5th Sunday of Lent 2013
Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see, I am doing something new! Isaiah 43:19
These prophetic words of Isaiah are a most fitting and enlightening contribution to our Lenten preparation for the celebration of the Paschal Mystery which now lies just a couple of weeks ahead. In the great Paschal Triduum, the Church will celebrate the fulfillment of this prophecy, the marvelous “something new” that God dose for all mankind in the passion, death and resurrection of His only-begotten Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ.
These words of Isaiah will not strike us with all their power if we fail to place them within the context of the events of Christ’s passion and resurrection, and there see the “newness” of the thing that God has accomplished on our behalf, pro nobis, in His Son. In Christ, God has done something astoundingly new, something that one Father of the Church says surpasses even the newness of the act of creation by which he brought forth the universe. It is this newness that we need to focus on as we look forward to experience the joy of the paschal feast to its full.
These words of Isaiah seem to me have an interesting connection to another mention of the word “new” in the Old Testament, but quite a different usage of the word. Recall its usage in the Book of Ecclesiastes where we hear the great Qoheleth, son of David:
What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done. Nothing is new under the sun.
Qoheleth seems to be expressing a cyclical view of history, that all things repeat over and over, a view of history that is quite in contrast with the normal biblical understanding of salvation history. But who can doubt that there is a certain truth in what he says about this world prior to Jesus Christ. We might say that the Covenants God struck with Israel were something new, but only relatively new, for they were repeated events in a sense, and we know that God never really abandoned man but kept renewing the covenant in different forms through the ages. But renewing is not quite the same as something truly new.
Or we might also say that we know that God has been doing something truly new all along since he creates the immortal soul of each new person who is conceived and born into this world, and that each person therefore is truly something new in creation as compared with any other part of this created order. And, yet, even this newness is not totally new since the human person is not just a soul, but is also composed of a material element that is as old as the universe, since man’s body comes from the dust of the earth, and is handed down from the beginning of human existence through each generation.
So, then, what is this newness that God speaks of through Isaiah that he is about to accomplish in the world when he says: Behold, I am doing something new?
Paul suggests something about this newness in today’s second reading when he says that he counts all else as nothing, rubbish, in the light of the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ. Indeed, this surpassing knowledge, this knowing of Christ, is truly something surpassing all other knowledge, is something truly new, since it involves not just an intellectual grasp of an idea, but a communion of life with a person, the person of Jesus Christ. This life that Paul now lives “in Christ” is without a doubt a new life, a life he says is marked by righteousness or justice, a totally new righteousness, however, that is God’s own justice found only in Christ, and participated in only “in Christ.” This “new life of righteousness” not only has taken hold of Paul’ s interior life here and now, but it will also one day take hold even of his body in the resurrection of the dead.
Thus Paul looks forward not backward, just as Isaiah said, “Remember not the events of the past. Paul looks forward, strains forward, to the fullness of this new life: Just one thing: forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.
Thus we have several layers of newness here, a new knowledge, which is, in itself, a new life, a life of justice or righteousness in the Son of God, a new riches as Paul says, and even a hope for a new life of the body in the resurrection from the dead. But the newness here cannot be reduced simply to what happens in Paul, or in us. According to Paul, the truly new thing that God has done is found preeminently in Christ Himself, who is the source of all the newness that happens in his disciples, and indeed in the universe as a whole . In Christ, God has truly done something absolutely unheard of, absolutely new in his creation, something that surpasses everything that has God has ever done including the work of creation itself. In Christ, God has become the incarnate Lord, the center of creation and human history, and in Christ, and through Christ, God is at work making all things new.
This new creation that begins in and grows from Christ Himself is utterly beyond our full comprehension. Its effects in us are truly stupendous when we see them through the vision of faith. St. Thomas, quoting St. Augustine, the Father I spoke of earlier without naming him, says that the justification of man, which takes place in Christ, is something that surpasses in greatness – we might add here in newness – the very creation of heaven and earth. The recreation of the sinner by God through the forgiveness of sins and the gift of divine life is a greater thing than when God first created man and endowed man with divine life. For in that act, there was nothing to annihilate, but only the gift of grace. In the redemption, on the other hand, God both destroys sin and restores divine life, which is something greater than even the gift of divine life by itself. When Jesus forgives the woman in today’s Gospel, it was a work of mercy and love, which objectively was greater than the work of creation itself, a work of love, though no one knew it at the time except Christ Himself.
This is something new, not merely a new creation, but a new creation together with the victory over sin, a two-fold gift. And for Thomas, the creative power of God is necessary for both elements, the destruction of sin and the gift of life. But all of this finds it source in the ultimate newness that our God has brought about in Christ himself.
When astronomers discover a new star, or one in the making, they are filled with joy and wonder, and want to give all their attention to study this new object of science. Paul, and every man or woman of deep faith, has this same experience religiously in Christ. Nothing is new under the sun that can compare with the Son of God made man. In Him, God Himself has permanently entered the world and human history to recreate his own work; it begins with His own humanity; this work then embraces fallen man, and finally will extend outwards to encompass this whole fallen world.
All this is God’s “new” work, and it’s happening here and now, and it will come to perfection, but only in eternity. We can “see,” as Isaiah says, all this newness happening, but only with the light of faith. With faith we begin to see it in all its newness and wonder, and our hearts cannot but be lifted up, filled with joy, for we cannot wish for anything more than simply to know Christ, and to share in the work that He is accomplishing through His Paschal Mystery. We must think as Paul and live as Paul if we are to know the joy of the Lord. As Paul so wonderfully puts it:
I wish to know Christ and the power of his resurrection; likewise I want to know how to share in His sufferings by being conformed to the pattern of His death. Thus do I hope that I may arrive at the resurrection from the dead.