THE FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT
“When all else fails,” they say, “read the directions.”
Okay, but I think some would say, that takes all the fun out of it. And in a sense, that’s the truth.
You can plod right along, one eye on the directions, on the assembly manual, or on the recipe, just doing what it says, one step at a time. It works. But there’s not much flair to that.
That’s often a good way to start out, though. If you want to learn to dance, you can get instructions – sometimes even with cards that have footprints on them; just spread them on the floor and take one step at a time.
That works for practice, but it would look hilarious and disastrous, both, if you moved in that robotic way at the prom or Charities Dance or what-have-you. I can’t even imagine what that would do to your partner or date that night!
It’s a good way to learn a language, too – syllable by syllable, correct ending here, correct verb form there – puzzling it all out, one step at a time. Enunciating carefully, “Hel-lo, I yam…, uh, am looks, um look-ing for the rayell… rail-loads, rail-road sta-tion.”
That is how, years ago, I learned to swim, to shoot baskets, to pass a football. That’s how I learned German. That’s how I learned to change the oil in my car, and tighten the chain on my bike. That’s how I learned even how to drive a car and to ride a bike. That’s how I learned to make a pie – but my pies… well, we’d better stick with the oil change.
It’s a gangling, disarticulated, flailing process – no grace at all, no beauty, no flair. And no fun.
One of those Germans they taught me about, an 18th-19th-century poet and playwright, Heinrich von Kleist, told a fascinating little story.
Kleist told of a little girl who danced beautifully, with great natural talent and elegance. When she got to her teenage years, she went off to study dancing with the best masters.
Immediately, though, her dancing lost its grace; it became stiff and klutzy. She plodded through exercises, one… step… at… a… time. She learned techniques; she found out how to broaden her skills – learning great things that could make her dancing even more beautiful – could make it more beautiful.
But the gracefulness and the naturalness were not there anymore. All the girl’s focus was on the techniques, on the steps, on the movements… one by one. Do this. Now do that. Do this again.
It sounds like a sad story. But it’s not.
The young dancer had to focus on that, had to plod through new techniques, new moves. She was learning.
But after plodding through all those exercises, after painstakingly learning all those new techniques – learning them thoroughly, making them really her own – her natural grace and elegance, and that talent which had always been there somewhere – they began to show themselves again. They began to come through again.
Now, though, that talent and elegance and gracefulness had gained all those new ways of expressing themselves. Those moves and techniques had become – we even say it this way – had become second nature to the young dancer. Her wonderfully natural, child-like dancing had become a magnificent explosion of well developed beauty, more elegant, more refined. She became an even more graceful dancer than she ever had been before.
Does that story sound unusual?
No, I don’t suppose it does. We all learn that way. I can’t imagine that story is strange to any of us.
Yeah, it is pretty obvious that – not only my pie-making – but even my football, my swimming, my oil-changing have nothing like the grace of that young dancer. We might not be talking about world-class talent, but otherwise, our situation is like the young girl’s. We’ve all learned things by keeping one eye on the instructions, on the rules, on the plodding one-by-one Do this and Do that of things that are now -- now, after all that -- second nature to us.
The directions, the rules have become part of us. As the prophet Jeremiah would say, they have been “written on our hearts.” We don’t need to look constantly at the directions anymore.
“This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord. I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
Not rules, hearts. Not techniques and directions: Wash this; Wear that; Don’t eat this. And not stone tablets from a mountain top. The new covenant is a Person, a human being born in Bethlehem, crucified on a hilltop outside Jerusalem. In him, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people,” says the Lord.
The Law of Moses was – and is – so dear to the Jewish people because it is the sign and proof of their covenant, their relationship with God. It is a way for them and for those who notice them to be reminded of God; in their observance of the Law of Moses, one can, in a way, see something of God.
But that Law has 600-some prescriptions or commands. You have to keep one eye on the “rules” as you go through life, when there so many of those rules. And if those commands are the expression and guarantee of your relationship with the Lord… well, you can understand why they are so important, why one would want to keep an eye on them all.
The prophet Jeremiah today is talking about another covenant, though – one not written on stone. It is not like the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments inscribed on them, ten as symbolic of all 600-some.
This new covenant will be written on the hearts of God’s people. Not stone, but flesh – and the part of our flesh that we think of as most intimate and most personal.
It won’t be necessary to live with one eye on the complex instructions and prescriptions. The Ten Commandments – yes, those are still there. They’re no longer symbolic of the 600. They’re a way of understanding how to obey the two – now just two – commandments of the Law that Jesus proclaimed: love of God and love of neighbor.
Saint Paul says in Galatians (chap. 3) that we used to need that older, more complicated Law; we needed it as a teacher, as something to get us ready for the coming of Christ and his new covenant. We – the human race – were learning. It was a time of attention to the tiniest prescriptions. As the Old Testament describes it, sometimes it was a time of growing pains, sometimes a time of adolescent clumsiness, but always a time of struggling to learn God’s ways and the techniques of his covenant.
But now our new covenant is in Christ – a “new covenant in [his] blood” we will say when, in a few minutes, we use Jesus’ own words in the Eucharistic Prayer.
This is not a covenant of hundreds of rules. It’s not directions that one has to plod through. It’s not commands on stone, not written rules even so carefully interpreted and so devoutly kept.
It is to be a covenant of the heart, a covenant made in the blood of the Son of God, shed for us out of immense love.
In a very real sense, it is a covenant in a Person, not in a book, not on stone tablets, not in detailed rules. Christ is our covenant, Christ himself. He is the relationship between God and humanity; he is the sign, expression, and guarantor of our connection with God.
To see Christ now is to see God and our covenant with God. No wonder the Greeks wanted to “see Jesus,” as they told Philip in today’s Gospel.
Christ’s life – or, as the ancient Hebrews would say – as Jesus himself did say: his life-blood is the sign and sacrament of our covenant with God. Jesus’ life, which he gave for us, is the cause of that relationship. Jesus’ life, which he lived for us, is our pattern of response to that covenant.
We don’t live now by 600-some commands of a law. Our Law is Christ – something much more than the 600, more even than the Ten Commandments. Our Law is something far beyond their demands. In our Law, our Christ, we can see God.
Christ himself is the pattern of how we should live – a new covenant not in stone, not in writing, not in detailed rules: it is a covenant in the heart, in love, in flesh, in Christ.