TUESDAY, MAY 28, 2013
The first reading for the Mass on Monday, May 27, 2013 contains insights and answers to our shrinking churches and to the gradual decline of organized religion. A passage, from the book of Sirach, traces out the way back to God. Because it is the key to saving souls, it is likewise the answer for our hemorrhaging parishes. But what the bible mandates as the way back to God, many of today’s Catholic communities have made optional. And here I speak of repentance: the giving up and turning away from sin, especially mortal sin.
“To the penitent God provides a way back, he encourages those who are losing hope and has chosen for them the lot of truth. Return to him and give up sin, pray to the LORD and make your offenses few. Turn again to the Most High and away from your sin, hate intensely what he loathes, and know the justice and judgments of God, stand firm in the way set before you, in prayer to the Most High God...How great the mercy of the LORD, his forgiveness of those who return to him!” (Sirach 17:20-23, 24)
Not only Scripture, but nature gives us clues about the value of repentance. And quite often, our Lord draws upon the lessons agriculture affords us. For instance, every gardener and farmer knows that in order to reap a good harvest, weeds need to be uprooted. If weeds are allowed to remain when seeds are planted, the integrity of the crop is then compromised.
Just as agricultural methods provide insights into the effective pastoral practices, Old Testament symbols prefigure New Testament realities. Circumcision, for instance, was a ritual applied to the male infant of eight days as a rite of initiation into the Old Covenant. But Christ inaugurated the Sacrament of Baptism to replace circumcision.
Another ritual in the Old Testament that traced out in symbolic fashion what was to be done in the New Testament, after the coming of Christ, is to separate the “unclean” from the “clean.” Any physical abnormality, blemish, deformity, blood, discharge of any kind and even contact with a human corpse was declared ritually “unclean.” But upon this declaration, a member of the religious community had to abstain from worship and fellowship for a certain period of time. While quarantined, the unclean member was to perform purification rites until the priest declared him or her “clean” again. For instance, in the book of Numbers and Leviticus it reads:
“The LORD said to Moses: ‘Order the Israelites to expel from camp every leper, and everyone suffering from a discharge, and everyone who has become unclean by contact with a corpse. Male and female alike, you shall compel them to go out of the camp; they are not to defile the camp in which I dwell.’" (Numbers 5:1-3) And a mother who had just given birth “shall not touch anything sacred nor enter the sanctuary till the days of her purification are fulfilled.” (Leviticus 12:4)
Now, this practice of religious exclusion possessed only symbolic value. In other words, that which was considered “unclean” was not actual sin. A physical deformity was not the cause of sin but neither did it have any spiritual effect upon the soul. And as for the purifications rites, it left the soul untouched. All of the Old Testament rituals did was forecast what was to come. But once Christ died for our sins and merited, for us, forgiveness from God, the rites became obsolete. This is exactly why the Letter to the Hebrews states the following:
“Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer offering for sin…[S]ince we have ‘a great priest over the house of God,’ let us approach with a sincere heart and in absolute trust, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water.” (Hebrews 10:18-22)
So what’s with all of the fuss in the Old Testament? Why have the Jewish people undergo rituals that had no effect upon the soul? Keep in mind that before Christ, the people of God and even the world to an extent, were on probation. Without the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, even the most loyal believers were mere servants of the Most High. They were not considered members of the household. But one very important service these Old Testament rituals performed was that they were a rehearsal for the good things to come.
God has traced out a path that leads to him. He did this in the Old Testament for the express purpose that this same path would be traveled with the aid of the Spirit during the Christian era. For the longest time, that path was well trodden by the Catholic pastors. After all, our Lord Jesus, the Pastor of pastors, told his Church to take this path when confronted with serious sins and obstinate sinners. But recently, this path has been abandoned. The result is that Catholics have a hard time telling the difference between what is “unclean” and “clean.” Her local parishes shines less brightly because of it.