5th Sunday of Lent 2016
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 great prophecy in the marvelous “something new” that God has done for all mankind in the passion, death and resurrection of His only-begotten Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ.
These words of Isaiah cannot strike us with all their power until we relate them to the events of Christ’s passion and resurrection, for only there do we see the “newness” of the thing that God has accomplished on our behalf, pro nobis, in His Son. In Christ, God has in deed done something astoundingly new, something that one of the Fathers of the Church says surpasses even the newness of the act of creation by which he brought forth the universe. It is this truth of the newness that we need to focus on as we look forward to experience the joy of the paschal feast to its full.
Now these words of Isaiah seem to have an interesting connection to another mention of the word “new” in the Old Testament, but quite a different usage of the word. Recall this usage of the word new in the Book of Ecclesiastes spoken by the prophet Qoheleth:
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 here an ancient cyclical view of history, where historical events simply repeat themselves over and over again, a pagan view of history that is quite in contrast with what we think of as the 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 perhaps that the various Covenants that God established with Israel were something new, but they were only relatively new, for they too were repeated events in a sense, for in these God keeps renewing the covenant, though in different forms through the ages. But renewing is not quite the same as something truly new.
Or we might also think that we know that God has been doing something truly new all along since he alone 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 dramatic “newness” that God speaks about through Isaiah, this new stunningly new thing that he is about to accomplish in the world when he says: Behold, I am doing something new.
Well, St. Paul suggests to us 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 dramatically new, since it involves not just an intellectual grasp of an idea, but a knowing that is simultaneously a profound communion of life with the person known, the person of Jesus Christ. And the “life” that Paul says he now lives “in Christ” is without a doubt a radically new life, a life which, as he says, is marked by a true righteousness or justice, indeed a totally new righteousness which is God’s own justice, found only in Christ, and participated in only “in Christ.” Moreover, 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 always is looking 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 can see that there are 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 something that happens in Paul, or in us. According to Paul, the truly new thing that God has done is found primarily and 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. For, 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 in truth beyond our full comprehension. Nonetheless, 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 act of creation of heaven and earth. The act by which God becomes man and recreates the sinful human race through the forgiveness of sins and the gift of divine life is in truth a much greater thing than when God first created the universe and endowed man with divine life. For in that creative act, there was nothing to annihilate, but only the gift of grace. In the redemption, on the other hand, God both annihilates the debt of sin and restores divine life, which is something greater than even that initial gift of divine life by itself.
So, we can also say that when Jesus forgives the woman in today’s Gospel, it is a work of divine love and mercy, which together are objectively a greater work than the work of creation itself, a work of pure love, though no one knew it at that moment except Christ Himself.
The act of redemption played out in multiple instances is something fantastically new, not merely a new creation, but a recreation, a new creation together with the victory over sin, a two-fold gift. And for St. Thomas, the creative power of God is necessary for both elements, the destruction of sin and the gift of life. But all of this grandeur 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. It’s true that nothing is new under the sun that can even begin to compare with the Son of God made man for our salvation. In Christ, God Himself has permanently entered his creation and human history in order to recreate his own work. It all begins with His own humanity; this this great work embraces and rescues fallen man, making a new humanity; and finally His work will extend outwards to encompass the whole of His creation, finally making all things new. (Rev. 21:5)
So all of this is God’s “new” work, and it’s happening right here and now, and it will come to perfection in eternity. With faith, we can actually “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 like Paul and live like Paul if we are to know the true joy of the Lord. As Paul so wonderfully puts it, this is what he hopes for and what we too should hope for:
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. … I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.
Can anything ever come even close to matching that great hope?