FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT – APRIL 9, 2000 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
Already in the New Testament, and throughout Christian history, the reading we have heard from the prophet Jeremiah has served as one of the primary descriptions of the new covenant, the new relationship initiated by God between himself and humanity. This new covenant will not be like the former one. Like the old covenant, the new one will have a law, but it will be a law written on hearts; because it is written there, it will not be something that will need to be taught by others. “All, from the least to the greatest, shall know me, says the Lord…. I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
The early Christians often linked this prophecy with another, in the book of Ezekiel: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all your impurities, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you hearts of flesh. I will put my spirit within you and make you live by my statutes, careful to observe my decrees. You shall live in the land I gave your fathers; you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”
The contrast here is between the external and the internal. The old law was written on stone tablets, and Ezekiel says, the people were stony in their disobedience. The new law will turn their hearts to flesh, bring them alive, and on them the new law will be written. But what can be meant by a law written on hearts? Ezekiel gives the answer: “I will place a new spirit within you and make you live by my statutes.” A new heart will have a new spirit, eager to do God’s will; the new law will be a new spirit of eagerness. St. Thomas Aquinas put the two prophecies together and said that the new law of the new covenant is the grace of the Holy Spirit. This was the distinctive essence, he said, the defining characteristic, and everything else about Christianity, everything external, hierarchy, even the sacraments, even the Scriptures, he said, everything was related to this center, serving either to prepare for the grace of the Spirit or to articulate its implications. And all of those other things, even the sacraments, even the Scriptures, without the Spirit, are the letter that killeth; only the Spirit gives life.
These Scriptures, so interpreted, pose a real challenge to us. The Catholic Church has many externals: a well-articulated governmental system, a well-developed creed, a detailed code of law, all of this constituting so complex and institutionalized a religion that throughout its long history it has often been criticized as returning to the old covenant of external obligation and enforced obedience. That, no doubt, has happened at times. But the fault has not lain only with those in authority, tempted to think that the Church lives by the logic of authority and obedience; often enough Catholics themselves have been content with a personal religion of external observance, with little eagerness about it, leaving Christian spontaneity to others, called saints, admired perhaps, but from afar, while the ordinary folk can be content with the minimum of obedience to commands received from without.
If these scriptural texts are right, then such people, whether in authority or in the pews, are still living under the former covenant. The laws are still external, and the hearts are still stony. There is no heart of flesh, no new divine spirit, no eagerness, no willingness. I have before from this pulpit compared this state to that of a husband or wife who is reluctantly faithful to his or her spouse. Would we not agree that this would fall far short of a true marriage? Would anyone of us be content that this is one’s spouse’s attitude or state of heart? Well, if these prophecies are correct, neither is God.
Where there is a heart of flesh and a new spirit, there is something like a new law. It is the sort of thing that we discern when we describe a person’s character, what that person lives for, what spontaneities define him or her, what typifies them. You can see it in a parent who unthinkingly acts to defend a child or to help a child; think what sacrifices parents spontaneously do for their children, and how odd they would find it to be asked, “Why do you do that?” They do that because they love, love for their children is the law of their lives. And they don’t need to be taught by others what to do; love knows what to do. Love writes its own law on their hearts. That is what the prophets are talking about.
When something like that love defines our relationship to God, then commandments are not obligations imposed from without and obeyed, perhaps reluctantly, out of fear of punishment or in hope of reward. If the love of God is in us by the grace and movement of the Holy Spirit, there is a spontaneity, an eager willingness, to our Christianity, whether in our relations with God, in our prayer, or in our relationships with one another. The new law is God’s law, yes, and remains even when we may find ourselves not eager to obey it; but when the two great commandments are obeyed, then this law has become the law of our own hearts, now defining ourselves, typifying ourselves, teaching us what to do in virtue of the spontaneities of our own hearts. St. Thomas once said that if we do good and avoid evil only because the one is commanded and the other forbidden, we are not free; but if we do good because it is good and avoid evil because it is evil, then our hearts accord with God’s, and we are free with the freedom Christ won for us.
“Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there there is freedom.” A free man is his own cause, while a slave is caused by his master. Whoever acts on his own acts freely, while whoever acts because moved by another does not act freely. One who avoids evil not because it is evil but because of the Lord’s commandment is not free, while one who avoids evil because it is evil is free. And this is what the Holy Spirit accomplishes for he inwardly perfects the mind by a good habit so that one avoids evil as if a divine law forbade it and thus is said to be free not indeed because he is not subject to the divine law but because by the good habit he is inclined to do that which the divine law ordains” (Ad II Cor, III, lect. 3, #112)
“There are two ways in which a law can be given,” St. Thomas said. “One is externally, by proposing words for the knowledge of another. This is how men can give a law, and this is the way in which the Old Testament was given. The other is by operating internally, and this is proper to God…, and this is how the New Testament was given, because it consists in the infusion of the Holy Spirit who instructs internally. Knowledge, of course, is not enough; action is also required. And thus God first enlightens the mind so that it may know. And so the text says, ‘I will give you my laws,’ and it is in the plural because of the various precepts and counsels. And this the Holy Spirit does: ‘His anointing teaches us’ (1 Jn 2:27); ‘He will teach you all things’ (Jn 14:26). And God also inclines the affections to do good, which is why it is impressed upon the heart. And this is why the text says, ‘I will write it upon their hearts,’ that is, upon knowledge I will write charity. ‘Above all things charity’ (Col 3:14) and ‘The love of God is poured out into our hearts’ (Rm 5:5). And this is the epistle about which he said, ‘Not with ink but by the spirit of the living God, not on stone tablets, but on the fleshy tablets of the heart.’” (Comm. on Hebrews, VIII, lect. 2, #404)
“You are not under the law, but under grace.” Here we should note that he is not speaking here only of ceremonial law but also about moral law, and a person can be said to be “under the law” in two ways. First, he may be so as willingly subject to observing the law. In this way even Christ was under the law, as Gal 4:4 says: “Made under the law,” because, that is, he observed the law not only with regard to morality but also with regard to ceremonies. Believers in Christ are indeed in this way under the law with regard to morality but not with regard to ceremonies. In the other way someone is said to be “under the law” when coerced by the law, and in this way a person is said to be “under the law” who does not voluntarily, out of love, observe the law but out of fear is forced to observe it. Such a person lacks grace, which, if it were present, would incline the will to observe the law so that he would fulfil its moral precepts voluntarily. Thus as long as someone is under the law in this way, so that he is not voluntarily fulfilling it, sin dominates in him insofar as the will of the person is inclined in such a way that he desires what is contrary to the law. By grace such a dominance is taken away so that a person keeps the law not as one who exists under the law, but as a free person. “We are not children of the servant but of the free woman, with the freedom by which Christ freed us” (Gal. 4:31)” (Ad Rom, ch. VI, lect. 3, #497).
Measured by this criterion, surely we all have to admit how far short we fall. Lent is a time for recognizing this, and never more so than when faced, as today, not with another reminder of external obligation, but by a call to inner, heart-felt, spirit-driven life. If we undertake a serious self-examination, it should not be focused simply on our obedience to external commandments, but on how well we have sought to live that kind of life. The responsorial psalm today, the great “Miserere,” has prayers we might say: “Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness, in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offenses…. A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me. Cast me not out from your presence, and your Holy Spirit take not from me. Give me back the joy of your salvation, and a willing spirit sustain in me.” How often have we prayed for Christian joy, for a willing spirit?
Next week we will all have opportunities to reflect on these things and to say these prayers when the parish offers Lenten penance-services. I urge you to take advantage of them, and to do so, not reluctantly, but eagerly, with a sense that they are an occasion for embodying the psalmist’s attitudes of genuine repentance, of wanting to have our hearts cleansed, of renewing the Holy Spirit within us, of finding again a joy in our Christianity, of possessing once again a willing Christian spirit. Think of the sacrament as a renewal of the new covenant between you and God, almost like a renewal of a marriage-vow. That comparison is not idle: the words which both prophets use resemble the marriage vows in ancient Israel: “I will be your husband, and you will be my wife,” was the marriage vow then. “I will be your God, and you shall be my people,” says the Lord. And what he said to Israel, he says to the Church, and he says to each of us. God does not want a reluctant people; he does not want a reluctant servant; he wants our hearts.