Take care, and be earnestly on your guard not to forget
the things your own eyes have seen,
nor let them slip from your memory as long as you live,
but teach them to your children and to your children’s children.
Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”
Abba Agathon said, “Unless he keeps the commandments of God, a monk cannot make progress, even in a single virtue.”
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How on earth are we to keep the commandments? How does remembering help? What does Jesus do that fulfills the law and the prophets? The psalmist reminds us that the law is specially given to Israel: God has not given the law to any other nation. And God’s promise to Abraham was that he and his descendants (innumerable as they were to be) would be a blessing to the nations. Israel’s chosenness was to be for the restoration of the whole world. Memory helps by keeping God’s people in view of God’s promises as well as God’s law, and of the purpose for which God called Abraham and the whole particular people of Israel. A people’s identity (perhaps even more than an individual’s) is bound to their memory, to their ability to narrate the story of God’s wonderful works and God’s saving acts.
Testimony does just that: the witnesses to the Gospel, both in Jesus and the apostles’ days and in our own, serve an important function in preserving the memory of the people. In the earliest days of Christianity, many of those people testified with their lives and are numbered with the saints. The martyrs reveal the path of discipleship in a particular way. Following Christ means having always in mind the whole of his life: his life of love and ministry and preaching the gospel and healing, his agony and passion, his ignominious death on the cross, and his resurrection. Somehow, it is in following that we keep the commandments of God and so make progress in virtue.
Matthew’s gospel suggests that this narrative, this life, death and resurrection story, tells us what it means to satisfy the law and to heed the prophets. For in this One all that God desired for Israel is fulfilled, so that Paul can say of Christ, “All the promises of God find their yes in him.” God keeps his promises through Jesus. Lent is a time of imitatio Christi in which our focus is on the humility, the self-emptying of God in Christ; we obey the tradition and keep days of fasting and abstinence, we pray, we do works of charity, we give. We also, in the midst of all this, hope joyfully as we look forward to Easter. Having put the sinful self to death by our Lenten discipline, we look forward to rising with Christ on the judgement morning. We taste that joy at Easter as we celebrate the resurrection of Christ whom we follow, through suffering and even death, to be raised to life eternal.