When we read the Deuteronic text about keeping the law and all the statues and decrees, our hearts may start to deflate. What kind of a covenant are we being invited into that has at its center the keeping of laws, commandments and decrees? It doesn’t seem to be life-giving in ways that lift our spirits. We are so used to seeing the revelation of our God in the person of
Jesus Christ, that the invitation to be law abiding sounds constrained and wooden. Who would want a religious commitment defined in these terms?
But perhaps we are reading this passage through the lens of the Christian covenant that focuses on the person of Jesus Christ, and we might be missing the significance of the Mosaic covenant. We have to remember that earlier in Deuteronomy it is recorded that the people proclaimed: “What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray to him?” (Dt 4:7). For Israel, God’s care for them came in
the form of laws and decrees. These laws were not an imposition, but a gift of wisdom given to Israel as a way of keeping the Covenant of love with the living God. Following these laws was not a burden, but a joy to be engaged in “with all your heart and all your soul.” The Mosaic covenant was an agreement to follow the precepts of the beloved – not slavishly or to fulfill the
letter of the law, but to engage the beloved with a full heart.
We know the covenant with Moses was superseded by the covenant with God in Jesus Christ and in the power of the Spirit. At the Last Supper Jesus announced to his disciples that whatever they knew about covenants from their past was being surpassed in his person. Jesus’ living and dying for his beloved was symbolized in the bread blessed and broken and in the cup of wine spilt out in generous self-giving. God only asks that we receive this self-gift with our own gift of living and dying. That is what we say “yes” to in the eucharistic covenant; we observe this law of mutual self-giving with all our hearts and all our souls. And when should we make this covenant of mutuality? As the gospel acclamation proclaims, “Behold, now is a very acceptable time; now is the day of salvation.”
What else are we celebrating on this feast of the Institute if not our participation in this covenant of mutual self-giving which costs everything – and gives everything and more back. Pére Gailhac knew what it took to imitate Jesus Christ, to live as the beloved of the living God and to act with love toward all others. As he told the early communities, it is an effort of a lifetime. Learning to love and be loved is not as easy as the movies make it out to be. It takes generosity of spirit and the courage to risk that even our flaws and deep hurts can be redeemed in the love of another.
The gospel asks us to “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Now, be truthful!! How many of you silently dismissed this idea as outdated or misinformed when you heard it proclaimed just a few moments ago? As a Church, we have moved away from that notion of perfection in the spiritual life. For many of us it was a misguided effort to live beyond our very fleshy, sinful selves. It either made religious look superior to all others or it was simply rejected as impossible in the first place. I prefer another take on the translation. I got the idea from Iain Mathew’s book on St. John of the Cross. Mathew suggests that St. John is often accused of being a perfectionist. He’s not a perfectionist, Mathew argues; he is an extremist!!
An extremist in the ways of love. How far should we go in allowing the Beloved to love us and us to love our Beloved? How far is too far? How far is far enough? Go back to the gospel again and substitute extremist for perfectionist. “Be an extremist in love, just as your heavenly Father is an extremist in love.” That I can commit to! If that is the law of the gospel, it is a law of life and something worth my whole heart and soul. Of course, the gospel goes further, for we are to do that not just for our friends and family but with our enemies and those who persecute us as well.
If religious life is not about growing in the extremes of love, I don’t know what we are about. I think that Pére Gailhac and Mére St. Jean knew these things and, in the context of their own time, tried to shape the Institute and the individual sisters in these terms. Walking in the footsteps of our founders in learning the ways of love and doing the deeds of love could only
bring us to closer in identity with Jesus Christ – the model of our lives. That is, indeed, worth celebrating!