LOS ANGELES DODGERS PITCHER Sandy Koufax raised many an eyebrow at the 1965 World Series when he refused to pitch at the opening game because it was Yom Kippur. He remains a model for countless observant Jewish athletes, debaters, spellers and other competitors who decline to practice or compete on the Sabbath, even if it means forfeiting a championship. As one Jewish teenager put it, “Shabbat is not at all voluntary and not something you can compromise on.”
Observant Jews do not see the Law as arbitrary but as the rational will of God for them . When the Hellenistic king Antiochus commanded the priest Eliazar to eat pork, the priest replied “We believe that the law was established by God… He has permitted us to eat what will be most suitable for our lives, but he has forbidden us to eat meats that would be contrary to this” (4 Maccabees 5:25, 26).
This fidelity to a religious Law is something many – perhaps most – in our society find had to understand. Many observant Christians would not hesitate to participate in similar activities on a Sunday, even if it meant missing church. For many even shopping is a higher priority than worshipping, and they regularly skip the Liturgy to go to the mall.
Yet the Lord Jesus was just as adamant as any other observant Jew about keeping the Law. “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets,” He insisted. “I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). Unlike today much of the Law in Jesus’ day was made up of precepts concerning the temple and its worship. Christians taught that the Lord had indeed fulfilled the Law. He had come “when the fullness of time had come” (Galatians 4:4). He was the great High Priest offering the new and perfect sacrifice, His own blood instead of the blood of animals. This is why St. Paul would say that Christ is the “end,” meaning the fulfillment of the Law.
Once the temple had been destroyed by the Romans in AD 70, Jews have focused on the more personal precepts of the Law. Of the 613 precepts traditionally revered by Jews, 477 concern thing like personal purification for worship, study of the Law, daily prayer and the like.
The Law and Righteousness
Obviously as Christians we have our own religious practices: our holydays, fast days, rules about the mysteries and the like. We keep them as best we can and encourage their observance by our young. In times of trial maintaining our prayer rule helps maintain our balance. As Christian activist and concentration camp survivor Corrie Ren Boom remarked, “We did not keep the Sabbath, the Sabbath kept us.” What, then, is different in the attitude of observant Jews to the Law and the Church’s attitude to its precepts?
The key is found in the concept of righteousness: the state of being holy, being one with God. For the observant Jew keeping the Law was the way to attain righteousness. As St Paul observed, “For Moses writes about the righteousness which is of the law, ‘The man who does those things shall live by them’” (Romans 10:5). Spiritual life, for the keeper of the Law, comes from his observance of its commandments.
For the Christian, as St Paul insisted, righteousness does not come from the observance of precepts. It comes through Christ restoring our nature and making of it a new creation. We participate in His work through faith that He had truly renewed creation through His death and resurrection. As St Paul insists, “…if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” (Romans 10:9-10).
Keeping our Christian precepts – for example, worshipping together on the Lord’s Day – is praiseworthy, but we do not observe them to produce righteousness in us; we do so to respond to the holiness that is granted us in Christ. We can spend all day lighting candles, venerating icons, praying and attending divine services – but if we do so to generate holiness in us, we have completely missed the message of the Scripture. We do such things in gratitude to God for what we could not do for ourselves but for what has been done for us in Christ.
In the Divine Liturgy as the priest prepares the Holy Gifts for distribution to the people he exclaims, “The Holy Gifts for the holy!” to which the people respond “One is holy, one is Lord – Jesus Christ…” We do not produce our own holiness. In we can be considered as “saints” or “holy ones” as St Paul described believers it is because we have received a share in the righteousness of the one truly Holy One, the Lord Jesus.
Our Own Profession of Faith
The first Christians made their climactic profession of faith in Christ at their entry into the Church. By virtue of this faith publicly professed – confessed with the mouth, in St. Paul’s words – they were baptized into Christ. The profession of faith is still recited just before baptisms. However, when the infant children of Christians became the greater number of people being baptized, the Nicene Creed, was also added to the Divine Liturgy so that we, baptized as infants, could profess our faith as adults and thereby join in the sacrifice of praise.
Increasingly local Churches are insisting that infants may only be baptized because of the faith of their parents, with the expectation that they be raised as Christians, allowing the seed of faith to mature in their hearts. People who bring their child to be baptized out of some social convention (such as to please grandma) are often displeased to be questioned about the state of their own faith. To clean the house of an infant’s soul and then leave it empty is an invitation to even greater evil, as Christ said (see Matthew 12:43-45).
In c. 350 AD St Cyril of Jerusalem preached a series of catechetical lectures to the newly-baptized which included the following:
“After these things, you were led to the holy pool of Divine Baptism, as Christ was carried from the Cross to the Sepulcher which is before our eyes And each of you was asked, whether he believed in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, and you made that saving confession, and descended three times into the water, and ascended again; here also hinting by a symbol at the three days burial of Christ. … And at the self-same moment you were both dying and being born; and that Water of salvation was at once your grave and your mother. …
“O strange and inconceivable thing! We did not really die, we were not really buried, we were not really crucified and raised again; but our imitation was in a figure, but our salvation in reality….
“For in Christ’s case there was death in reality, for His soul was really separated from His body. There was a real burial, for His holy body was wrapped in pure linen; and everything happened really to Him; but in your case there was only a likeness of death and sufferings, whereas of salvation there was not a likeness but a reality.”