bring sacrificial victims to be offered in a bloody manner, to satisfy any number of obligations and transgressions. It must have been an awesome sight -- "terrible" is the word I think most of us would use -- to see the tremendous slaughter that took place -- particularly by the time they had constructed the Temple at Jerusalem, and this blood was let each day in a fixed place inside a city.
This "river of blood" is one of the things that did come to an end with the New Testament, and particularly with the sacrifice of our Lord on the Cross. He was the last and ultimate victim of the sacrifices at Jerusalem. When He died on the Cross, the veil of the Temple was torn in two, from the top to the bottom, indicating that God no longer dwelled in the holy of holies, in the Temple of sacrifice at Jerusalem. Indeed, in another thirty-five years or so, the Temple would be completely destroyed and the Jewish priesthood so scattered that they would never offer sacrifice again.
But, understand that in this, Our Lord fulfilled, rather than abolished the Law. His Sacrifice would be the culmination of all sacrifice offered to God since the time of Abel the Just, the son of Adam and Eve; since the time of Abraham, who, like God the Father, was willing to sacrifice his only son; since the time of Melchesidech, who offered a sacrifice of bread and wine; and since the time of Moses and Aaron and his sons. Our Lord's Sacrifice would be "offered once and for all" and would never need to be repeated.5 Yet it would be perpetuated and made present, without regard to time or space, in the unbloody offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. God would be with His people in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar, in a manner even more real than He had been in the holy of holies in Jerusalem. Jesus Christ, as He promised in Saint John's Gospel, would give us His flesh to eat and His blood to drink, so that we might have life in us.6
The third thing that Moses brought down from the mountain is what Saint Paul addresses so frequently in his epistles; the works and the disciplines and the condemnations of the Mosaic Law. And they were numerous. The Law defined what a Jew could or could not eat, and when he could know his wife, and what he could do, and how far he could travel on the Sabbath, and how he was to deal with lepers, and how to bury his dead. It defined property rights, and how one was to deal with servants, and slaves, and enemies. It prescribed mandatory penalties -- the death sentence in many cases -- for crimes like adultery, and murder, and sodomy, and ecumenism. In short, the Mosaic Law told the Jewish people how to live just about every aspect of their lives, without much room for personal choice or initiative. It is these things, Saint Paul reminds us, that we are freed from by the new law of grace and the "ministration that justifies."
We are not saved by circumcision (which predated Moses), or by what we eat, or by how many steps we take on Saturday, or whether or not we light a fire to cook our food on the Sabbath. We are saved by grace -- by cooperating with the graces God extends to us to make us His sons and daughters; by going out and living our lives in accord with the natural law and God's revelation, and by remaining in the state of God's grace through our association with Christ in the unbloody renewal of His Holy Sacrifice in the Mass.
Our Lord came "not to destroy, but to fulfill the law." The natural law will always be with us, and must be part of our lives. The "dead works of the Law," the ritual minutia of Old Testament Judaism, have been abolished. But they have been abolished precisely so that we may show our love for God voluntarily, working out our salvation in cooperation with His graces. The "river of blood" has been replaced with the perfect Sacrifice of God's only Son, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. "The ministration that justifies abounds in glory" -- but make no mistake about it, we are still under the Law, the Law of Grace. We are no longer servants but sons and daughters, but we still must make every effort to ensure our final salvation by doing God's will and by taking every opportunity -- be it by private prayer or Holy Mass -- to make ourselves radically holy by cooperating with His saving grace.
1. Epistle: 2 Corinthians iii: 4-9.