Fulfilling The Law Christ Gave Us: Being His True Follower
Homily for the Feast of Christ's Circumcision, Feast of St. Basil and the Beginning of the Civil New Year
by Fr. George Morelli, Sermon delivered, January 1, 2012.
"... and the favor of God was upon Him."
Today's Gospel reading from our Sacred Scripture, born out of the Sacred Tradition of the Church as inspired by the Hoy Spirit, comes from St. Luke's 2nd Chapter. [a little side bar: I prefer to call Old and New Testaments: Sacred Scripture -meaning writings that are 'sacred'; rather than the word bible which implies Sacred Scripture is 'authoritative in and of itself'-a Protestant notion. In the Orthodoxy we know authority is given to the Church by Christ's sending the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and out of which over centuries some traditions were written and canonized by the Churchi -by the power of the Holy Spirit.]
The reading today tells of two separate historically different incidents detached by 19 verses in St. Luke's Chapter, but however the incidents are spiritually connected. The first incident refers to Christ's circumcision eight days after His Nativity. The second incident discusses an event 12 or so years later when the Holy Family journeyed to the Temple in Jerusalem to observe the Passover Feast (which they did each year as St. Luke informs us).
The spiritual connection between these two historical events St. Theophylact tells us is that God's Commandments to His people in the first Covenant were "given in the law and anyone who transgressed this law, and anyone who transgressed those commandments was under condemnation."ii Jesus was circumcised so that He could show He "fulfilled the law" and remove "condemnation from us". Likewise St. Luke's choice of words to describe the action of Jesus 12 years later: what Jesus did was not opposed to God, at the end of the Passover Feast " when the feast was ended" are the operative words. (Lk 2:43)
Even though Christ's public life, to begin when He reached 30 years of age, had not yet begun, He began to teach those in the Temple. Jesus teaching was authentic, because He was not opposed to the law, but fulfilled the law, and now He could teach all the true meaning of the law.iii The Hebrew torahiv contains many laws, which Jesus tells us were performed for the sake of the law itself and not in terms of the spirit of how the law should be understood.v That is to say love of God and neighbor.
To the Galatians (2: 19) St. Paul writes: "For I through the law died to the law, that I might live to God." He tells the Romans (13: 8,10): "Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law." What is the authenticity of our lives? Do we fulfill love of God and our neighbor? Do we fulfill the law as given to us by Christ? How many times have we preached from this pulpit, love of God, means being attached to Him in the very depths of our hearts.
What are the works that we must do that follow from Christ's teachings? Such works at the minimum include attending Divine Liturgy each Sunday and Feast-day; not merely confession of sins, but repentance of sins - a metanoia, a change of mind, heart and action not to sin again; frequent daily prayer-the lifting of our minds and hearts to God; a constant remembrance and love of God, and a deep love of neighbor.
Love of neighbor begins at the very least as given in a short summary by St. Paul to the Galatians: "gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. (5: 23). "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ" (6: 2). This especially means forgiveness of our enemies, starting at the minimum by praying and desiring their salvation.
Keep in mind Jesus' admonition: "And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return." (Lk 6: 33,35). This is a start to give us the authority to call ourselves true followers of Christ - true Orthodox Christians, God's favor will be upon us. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.
i The Orthodox Church uses the Septuagint Version of Sacred Scripture the Greek Version used by Jesus in His Temple preaching (i.e. Mk 14: 29: "Daily I was with you in the temple teaching..", contains several books not found in the modern Protestant texts: (1-2 Esdras, Judith, Tobit, 1-4 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Baruch).
iii The many Gospel references where Jesus teaches as in Mt 12: 1-8): "At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, "Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath." He said to them, "Have you not read what David did, when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are guiltless?" I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, `I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of man is lord of the Sabbath." As Jesus told the Rabbis the true meaning of the law. To their question: "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?" And he said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets." (Mt 22: 36-40)
"'...and in vain they revere Me teaching as precepts the commandments of men.' For having left the commandment of God, ye keep on holding the tradition of men--dippings of pitchers and cups and many other such like things ye do." And He was saying to them "Ye set at naught altogether the commandment of God, that ye might keep your own tradition. For Moses said , 'Be honoring thy father and thy mother'; and, 'The one who speaketh evil of father or mother, let him come to an end by death.' But ye say, 'If a man should say to his father or his mother, "Whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me is Corban" ' (that is, a votive gift); then ye no longer permit him to do anything for his father or for his mother, because ye invalidated the world of God by your tradition which ye delivered; and many such like things ye do."