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The Decalogue and Christian Sanctity: Introduction

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.


Of all subjects for a retreat I don’t think you’re expecting this one: The Ten Commandments and Christian Sanctity. It must be the most unusual title for a retreat: The Ten Commandments and Christian Sanctity. What is strange about the title is the combination of Ten Commandments and Christian sanctity. The Ten Commandments or the Decalogue were given to Moses in the Old Testament. Whereas Christian sanctity by definition is the holiness which Christ offered to His followers in the New Testament. Moreover, the Ten Commandments are the absolute minimum, so people think; the absolute minimum that God expects of human beings as a condition for their reaching an eternal destiny. Whereas Christian sanctity, you may coin a phrase, represents the maximum that human beings with the help of God’s grace can give in their loving dedication to God and therefore total self-surrender to His divine will. It is like comparing the minimum with the maximum. Superficially therefore, there seems to be no plausible connection between what we are and we’ll do. This for eight days not merely relating the Ten Commandments to sanctity, but with God’s grace showing how especially in the modern world it is the Ten Commandments that are the condition for the highest form of sanctity.

As we hope to see during the retreat, the Decalogue and holiness are very closely related. In fact, Christian sanctity cannot really be understood except in relation to the Ten Commandments. Our plan for this opening meditation is to briefly explain the following areas of an ocean of revealed truth.

First, the Ten Commandments are an integral part of the New Testament. Second, Christ lived the Ten Commandments in the highest possible degree. Third, sanctity means the following of Christ, which therefore means living out the Ten Commandments as perfectly as we can after the example and teaching of Jesus Christ. And not coincidentally, for this introductory meditation, it comes in three parts in honor, as St. Ignatius told us, whenever you can, divide everything into three, in honor of the Holy Trinity.

First then, the Ten Commandments are an integral part of the New Testament. There is an understandable tendency in some cultures to practically identify the Ten Commandments with the Old Testament. This is partly due to the fact that in the almost twenty centuries since the coming of Christ, many Christians have abandoned very understandably, have abandoned some of the hard teachings of Jesus Christ. Notably on the two most demanding virtues: chastity and charity. So then, for many people, the Ten Commandments synthesize the Old Testament without realizing that God became man, mainly to elevate the Ten Commandments to give us what we now call, the New Law.

We have the true faith. And the true faith means the whole faith. We then have to remind ourselves that Jesus did not abolish the Ten Commandments. He retained, to put it mildly, the Decalogue. In fact, no matter what verb we use we need years of praying to understand what we mean when we say that Christ elevated the Ten Commandments to previously unknown heights. As is clear especially in the one Gospel, written specifically for the converts from Judaism, the Gospel of St. Matthew. He’s the one who gives us Christ’s long Sermon on the Mount. What is it? It is the Ten Commandments, shall I say updated. The Ten Commandments they’re all there. But now, with such demands on human nature as had never been made since the fall of man until God became man to restore man to his condition before the fall.

Matthew, we have said, wrote his Gospel immediately for the converts from Judaism. And whatever else they needed, and they needed plenty, they needed to understand that the Decalogue remained absolutely intact.

Matthew then, wished to make it clear that all the essentials of the Old Testament remained not only intact, but became deeper and clearer and higher, whatever adjective you use in the New Testament. And among the elements of the Old Testament that St. Matthew is at pains to show - that Christ both retained and sublimated to a divine degree, was the Decalogue.

When Jesus was asked, remember by the rich young man what he must do to be saved, the Savior told him, what else? Keep the Commandments. And to make it still more clear, Christ even, gave some, well, examples from the Decalogue. We’d have a whole retreat to do this but let’s state it now, the New Testament did not, does not, erase the Old Testament. It only built on the Old Testament. But because God became man to confer the grace to make it possible, shall we say, the Decalogue of the New Law makes demands on human nature that God never expected even of His chosen people before the coming of Christ.

Jesus then stressed the need for not only obeying the commandments externally, but living them internally in one’s mind and heart. Ah, my friends what a difference between keeping the Ten Commandments externally and living the Decalogue in your mind and heart. Jesus restored the original intent of the Decalogue by returning to His obligations. Hope I am clear, to the obligations as they were binding on the human race, and I repeat before the fall. We could divide human history into three parts. Part one, before the fall. Part two from the fall to the coming of Christ. Part three since the coming of Christ. And since the coming of Christ because of the grace the son of God provided, He now went back to making, shall I keep repeating the word, demands on human nature. But because of the grace He was to win for mankind by His death on Calvary were impossible, and that’s the right word were impossible, to observe from the fall to the coming of Christ. But since Christ’s coming are not only possible but imperative. Christ then raised the capacity of human nature to do the will of God by His promise of extraordinary light for the mind and strength for the will for those who believe in His name. That’s part one of our introductory meditation.

Christ Lived the Decalogue

When God became man He assumed a human nature with a human free will. That’s the key, that’s the combination; the key to understanding what God did when He became man is to know that He assumed a truly free human will. He became like us in everything except sin. And when we make that statement remember to include, you better be clear not only that He did not sin, but hear it, that He could not sin. Is it of the essence of a human free will to sin? Must a human will be, well, as we say peccable, able to sin to be human? No. In other words, Christ was truly human. Why? Mainly because He had true human freedom. Oh, how I will keep hammering at that freedom during the retreat. There’s only one competitor to the divine will on earth and that is the human will. All the rest of visible creation perfectly, constantly, conforms to the will of God. Accept, you don’t explain this, you believe it. But, when God became man and we better be sure we understand as far as we can it is not of the essence of human freedom to be able to sin. Christ bound Himself, which He did not have to, to live a really authentically human life in order to teach us how we should live as His followers. The essence of following Christ is using our will the way He used His. That’s it. Which will are we talking about? His human will. We do not usually talk this way, but we should. Jesus literally lived, the Ten Commandments. He showed us how God become man lives in conformity to the laws which God Himself laid on His own creatures. He practiced all the virtues prescribed by the Decalogue, notably and reductively the two fundamental virtues of loving God and our neighbor. He practiced these virtues to perfection with a free will and as we know against the most oppressive odds not, let’s be clear from within Himself. Christ did not have a fallen human nature. Christ did not contract either original sin or its consequences. You don’t have to have contracted original sin to be truly human. But to make sure that we know how we can best imitate Him, He gave us His mother, who unlike her Son was a human person who came into the world without either original sin or its devastating consequences. Did she have a free will? Sure. One of my hopes in this retreat is to make clear to us who believe in Jesus Christ what the word choice really means. And not for the world gone mad with its own self-idolatry has come to mean by choice doing your own will.

Christ conformed His will to the will of His Father against the demonic forces which instigated His enemies to treacherous envy, hatred, and such violence as finally nailed Him to the cross on Calvary. And whatever else, I hope we’ll be clear by the time this retreat is over we are living in the most critical era in the history of Christianity. And we better, we better, know what it means to follow Christ by conforming, as He did, our human wills to the will of the Father. And like Him oh, let me say it, and like Him, paying the price for our surrendering of our will to the will of the heavenly Father. And the price my friends is high. Very high.

Sanctity Means the Following of Christ

By now there are at least a dozen standard definitions of sanctity in theology. Sanctity is holiness. Sanctity is living in God-likeness. The essence of holiness, the essence in God Himself is His total otherness. There is no one like God and that is the holiness of God. His utter unlikeness, His utter otherness and that we are holy insofar as we are more and more like God. No cheap phrase this. To be holy means to be different. Better say it again. To be holy means to be different. Even as God, what language shall we use, is so utterly, totally, dare we use this cheap human word, different from the creation which except for Him would not even exist. What then is holiness? Holiness is God-likeness. That is why God became man. God became man, hear it, God became man to live for us, God became man to die for us, I’ve got to add number three and God became man to continue living with us and that’s my favorite theological definition of the Eucharist.

God then became man to live with us, to live among us, to eat our food, to breathe our air, drink our water, to get tired. I never tire telling people one of the most inspiring passages of the Gospels for me is when the evangelist says I like the Latin; I keep repeating it, --"caro factum est"--"was made flesh." He was exhausted. Thanks Jesus. Thanks. That’s why God became man. So that by following Him as man we might become like Him who is our God. In other words, what is sanctity? Sanctity is Christ-likeness. Christ-likeness as man so that we might become more and more like Christ who is our God. This is only an introduction.

No doubt in the last analysis our sanctity depends on the grace of God. God must give us what we casually call sanctifying grace. Do you know why we call it sanctifying grace? Because we don’t have what we should have. The dramatic equivalent of holifying grace. That’s what happened to us when we were baptized. We were made holy. And we were given the powers to grow in holiness, get it? What does growth in holiness mean? Growth in holiness means becoming more holy than we were when we were baptized. Alright? That’s why we’ve got trials in life, that’s why we’ve got temptations. They’re indispensable. I mean it, indispensable for growing in holiness. But as we know on our side we must do our part. God gave us the grace when we were baptized. He continues giving us the grace constantly. But we must, well, first of all recognize the grace. We’ve got to see it. And recognized it as a grace and then not to sit there and admire the grace- oh, how beautiful, how beautiful. No. Use the grace. This part to which we are bound is to study the life that Christ lived during His visible stay on earth. First thing. The word study in an academic country like ours has all kinds of cheap pedagogical meanings. To study means to apply the mind with a view to understanding. It means that we meditate on how Christ practiced. First of all that He practiced humility. (??) how He did it. Although He was the Son of God. Over the years especially in teaching Christology, my favorite definition of the Incarnation is the humiliation of God. God took on the lowest possible nature, He couldn’t have descended lower. Couldn’t have. As Saint Paul tells us, He bypassed the angels. Christ practiced humility. And as St. Ignatius, well, did his best to teach me and I’m trying to teach others, reflect on Christ’s humiliations. Unlike us did Christ need to be humiliated? No. Do we need it? We sure do. Our best friends are those who humiliate us. We don’t like it. So what. We do not have to like what we love. We meditate on Christ’s patience under superhuman opposition and malicious persecution. Pardon me, what amateurs we are beginning with this speaker in the pursuit of sanctity. Whatever grade we’d get, I’ve watched, I attended the graduation of a group of kindergartners in cap and gown. What a sight. If we are to grow in holiness we must meditate on, means our mind must penetrate into the meaning behind the way Christ lived in His practice of chastity. Unlike us Christ did not have the unruly sexual passions that we have. But He practiced chastity as we’ll see my friends when we analyze the Sixth and Ninth Commandments. Christ practiced obedience by His submission to His own creatures even when they were such holy persons as Mary and Joseph. But there are also unholy persons whom Christ obeyed including the cowardly and treacherous Pontius Pilate. Above all if we are to grow in sanctity we must reflect on Christ’s practice of the one word that has been cheapened almost to no meaning in our modern selfish world. Charity. In understanding, grasping with our minds, Christ’s selfless love for those who not only did not love Him but maligned Him, unjustly condemned Him and even on Calvary mocked what they considered His blasphemous claims to the Messianic dignity. And we say, and I speak first for myself, and we say, we are followers of Christ. Are we? We return to where we began by associating Christian sanctity with the Ten Commandments. When Christ told us if you love me keep my commandments. He was saying far more than most of us think.

The Ten Commandments are the commandments of Jesus Christ who is our God, Who is the God who gave Moses the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are Christ’s commandments which He lived out during His mortal human stay on our earth. All we have to do but that’s all life is about, that’s all, is to follow in the footsteps of Jesus in living the Ten Commandments as He did. And then not only is our destiny assured, but we’ll experience such peace and joy as only those who conform their stubborn wills to the will of God in living the Decalogue as God became man to teach us.

Lord Jesus, you are our God. As God you gave the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai to the prophet Moses. As the God-man you lived the Ten Commandments to show us how we are to follow in your and we know it, dear Savior, bloody footsteps. We love you, we really do. But we need your help. So that believing in you as our God we may follow you as the God-man and be at peace with you here on earth and possess you and be possessed by you in a heavenly eternity. Amen.

Copyright © 1999 Inter Mirifica

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