Third Sunday of Lent – March 11, 2012 – St. John’s
Our first two readings today set out two dimensions of Christianity. The first is given in the reading from the Book of Exodus in which Moses brings the ten commandments to the Israelites. For many Christians, unfortunately, the whole of their religion is considered to consist of obedience to these words: Christianity is a set of “Thou shalts” and especially of “Thou shalt nots.” These are often thought of simply as externally imposed commandments, as in the image of them inscribed on tablets.
That these ten commandments describe a code of morality with God’s authority behind it is, of course, something we Christians believe, as do Jews and Muslims for that matter. But they are not the first words that are spoken by God to Israel. In our first reading we heard the sentence that serves as a kind of preface to the ten commandments: “I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery.” The first word spoken on the mountain evoked the act by which God had liberated this people: it was a reminder of the grace in which they already stood. It was to this initiating, liberating God that they were called to respond, which is what they did, when at the end of the whole scene at the foot of Mt. Sinai, they declared their readiness to enter into covenant with God: “All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do”, and Moses sealed the covenant with the blood of sacrificed animals (Ex 24: 3-8).
The dimension of Christianity as a moral life, then, must be understood within the context of a prior dimension, which is announcement of what God has done: we are to act in such a way because God has acted toward us in his way of grace. This is set out clearly also in the second reading, where Paul contrasts what he brings as an apostle to common expectations: Jews want mighty signs, Greeks want wisdom, he says, but what do we proclaim: Christ crucified! A stumbling block that prevents Jews from believing, utter foolishness to Greeks. (One thinks of an early mocking, crude graffito that shows a donkey-headed man hanging on a cross: “Alexamenos worships his god,” says the caption.) But in the death and resurrection of Christ Christians, both Jews and Greeks, see the wisdom and power of God. God’s folly is wiser than what the world considers wisdom, his weakness stronger than the world’s strength.
This announcement is for Christians what the reminder that introduces the ten commandments was for the Jews. The Exodus was the original fact, the fact that originated Israel as a people, gave them their identity, and underlay how they were to respond as God’s liberated people. In the same way, Christianity originates out of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in which we are given to see what divine wisdom and power really are, in which we are to find our identity as a liberated people, because of which we commit ourselves to living lives inspired and directed by this new definition of what wisdom is, what power is.
The commandments remain as the authoritative description of how we are to live our lives–the giving over of the ten commandments is an important moment in the process by which catechumens are readied for baptism. And it hardly needs to be said that obeying the commandments requires breaking at many points from attitudes and behavior tolerated and even prized in our culture: from various kinds of idolatry, from greed, from sexual license and promiscuity, from violence and desire for revenge. It is appropriate, then, that the commandments should be brought to us again during Lent.
But it is just as important to have brought before us again, as we live our Lent, the great mystery toward which this season moves: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christ’s passover from death to life should evoke our passage from death to life in baptism, and that remembrance should lead us to renew that liberating passage in our repentance and recommitment to a life worthy of the great liberating initiative of God.