One of the tasks of great rabbis at the time of Jesus was to reduce the entire law and prophets to as few words as possible without losing the truth of the entire bible. (Bultmann) Today, we encounter Matthew’s Jesus as he gives his summary of the law and prophets. "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt. 22 38-39) Drawing from Deuteronomy and Leviticus, Jesus situates himself among the great rabbis.
What words would you use to reduce the entire New Testament to the essential truth of Jesus’ teaching? I often ask this question at baptisms, but it is a trick question. As Catholics we suggest that it is impossible to reduce the fullness of Jesus’ teaching to words alone. We also use gestures, or actions, some of which are sacraments. The first of these great gestures in the sacrament of baptism is the laying on of hands or the “traditio.” The word traditio in Latin comes from the verb “tradere”, to hand over. With the laying on of hands by the deacon or priest, the church says through this sacred gesture that we “hand over” to the child and her family everything that we have become as Christians through the ages. We hand over the memory of the covenants, the freedom from slavery, the unconditional love of God expressed over and over through God’s forgiveness. In other words, we hand over the entire experience of the Church as a living and breathing organism as it encounters Christ through the ages. That means, of course, that we hand over our faults, our wars, and our selfishness as well as the hope that the one being baptized with live and celebrate the Covenants of God more faithfully than we have.
But most of all we hand over the new Covenant in Jesus, the promise that God’s love for us is so great, so complete, that God wants to spend eternity with us. As the new Moses, Jesus wins our eternal freedom. We will never be slaves again. Christ’s obedience unto death, the handing over of his life, is the great Sacrament. We even say that Jesus is the Sacrament of the Encounter with God. And it is when we gather for the Eucharist that we remember this new covenant, this eternally effective promise, over and over.
A second question: If you wanted to sum up the entire message of Jesus what gesture(s) would you use? The laying on of hands, the plunging into the waters of baptism, the mutual love of husband and wife in handing over their lives to one another, the breaking of bread?