“Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.” (Matthew 5:17)
Perhaps there are no words more important than these when we seek to understand what Scripture teaches us about Christ. For it is impossible to understand the things that Jesus did and said without the perspective of a first century Jewish person. Pope Benedict XVI tells us that the message of Jesus will be completely misunderstood if we separate it from the context of the faith and the hope of the Chosen people.
St. Augustine phrased it another way when he said that “the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.” If we simply base what we know about Christ and his teachings on the New Testament we will most certainly miss the point. We will fail to understand the meaning of the Old Testament and how it points to Christ and illumines everything he says and does.
The Jewish people at the time of Christ were awaiting the Messiah who was prophesied in the Old Testament. Some of them were most certainly anticipating a conquering king who would be a political leader and free them from Roman rule. But others saw something deeper. Before Moses died he prophesied that the twelve tribes of Israel would rebel against God and lose the Promised Land. But he also foresaw that God would send a new prophet like Moses into their midst (Deuteronomy 18:15-18).
For this reason Catholics look to the story of Moses and the exodus of the Jewish people from slavery out of Egypt and into the Promised Land as a “foreshadowing” of our own salvation journey. God raised up Moses from among his people and he performed many “signs” from God – miracles that set him apart and showed his anointing by God. At the time of Moses the Israelites were enslaved by the Egyptians, and God sent Moses to free them from the bondage of slavery and lead them to the Promised Land.
The freedom of the Israelites ultimately came when God instructed Moses on how the Passover Lamb was to be sacrificed. When the Israelites sacrificed the lamb and placed its blood upon the doorpost of their homes, the angel of death passed over their houses but killed the firstborn of all the Egyptians (Exodus 12:29-32). Pharoah then agreed to let Moses lead the Israelites from Egypt as free people. Pharoah later changed his mind and had his men go after them. Moses followed the command of God and parted the water of the Red Sea, and led the Israelites through the water safely to the other side. The water then swallowed up the Egyptian soldiers behind them (Exodus 14).
The story of course did not end there. God provided for the Israelites in the desert with the miracle of the daily manna as food for their journey to the Promised Land (Exodus 16). God entered into covenant with the Israelites at Mt. Sinai and they received the law, and the covenant was sealed by blood (Exodus 24:1-8). The necessity of the law was to help purge the ways of the Egyptian pagan culture from their midst. They may have left Egypt but that didn’t mean Egypt had yet left them.
The Israelites also received from God the way they were to worship Him – the construction of the tent of the meeting, the sanctuary, the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy of Holies. God also established the priesthood of the old covenant, detailed how their vestments should be, and the prescribed rituals of worship. (Exodus 25-31, 36-40). Anyone who thinks God doesn’t care about the “details” of worship should read these chapters from Exodus and remember that God doesn’t change.
The Israelites quickly failed in keeping their part of the bargain. When Moses was with God on Sinai they became restless, and fell into their former pagan ways. They constructed a golden calf as an idol to worship. They paid homage to this idol as the gods who had brought them out of the land of Egypt (Exodus 32). But Moses interceded for the people before God, and the result was God’s mercy. Although the Israelites failed many more times, and sometimes God let them experience the consequences of their actions, God was always faithful to the covenant He had made. And after forty years in the desert, the Israelites completed the journey of approximately 25 miles and reached the Promised Land. The people were sanctified and purified during their time in the desert. While the physical distance may have been short and should only have taken a few days, the spiritual distance they needed to travel was far indeed.
As Catholics we understand that the long awaited promise of another prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15-18) is fulfilled by Christ. He too arrived on the scene performing many “signs” among the people. Just as Moses had spent 40 days fasting and in prayer (Exodus 34:28) Jesus was led by the Spirit to the desert to fast and pray (Matthew 4:1-2).
Christ also came to a people who were in bondage. As the Israelites were enslaved by the Egyptians, Jesus comes to a world that has been enslaved by sin. He came to set his people free from this bondage, and to lead his own exodus from slavery to the Promised Land – heaven. And he began this exodus journey by becoming for us the fulfillment of the Passover lamb. As the Passover lamb was sacrificed and resulted in freedom from the Egyptians, Christ was sacrificed for us to free us from the bondage of sin.
As the Israelites began their journey from slavery to the Promised Land they crossed the Red Sea. St. Paul refers to this event as their being “baptized into Moses” (1 Corinthians 10:1-2). Our Baptism into Christ begins the journey for us. And as God provided the miraculous food of manna to sustain the Israelites on their journey, He provides the miraculous Eucharist for us as spiritual food to nurture and sustain and sanctify us. As Moses sealed the first covenant with blood (Exodus 24:8), Christ offered his blood to be poured out to seal the new covenant (Matthew 26:28, Mark 14:24, Luke 22:20, 1 Corinthians 11:25).
As the Israelites experienced with the golden calf, we too often fail in our part of the bargain as we continue to sin and establish our own “idols” over God. Yet God always remains faithful to His covenant with us. Our time on this earth is a parallel to those years the Israelites spent undergoing purification and sanctification in the desert. We could indeed choose to travel a more direct route. But like the Israelites we often get distracted by the things of the world and take our eyes off the goal. So the journey can take much longer and often be more painful than necessary due to our own decisions and lack of faithfulness. But for those who remain faithful until the end of the journey, the Promised Land of Heaven awaits.
Embedded deep within this story is the Catholic understanding of Eucharist. My next post will begin to look at this in more detail, with our understanding of Christ as our “Passover Lamb.”