Padua – The Presentation in the Temple fresco in the church San Francesco del Grande in chapel Cappella di Santa Maria della Carita by Girolamo Tessari (1523 – 24) iStock/sedmak

We are accustomed to thinking of our Catholic religion as the “fulfillment” of the Judaism that came before it, and rightly so. But it would be a one-sided interpretation of the idea of “fulfillment” to mean by it simply “superiority” with respect to Judaism. In a very real sense Christianity is in fact a different religion from Judaism as it was practiced in the time of Jesus.

This we know. As Jesus himself understands the religion in which he was raised and which he practiced with (perfect) fidelity, Judaism was a waiting, a preparation in anticipation for future fulfillment. Jesus himself brings that fulfillment, but we must attend closely to how he does this.

Thus we should pay close attention to Jesus’ own practice of Judaism, which includes the practice of his family. Now, however differently the religion of first century Israel was understood by those who taught it and presided over its rites — the two main interpretations being that of the synagogue (Pharisees) and that of the Temple in Jerusalem (Sadducees) — the rabbi Jesus was possessed of a unified understanding that encompassed the faith of the Torah, Law, Prophets and Wisdom Books, along with the legally enshrined practices and traditions of the religious culture that developed during and after the Babylonian Exile.

While it is true that he often criticized the later extra-Biblical traditions and laws, he did so on the basis of his interpretation of Judaism itself. So Jesus the “critic” and “rebel” is also Jesus the obedient Son of Israel. Jesus even embraces the “charismatic movement” of John the Baptist, which goes to show that he’s no mere “traditionalist.”

And so we can see that the obedience of Jesus to the Judaism of his time is not purely formal, as if he says, “Well, I’ll go along with this Judaism of yours for a while, but eventually I’ll bring the whole thing to an end and start something totally new.” Such would not be an attitude of “fulfillment” at all. Rather, Jesus gives obedience to his religion in a fully conscious, active participation, which means he knows what the rituals and sacrifices mean, and he identifies himself with them in the deepest possible way.

From early manhood (at the age of 12 questioning the scholars in the Temple), Jesus acts as a Jewish man who has been “consecrated to the Lord” by the mark of circumcision. From birth he obeys the covenant of reconciliation God has made with all humanity through Israel. Because Jesus himself is that Covenant of Reconciliation, he shows by his obedience to the rite of circumcision that the “New Covenant,” which he inaugurates in his own blood, is also continuous with the “Old Covenant.” Jesus cannot show what the Old Covenant truly means without first entering into it.

We have begun our liturgical year by celebrating the Advent and Nativity of Christ. We can think of this time between now and Easter as following Jesus in his radical fidelity to the Old Covenant in order to best appreciate how he fulfills the religion of Israel and makes of it the religion of all humanity.

Father Hagan is parochial vicar of Holy Cross in Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected].

Sunday, February 2
Presentation of the Lord