Mt 5:17-19 Change and Continuity

Wednesday of the Tenth Week in Ordinary Time
(Click here for readings)

By Benedict Augustine
“Jesus said to his disciples:
‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.
I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away,
not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter
will pass from the law,
until all things have taken place.’”
In all periods, societies have always divided themselves on the issue of time: some people would place their hopes in the ideas of the future, and some would cling to the ideas of the past. In the times of the gospel, the Pharisees instructed their communities to follow the ideals of the past, recalling the brave deeds of the Maccabees who fought and died for the Law in the 2nd century BC. Opposing this emphasis on tradition, the Sadducees pledged their support to the kingdoms of the future, like Greece and Rome, who ironically fought against those same Maccabees. After the resurrection of Christ, Christians throughout the ages would debate on whether to maintain the practices of the past or embrace the practices of the future. When these sides could not come to an agreement, schisms would occur: in the first millennium, the Eastern Orthodox church broke away; in the second millennium, Protestant churches broke away, resulting in a cascade of innumerable denominations breaking off forever afterward. For most societies today, these two sides take on a more political character, with conservatives on side and liberals on the other; the former usually tries to ‘conserve’ the past while the latter tries to ‘liberate’ the future.
Although most people usually identify themselves as somewhere in between the conservative and liberal positions, their circumstances will usually force them to choose one or the other. This choice usually comes down to self-interest: those who profited from past systems usually want to keep it that way, and those who lost in those past systems will want to change it. Until “all things have taken place,” until Christ returns at the end of the world to redeem the rest of humanity, this tussle will rage on and on, leaving everyone dissatisfied and often tiring out the parties involved.
Only in Jesus will all men find rest, particularly in the quarrel between past and present. Because Jesus transcends time—His sacrifice at Calvary happens for all time, past, present and future—He allows his followers to do the same. This does not only happen on a metaphysical level, when souls pass into eternity, outside time, but also on a practical level in regards to history, inside time. Jesus states that He has “come not to abolish but to fulfill [the law and the prophets].” He does not come with some brand new idea that would supplant the old one, like a false messiah, nor does He come to repeat the old ideas, as the prophets did; He comes to make new sense of the old idea. The Old Testament makes little sense without Jesus, and Jesus makes little sense without the Old Testament. He does not represent the past, as the Pharisees, nor did he advocate the future, as the Sadducees. He stood for the present, the unobservable continuation of time between past and future. Hence, both the Sadducees and Pharisees could find the will to come together to condemn Him to crucifixion.
Continuity defines Jesus’ ministry, and it defines His Church. Continuity allowed Jesus to conserve the law while liberating it. It allowed Jesus to unite the old Jewish communities with the new Gentile communities to form the new church which would realize the hopes of the old one. When Jesus sends His Holy Spirit to the Church, He allowed this continuity to empower the church in spreading the gospel to “all the ends of the earth.” Like a vine, the early Church spread throughout the Roman Empire, with all the branches united to the stems, the stems connected to the trunk, the whole organism sustained by the continuity of Christ. Barnabas and Paul did not make new churches, but enlarged the same Church that started with Jesus. When some of their communities opted for the old ways, like the converted Pharisees requiring circumcision (Acts 15:1-5), or the new ways, like the Greeks thinking Paul and Barnabas were new gods (Acts 14:8-18), Paul had to redirect them to continuity of Christ, which transcended these misconceptions. Hence, the people in Antioch simply started calling themselves “Christians,” people who took in all time as Christ did.
The very life of the Church depends on this continuity. Movements that espouse a complete break from the past will often leave the world in flames; consider the carnage of the thirty year war, the French Revolution, the World Wars, and Totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century. In a similar way, movements to preserve the past also exact a price on peoples; consider the slavery of New World colonies, or the archaic tribalism of the developing world keeping the majority their populations in bondage and ignorance. Despite their gleaming rhetoric, history has shown that hoping in future utopias or trying to restore past glory inevitably leaves the world fractured and in the dark.
Even the Catholic Church wrestles with this issue. On one side, some liberal Catholics hope in a utopian Church embracing all new ideas indiscriminately; on the other side, some traditional Catholics try desperately to restore the Church that existed before Vatican II, dismissing all new ideas indiscriminately. Neither side should hold sway: the liberal vision would lead to a church without Christ, and thus reason to exist; the conservative vision would lead to legalistic church incapable carrying out Christ’s mission to all peoples. Rather, Catholics today should recognize the wisdom of the past while acknowledging the challenges of the future—they can take their cue from the popes, including Francis, who nearly all embody this approach.
Sometimes the continuity of Christ is a narrow way between polarizing divisions that grow as the world grows more and more uncertain. Fortunately, Christ Himself will help navigate through this path, since He Himself is the path and the guide all in one. At the end of this lies mankind’s salvation.


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Fr. Alfonse (1044 Posts)

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