MARCH 14, 2007- WEDNESDAY OF 3RD WEEK OF LENT: DT 4:1, 5-9; MT 5; 17-19

I HAVE COME, NOT TO ABOLISH THE LAW AND THE PROPHETS BUT TO FULFILL THEM. The Gospel today includes a statement by our Lord that, taken out of context, could appear at variance with a number of other teachings on the law that he stated with marked deliberateness and affirmed with impressive forcefulness. For instances, he taught that "it is not what goes into a man that makes him unclean, but what comes out of his heart. The Evangelist comments on this saying by noting that "thus did he make all foods clean."In other words, he put aside the dietary laws with a single saying. And so, however one might understand today’s words to the effect that whoever breaks the least significant of these commandments... shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven", it cannot mean we are held to all the 613 prescriptions that the pharisees counted in the Torah.

In the primitive communities of apostolic times where nearly all the members of the Church came out of Judaism, the law was held in deep reverence, and its prescriptions observed as a matter of piety. Only with careful distinctions and much reflection did St. Paul work out a theology that dealt in some detail with the relation between faith in Christ and the works of the law. Even after he worked out the principles involved a good number of issues remained for the Church to confront as time and circumstance required. St. Augustine wrote extensively on the relation between law and grace, and even he left some issues unresolved. To treat of the place of the law, the Torah as the Hebrews call it, is to touch on such related matters as free-will, grace, guilt, and merit; in short, it is to enter into the mystery of God’s plan of salvation and to engage oneself in the process of conversion and life in the Spirit.

That the early Cistercians viewed matters precisely in this way appeared from the very beginnings of our Order. They had made profession to live the Rule of St. Benedict and felt bound by its provisions as they understood them. The Rule was the law of God as it applied to their daily life and they felt judged by its directives. In treating of the spiritual implications raised by the tension between the letter of the Rule and the freedom of the Gospel, St. Bernard spelled out the issues in such a way as to reconcile the demands of both, as far as that is possible in this life. He took up this theme, significantly, in his work "On Loving God".

The immaculate law of God, then, is charity ... It is called law either because He lives by it or because no one possesses it except by His gift. Nor is it absurd that I say God lives by law since I say that law is nothing else than charity. For what preserves that supreme and ineffable unity in that supreme and blessed Trinity save charity? Charity then is a law and it is the law of the Lord that in a manner confines the Trinity in unity and binds it together in the bond of peace. (De diligendo Deo xii.35, PL 182:996).

Not long after, another Cistercian abbot, Isaac of Stella, managed to sum up Bernard’s teaching and pass it on to another generation in a lapidary formula that reads in rime in its Latin phrasing: "Lex est amor qui ligat et obligat." (Law is love that binds and obligates.) [Sermon 16]

That our predecessors in the Cistercian way rightly captured our Lord’s meaning concerning the central issue of law and grace is evident from another exchange that Jesus had one day with a lawyer who raised this very issue with him."Master", he asked, "which is the greatest commandment of the law?" Jesus said in reply: "You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. The second resembles it: ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself.’" (Mt 22:35ff.)

All of us know by experience how challenging it can be to reconcile obligation with love. We soon learn how far such a challenge surpasses our weakness and so daily we return here to the altar to seek the light and strength we require to put into practice the teaching of our Savior, convinced that he who commands us to love gives us the love of His Son that we might fulfill His will and so be united with Him in the bonds of love.

 

 

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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