“Though the mountains should fall and the hills be shaken, My love will never leave you” (Is 54:8). These words spoken through the prophet Isaiah demonstrate the stability and sureness of God’s love for His people, a theme that runs through the Old Testament. The Psalms repeat the refrain, “The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love” (e.g. Ps 103:8; Ps 145:8; Ps 86:5).
God’s love is stable because God is great and awesome. God’s awesomeness and greatness are depicted powerfully in His interactions with His people at Mount Sinai: “The glory of the Lord rested on Mount Sinai… the glory of the Lord looked like a devouring fire on the mountain” (Ex 24:16-17).
So overwhelming was the presence of God that Moses warned the people not to touch the mountain or they would die. God’s gift of the ten commandments, the heart of the Law, was accompanied by demonstrations of wonder:
And when all the people perceived the thunder and the lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled; and the stood afar off, and said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will hear; but let not God speak to us, lest we die’ (Ex 20:18-19).
God’s intervention in the giving of a basic moral code remains a cause for awe. Jesus had the greatest respect for the Law. St. Thomas Aquinas affirms:
Christ fulfilled the precepts of the Old Law both in His actions and in His teaching. In His actions, because He was willing to be circumcised and to fulfill the other legal observances, being according to Galatians 4:4, ‘born under the Law.’ In His teaching… by explaining the true sense of the Law… not only to refer to the exterior act… but extended also to the interior acts of sins… Our Lord fulfilled the precepts of the Law by adding some counsels of perfection (Summa Theologiae, 1a.2ae, 107, 2).
Christ brought something more, by giving us confidence in our access to God. Today’s second reading, from the Letter to the Hebrews, 12:18-19, 22-24, describes how believers are enabled to enter the worship of God:
You have drawn near to Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to millions of angels in festal gathering, to the assembly of the first-born enrolled in heaven, to God the judge of all, to the spirits of the just made perfect, to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant (Heb 12:22-24).
As awesome and great as God is, we are able to “draw near.” It is appropriate to have a certain type of fear of God. St. Thomas distinguishes between “servile fear,” which fears punishment and “filial fear,” which “becomes a child fearing to offend a father” (2a2ae. 19, 2). As children mature, they fear to offend their parents out of love not fear of punishment.
The Letter to the Hebrews describes Moses himself as being frightened, referring back to Moses’ first encounter at the burning bush: “And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God (Ex 3:6):
Thomas reflects on Moses’ fear even though he was more perfect than the others: “This was a sign that the Law was terrifying even to the perfect: because it did not give grace but merely disclosed guilt” (Commentary on the Letter to the Hebrews).
What is Thomas’ point? The commandments tell us what to do and what not to do but the responsibility is on us. The obligations of the Law brought a burden. In the Acts of the Apostles, Peter maintains that the law was a heavy yoke, “which neither we nor our fathers were able to bear’ (Ac. 15:10).
Thomas states that the “law” that is given to us by Christ is the grace of the Holy Spirit within us: “The New Law is chiefly the grace itself of the Holy Spirit, which is given to those who believe in Christ” (Summa Theologiae, 1a2ae. 106, 1).
Thomas shows the connection between the giving of the Law and the giving of the Spirit. The Law was given on Mount Sinai fifty days after the Passover, when the Israelites left Egypt. The Greek name for this feast was Pentecost, from the Greek word for fifty. The Spirit was given to the disciples on Pentecost, fifty days after Jesus rose.
Thomas Aquinas reflects: “In the New Law, the fire of the Holy Spirit was given (Ac. 2). For as the fire appeared to the Israelites fifty days after their departure from Egypt, so the Holy Spirit’s fire, which could not be sensed, but perceived by the mind, appeared to the disciples on the fiftieth day after the resurrection” (Commentary on the Letter to the Hebrews)
Thomas recalls the words of John’s Gospel: “The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (Jn 1:17). Thomas comments: “Christ’s law is a sweet yoke, because ‘the charity of God has been poured forth into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us’ (Rom. 5:5).
Augustine said that the Old Law brought us fear but the New Law brings us love. Thomas explains: “The New Law was given in love: ‘You have not received the spirit of slavery again in fear, but you have received the spirit of the adoption of sons, whereby we cry Abba: Father’ (Rom. 8:15).”
Through Christ, our relationship with God is adoption in the Spirit as sons and daughters. The Letter to the Hebrews describes us as entering into the assembly of the angels and saints.Tomas recalls the words of Jesus: ‘Rejoice and be glad, because your names are written in heaven’ (Lk. 10:20).
When Thomas describes our relationship with God, he uses a Latin word, familiaritas, which means “friendship” or “intimacy” or “familiarity.” Thomas affirms that we have “attained familiarity with God.” We have obtained this first of all with the Father, who is the judge. The Father has given the Son the power to judge (Jn 5:22), our confidence is in Christ who is our Mediator. Thomas reflects, “This approach is by faith and charity. ‘Being justified, therefore, by faith, let us have peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ, by Whom also we have access through faith into this grace, wherein we stand’ (Rom. 5:1).”
Thomas states that we have “familiarity with the Holy Spirit.” St. Paul asked: “Know you not that you are the temple of God, and the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16). Thomas reflects, “All justice and perfection is from the Holy Spirit.”
Thomas adds that we have come to “familiarity with the Son, to ‘Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant.’” The people received the Old Law through Moses but “Christ is the mediator of the new covenant” (Heb 12:24). After Moses presented the Law to the people, he sprinkled the people with blood: “This is the blood of the Covenant which the Lord has made with you…” (Ex 24:8).
Thomas concludes that the sprinkling of the people with blood was “a figure of Christ’s blood, by which the faithful are cleansed.” Hebrews asserts that Christ’s blood “speaks better than that of Abel” (Heb 12:24).
Abel’s blood cries for vengeance, but Christ’s blood cries for pardon: ‘Father forgive them’ (Lk 23:34); ‘He prayed for transgressors’ (Is 55:12); This is the blood of the New Covenant, which will be shed for you for the remission of sin’ (Mt 26:28)… The blood of Abel makes us say that Abel was a pure and just man; but the blood of Christ makes us say that Christ is true God making us just.
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
The quotations from St. Thomas’ Commentary on the Letter to the Hebrews are taken from the website: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/