Many people have tried to read the Bible from cover to cover, from the book of Genesis all the way through the book of Revelation. However, spiritual directors typically do not recommend reading the Bible this way, especially for beginners. It is not an easy task and can be discouraging to those who are young in their faith. While there are many beautiful and illuminating passages throughout Scriptures, there are also sections with long genealogies and tedious historical accounts that seem flat and monotonous.
Where people typically say they give up on reading the Bible this way is in the book of Leviticus. It is the third book of the Bible and contains many chapters which go on and on describing in detail how temple rituals are to be performed including how animals are to be sacrificed, what vestments the priests are to wear and how those participating in the rituals must purify themselves before taking part. There are also strict dietary laws and rules about observing the Sabbath.
To us in the twenty-first century, these rules seem arcane and legalistic. What possible spiritual benefit could anyone gain from observing them? However, we must keep in mind that these laws are a part of God’s word. Though we no longer follow many of them today, they served an important role in shaping the life and faith of the Jewish people. For instance, the meticulous rituals taught the Israelites that God is holy, that He is the one God, greater than all the other gods of the pagans. The sacrifice of animals taught them that God is the Creator and that all life belongs to Him. By following the rules of ritual purity, God’s People learned that they must respect Him and approach Him with humility. Finally the dietary laws and Sabbath rules helped the Jewish people hold on to their religious identity when they were forced to live among pagan peoples. Therefore, the Jewish people did not look upon these many laws as a heavy burden but as a blessing given them by God. They were taken very seriously by all Jews including Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the apostles.
However, it is human nature that when we are presented with laws we try to look for loopholes. We look for ways to meet the bare minimum that the rules require. We try to figure out how much we can get away with without breaking the commandments. The same is true of the Jewish people. For that reason, God sent prophets to remind them that the law was meant to train them to treat each other charitably, especially the poor. Through the prophet Hosea, God would say, “It is mercy I desire and not sacrifice” (Hos 6;6). Through Isaiah God would proclaim, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” (Is 58:6). It is clear that to please God it takes more than following rules and regulations. It requires more than ritual or dietary purity. It also requires moral purity, purity of heart. As the prophet Micah teaches, “And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God? (Mic 6:8).
Today we celebrate the feast of the Presentation of the Lord. Jesus, Mary and Joseph travel to the temple in Jerusalem to fulfill one of the dictates of the law - that of offering sacrifice for a firstborn son. This was done to recall how when the people were enslaved in Egypt the angel killed the firstborn sons of their captors but spared the firstborn of the Israelites. The law required that a sacrifice of a lamb, a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons be offered. Scripture scholars tell us that because Joseph and Mary were poor, they were not required to bring a lamb. However, there is another way to look at this. Could it be that they did not bring a lamb because Jesus Himself was the lamb?
Jesus is the Lamb of God who is sacrificed on the cross for our sins. We no longer observe all the sacrifices and ritual laws of the Old Testament because Jesus has met them all for us by offering Himself on the cross. His death made all the sacrifices of the Old Testament obsolete. We no longer need to offer bulls, lambs or turtledoves to find forgiveness for our trespasses. God has taken care of all that through the blood of His only Son. As we read today in the book of Hebrews, “Through death [Jesus destroyed] the one who has the power of death...to expiate the sins of the people.” Through our baptism we have been made pure to worship God and to enjoy a personal relationship with Him.
There are still rules we must follow. However, they are just the minimum that is required of us. Like the people of the Old Testament, we can fall into the trap of only trying to meet the rules without living the faith in all its fullness. We can become content with making it to Mass every Sunday yet fail on Monday to live the demands of the gospel we heard. When we do that, our faith becomes lifeless. It becomes just a matter of jumping through hoops. We do not exude the joy of the good news.
To be true followers of Jesus, then, we need the purity of heart which the Old Testament speaks of, a purity that is not content with keeping rules but with showing love. If we are to truly know the God who reveals Himself in Jesus Christ we must not only keep the letter of the law but the spirit of the law. We must forgive those who offend us just as God has forgiven us in Christ. We must reach out to the poor, the needy and the sick as Jesus did. Then our prayers, our sacrifices and our good works will be acceptable to God. Then we will know the salvation that Jesus died on the cross and rose in glory to make possible for us.
It is customary on this feast day to bless the candles that will be used in the church in the coming year. They serve as symbols of Jesus who is the Light of the World. This same Jesus calls us to be light for a world plunged in the darkness of fear, skepticism, denial and hatred. If we are content to simply follow the rules, our light will be dim at best. But if in the power of the Spirit we love our neighbor, feed the hungry, show mercy to sinners and give comfort to those in need, then we will radiate hope to a world that does not need more judgment or more laws but, instead, needs more of Jesus and His love.