The Law of Christ

The preaching of the Gospel

The Old Testament constantly mentions ‘the Law,’ by which it means the Law of Moses given on Mount Horeb and solemnly defining the identity of the covenant People of God that was solemnly created when Moses descended from the mountain. Christians recognise a Law of Christ that elucidates, without altogether abolishing that ancient Law of Moses, and that is contained within the Gospel. What does the Church teach us about this?

“The New Law or the Law of the Gospel is the perfection here on earth of the divine law, natural and revealed. It is the work of Christ and is expressed particularly in the Sermon on the Mount. It is also the work of the Holy Spirit and through him it becomes the interior law of charity: “I will establish a New Covenant with the house of Israel. . . . I will put my laws into their hands, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Jeremiah, 31:31-34) The New Law is the grace of the Holy Spirit given to the faithful through faith in Christ. It works through charity; it uses the Sermon on the Mount to teach us what must be done and makes use of the sacraments to give us the grace to do it: ‘If anyone should meditate with devotion and perspicacity on the sermon our Lord gave on the mount, as we read in the Gospel of Saint Matthew, he will doubtless find there . . . the perfect way of the Christian life…. This sermon contains … all the precepts needed to shape one’s life.’ (St. Augustine, De serm. Dom.)”

Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1965-1966

The quote mentions the Sermon on the Mount, which is contained in the fifth, sixth and seventh chapters of the Gospel of S. Matthew. These should be the constant object of our study, if we consider that Christ is the definite Rabbi for the community of the Church, these three chapters are his commentary on the Law of Moses, making most clear its dictates on the Love of God and Love of Neighbour, and the means by which these lead to human perfection. Perfection is our goal, for no other reason than that our Father in Heaven is perfection itself. As the Catechism continues…

“The Law of the Gospel “fulfils,” refines, surpasses, and leads the Old Law to its perfection. In the Beatitudes, the New Law fulfils the divine promises by elevating and orienting them toward the “kingdom of heaven.” It is addressed to those open to accepting this new hope with faith – the poor, the humble, the afflicted, the pure of heart, those persecuted on account of Christ and so marks out the surprising ways of the Kingdom. The Law of the Gospel fulfils the commandments of the Law. The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, far from abolishing or devaluing the moral prescriptions of the Old Law, releases their hidden potential and has new demands arise from them: it reveals their entire divine and human truth. It does not add new external precepts, but proceeds to reform the heart, the root of human acts, where man chooses between the pure and the impure, where faith, hope, and charity are formed and with them the other virtues. the Gospel thus brings the Law to its fullness through imitation of the perfection of the heavenly Father, through forgiveness of enemies and prayer for persecutors, in emulation of the divine generosity. The New Law practices the acts of religion: almsgiving, prayer and fasting, directing them to the “Father who sees in secret,” in contrast with the desire to “be seen by men.” Its prayer is the Our Father.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1967-1969

The Sermon on the Mount begins with the Beatitudes, which I have often heard described as the blueprint of the Christian life. We too often are discouraged by the idealism of these instructions, but ideals are important for human beings. They help us to orientate ourselves, to always push forward towards perfection, whether or not we achieve perfection in this life. Some of us do, and they are called Saints by the Church, but the rest of us should continue on with hope. The grace of God makes all things possible, enabling us to discern good and evil, and then to always choose good. The Catechism speaks of the primacy of charity in acquiring perfection. This is a charity that works through prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

“The Law of the Gospel requires us to make the decisive choice between “the two ways” and to put into practice the words of the Lord. It is summed up in the Golden Rule, “Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; this is the law and the prophets.” The entire Law of the Gospel is contained in the “new commandment” of Jesus, to love one another as he has loved us. To the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount it is fitting to add the moral catechesis of the apostolic teachings, such as Romans 12-15, 1 Corinthians 12-13, Colossians 3-4, Ephesians 4-5, etc. This doctrine hands on the Lord’s teaching with the authority of the apostles, particularly in the presentation of the virtues that flow from faith in Christ and are animated by charity, the principal gift of the Holy Spirit. “Let charity be genuine…. Love one another with brotherly affection…. Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints, practice hospitality.” (Romans, 12: 9-13) This catechesis also teaches us to deal with cases of conscience in the light of our relationship to Christ and to the Church. (Romans 14) The New Law is called a law of love because it makes us act out of the love infused by the Holy Spirit, rather than from fear; a law of grace, because it confers the strength of grace to act, by means of faith and the sacraments; a law of freedom, because it sets us free from the ritual and juridical observances of the Old Law, inclines us to act spontaneously by the prompting of charity and, finally, lets us pass from the condition of a servant who “does not know what his master is doing” to that of a friend of Christ – “For all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” – or even to the status of son and heir.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1970-1972

It is interesting to consider that variations of the so-called Golden Rule exist in several religions, which differ widely in everything. There’s something very human, or perhaps humane, about this determination to not inflict upon others what one would not wish to suffer oneself. Christ’s command that we love others as He loves us simply pushes this to an extreme, characteristic of His command that we love even those who hate us. This is not entirely new, since it exists in various parts of the Old Testament. But Christ unites it in a new way to His own person and witness. It is because of Him that we do these things, not because of some allegiance to a written rule. As the Bishop frequently tells us, everything that we are and do as Christians begins with a personal encounter with Christ. We are therefore not a ‘people of the book,’ as some say, but a people of the Son of God. That’s what the quote above means about morality being a matter of the Spirit of God living within us, rather than a fearful attachment to a sacred text.

“Besides its precepts, the New Law also includes the evangelical counsels. the traditional distinction between God’s commandments and the evangelical counsels is drawn in relation to charity, the perfection of Christian life. The precepts are intended to remove whatever is incompatible with charity. The aim of the counsels is to remove whatever might hinder the development of charity, even if it is not contrary to it. The evangelical counsels manifest the living fullness of charity, which is never satisfied with not giving more. They attest its vitality and call forth our spiritual readiness. The perfection of the New Law consists essentially in the precepts of love of God and neighbour. The counsels point out the more direct ways, the readier means, and are to be practiced in keeping with the vocation of each: “(God) does not want each person to keep all the counsels, but only those appropriate to the diversity of persons, times, opportunities, and strengths, as charity requires; for it is charity, as queen of all virtues, all commandments, all counsels, and, in short, of all laws and all Christian actions that gives to all of them their rank, order, time, and value.” (St. Francis de Sales, Love of God)

Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1973-1974

This last quote above speaks of concrete manifestations of the perfection mandated by the Gospel. From the earliest times, men and women have sought the extreme that Christ demands in the text of the Sermon on the Mount. These men and women have fled the world and sought a religious vocation as monks, nuns and hermits, taking on what are called the evangelical counsels: poverty, chastity and obedience to a religious superior. These are designed, as given by the quote, to eliminate what is not compatible with charity. This is what Catholics call the Religious Life, and it proves that the ideal of the Gospel is achievable by ordinary Christians in this life, although not without difficulty. Pray therefore for the Religious, and for more vocations to the Religious life.

Fra Angelico, S. Francis meets S. Dominic (fifteenth century)