Sermon on the Mount (detail), Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834–1890), 1877; Frederiksborg Castle, Hillerød, Denmark

Fr Thomas’s homily at Mass on the Third Sunday in Lent (7 March)

“God spoke all these words, saying, I am the Lord your God.”

Last week we heard about the great moment when Christ’s divinity was shown to S. Peter, S. James, and S. John; but along with them on the holy mountain there were two other figures: Moses and Elijah. Two great figures from the Old Testament, and nobody could deny that they are both suitable as representatives of the history of the people of Israel — a history which reached its culmination in the coming of Christ. But among the great figures of that history, there are many others which we might think as suitable as well. Abraham, the Father of the great nation; Noah, whose righteousness lead to the preservation of humanity; David and Solomon, kings who held the nation together and established the worship of God in the Temple — but, no, it was to be Moses and Elijah because they were very deliberate choices.

For the people of Israel, Elijah was the great prophet; there were many others, but none was seen as reaching the stature of Elijah. In particular, as he was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire rather than die in the usual manner, he was to be the herald of the Messiah — the Jews knew that he would come and acclaim the Messiah and that this would help them to recognise that Messiah. This makes him an absolutely natural choice for the Transfiguration.

Moses stands at the head of the other great tradition of ancient Israel: the Law. The two pillars which were seen as upholding the faith were the Law and the Prophets. Elijah was the greatest of the prophets, and Moses was the great law-giver. The Law was seen as the foundation of the nation, looking through the Old Testament, several times we hear of the great care which was given to keeping it wherever possible. As he was taken into exile, Daniel worked hard to ensure that along with those closest to him, he could keep to the dietary requirements of the law by not eating unclean meat. When the Maccabees fought for the freedom of the nation, they carefully and prayerfully reflected on whether they could fight on the sabbath. When Ezra read the Law publicly to the people after the long exile in Babylon, they wept on hearing what they had lost in those years of separation. All of this law came to them through Moses — so it’s clear that Moses should be there with Christ.

But, surely this doesn’t really matter to us? Christianity has moved beyond the Law, hasn’t it? We’re no longer simply about following a complex set of rules, for fear that if we break one of them we’ll offend God who will smite us in retribution — so none of this should interest us, surely.

Clearly the Church considers that the law is important enough to include the account of how it was given in the readings we hear. Indeed, Christ himself said that not a single jot of the law is removed. But what Christ also did, was to show us the true meaning of the Law. The Law, as understood by Christ, as preached by the Church, is not simply about that complex set of rules — it is about leading us closer to God.

In many cases we have moved on from the minute regulations — we can relish black-pudding, and can serve meat in the same dish as dairy — but it is a mistake to think that the Law has been removed. It has not been removed, but it has been put into the right context.

We know that the law cannot save us, however hard we strive and fight to follow it, that isn’t going to be enough to get us into heaven. But this need not worry us, because we don’t need the law to save us — we have the fulfilment of the Law, Christ himself, who can save us.

Rather we can see in the Law, the way that God is guiding us to be closer to him; closer to those around us; and purer in our hearts. The ten commandments, which we heard in our reading, deal with how we should approach God and then how we should deal with our neighbours. These were summarised by Christ as loving God completely, and loving our neighbour as ourselves. If we look through the full set of ten, reading them with that summary in mind, we can see that sense of love pervading them all.

Loving God is incompatible with worshipping other supposed gods (whether other religions, or whether material gods such as money), it is also incompatible with taking his name in vain. Loving our neighbours is incompatible with stealing from them or bearing false witness against them. We need to capture that fullness which is present in the Law — the motivation underneath it, the way that it all springs from God’s love.

This does not mean that we leave the law behind, but rather that we seek to rise higher. The demands which it places on us are still there, and we still struggle with some of those demands. But we no longer try to follow it for fear of displeasing God, but out of love for him and out of love for our neighbours. If we do this, the Law’s real power for good is shown. With God’s grace in our hearts, the Law can help to purify our minds, can help us to grow in true love; can help us to grow closer to God.

When God gave the Law to Israel, it wasn’t just a stop-gap measure until Christ would come along; it was part of the unfolding of his plan of salvation. The Law points forward to Christ, and he fulfils it. We know that it cannot save us — only God can do that — but we receive it as part of his gift to us. A gift which if we use it properly, seeking to grow in unity with God through it, can build us up, can transform us step-by-step to be that person who loves God with all of his heart and mind, and therefore also loves his neighbour as himself.

Let us give thanks to God for that gift of the Law; repenting of the times we have ignored it and strayed from his guidance; and asking for his strength to grow closer to his image.