In my weekly commentary on the Mass I have now reached the First Reading, the Old Testament reading. Now remember, the basic point I am making in this commentary is that the Mass is the pattern for how we are to live our life, that everything we need to know about living as a Christian can be found in the very structure of the rite of the Eucharist.
How does this thesis apply to the reading of the Old Testament in our liturgy? The O.T. is a complex series of books, after all—stories, prophecies, law codes, wisdom literature, lamentations and exaltations. Parts of it appal us—mass slaughters and crude primitive justice. Parts of it baffle us—the obscure parts of the Law, prophetic passages filled with references to obscure places and long extinct tribes and nations.
It is way beyond my scope to provide a sweeping explanation for the O.T. and its place in our lives—Scripture scholars spend their lives on such things. I would say, though, that in this context of the Mass and its structuring of our life, we can say that the O.T., in general, is all about the past. It is about life before Christ, B.C. And as such, of course it is equal parts baffling, appalling, radiantly beautiful, but always flawed by human weakness and sin.
The O.T. is, basically, humanity. It is us, and we are equal parts appalling, baffling, beautiful, flawed. But the O.T. is more than that. It is humanity continually met by God—a God who at times is just as mysterious and baffling and whose actions can appal us, but God nonetheless. At every turn of the O.T., we meet man in all his moods and caprices, odd flashes of virtue and tragic lapses into villainy.
And at every turn in the O.T. we see God coming to man, veiled in mystery and hard to make out, for sure, but God nonetheless, coming to redeem, to teach, to heal, to lead, to rebuke, to punish, but always taking us somewhere, always seeming to have a plan to bring us somewhere, somehow.
The whole history of the O.T., of God’s people and their comings and goings to and from Him, only finally makes sense when we see that He was bringing them to a very fine and exact point, a point who is a person, a person who is young woman in a village called Nazareth who would finally and definitively say the great ‘yes’ of humanity to the great ‘Yes’ of divinity—and so Christ is born in human flesh. Everything from Adam and Eve to the last prophetic utterance is brought to its real meaning, its divine purpose and import, in this one young girl and her conversation with the angel Gabriel.
Well, what about you and me and the First Reading and the Mass? Well, each of us has a past, don’t we? Each of us has our own life ‘B.C.’, so to speak. Each of us has our baffling, appalling, beautiful, ugly, good, bad history, self, life. We all have baggage—the entire history of humanity is the baggage carried in the O.T. as a whole; but you and I have our own baggage, our own not-so-sacred history.
And the Church’s insistence from the very beginning to keep this messy business of the O.T., first in the canon of Scripture, but also in the liturgy of the Mass, is deeply meaningful for us. It means that God can redeem everything. It means that nothing, even the ugliest and most horrifying parts of our human life, is beyond the reach of redeeming love.
It means that everything that has ever happened to you, to me, to anyone—all of it, without exception!—whatever else it might mean, whatever else entered into it, has one final divine purpose and import. Everything in our lives is meant to bring us to the point and the place where we can say, as Mary did, “I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your will.” And in that, Christ is born in us. Christ lives in us. Christ suffers and dies in us. And Christ is risen in us, and we are raised up in Him.
The Old Testament in all its raw, earthy humanity, presents to us both a great promise and a great challenge (funny how those two things usually go together). Our real life is really taken up into the Real Life of God. Consoling, but also very challenging indeed. A call to Christian responsibility; a call to deep spiritual maturity; a call to look at everything that has been and that is in our life and to respond in Marian simplicity of heart to it, to open our innermost recesses of our being to the grace of Christ so that all of it, every particle of our being, every last second of our lives, can be met and transformed by redeeming love, so that the Old Testament of our lives can yield to the New Testament of grace and mercy, forever.