In the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, there are many commandments made by God to the Israelites which state that a particular rite should be observed ‘forever’. We know also that Christ came ‘not to abolish the law and the prophets…but to fulfil them’ (Matthew 5:17), and that the ways in which the Law and Prophets were fulfilled differs – we have the Jewish Sabbath being fulfilled in the Sunday obligation, the observance of the Lord’s Day (c.f.; Catechism of the Catholic Church: 2175-2176), and the dietary laws were expressly abrogated by Our Lord (c.f.; Mark 7:14-23), showing that they were but a preparation for an inner purity and more profound sense of otherness which would, in Him, go deeper (c.f.; CCC: 1963-1964).
Also we have the perennial commandment for the People of God to be circumcised (c.f.; Genesis 17:10-14), which we find fulfilled in the prophesied circumcision of the heart (c.f.; Deuteronomy 30:1-6; Jeremiah 31:31-34) and the Sacrament of Baptism (c.f.; Colossians 2:11-12). What though, are we to do with those other commandments wherein God asks His people to observe something ‘forever’ or ‘throughout your generations’ – how are these fulfilled in the New Covenant? To get a better idea of where they might find their fulfilment, let us first look at some of the commandments themselves:
‘This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations you shall observe it as an ordinance forever…you shall observe this rite as an ordinance for you and for your sons forever…and you shall observe the feast of unleavened bread, for on this every day I brought your hosts out of the land of Egypt: therefore you shall observe this day, throughout your generations, as an ordinance for ever’ (Exodus 12:14,24,17).
‘This is the portion of Aaron and of his sons from the offerings made by fire to the LORD, consecrated to them on the day they were presented to serve as priests of the LORD; the LORD commanded this to be given them by the people of Israel, on the day that they were anointed; it is a perpetual due throughout their generations. This is the law of the burnt offering, of the cereal offering, of the sin offering, of the guilt offering, of the consecration, and of the peace offerings, which the LORD commanded Moses on Mount Sinai, on the day that he commanded the people of Israel to bring their offerings to the LORD, in the wilderness of Sinai’ (Leviticus 7:35-38).
‘But the holy things, which are due from you, and your votive offerings, you shall take, and you shall go to the place which the LORD will choose, and offer your burnt offerings, the flesh and the blood, on the altar of the LORD your God; the blood of your sacrifices shall be poured out on the altar of the LORD your God, but the flesh you may eat. Be careful to heed all these words which I command you, that it may go well with you and with your children after you forever, when you do what is good and right in the sight of the LORD your God’ (Deuteronomy 12:26-28).
‘…for on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins you shall be clean before the LORD. It is a sabbath of solemn rest to you, and you shall afflict yourselves; it is a statute forever. And the priest who is anointed and consecrated as priest in his father’s place shall make atonement, wearing the holy linen garments; he shall make atonement for the sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar, and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly’ (Leviticus 16:30-33).
‘Command the people of Israel to bring you pure oil from beaten olives for the lamp, that a light may be kept burning continually. Outside the veil of the testimony, in the tent of meeting, Aaron shall keep it in order from evening to morning before the LORD continually; it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations…And you shall take fine flour, and bake twelve cakes of it; two tenths of an ephah shall be in each cake. And you shall set them in two rows, six in a row, upon the table of pure gold. And you shall put pure frankincense with each row, that it may go with the bread as a memorial portion to be offered by fire to the LORD. Every sabbath day Aaron shall set it in order before the LORD continually on behalf of the people of Israel as a covenant for ever’ (Leviticus 24:2-3,5-8).
‘…and when Aaron sets up the lamps in the evening, he shall burn it, a perpetual incense before the LORD throughout your generations’ (Exodus 30:8)
‘And henceforth the people of Israel shall not come near the tent of meeting, lest they bear sin and die. But the Levites shall do the service of the tent of meeting, and they shall bear their iniquity; it shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations; and among the people of Israel they shall have no inheritance. For the tithe of the people of Israel, which they present as an offering to the LORD, I have given to the Levites for an inheritance; therefore I have said of them that they shall have no inheritance among the people of Israel’ (Numbers 18:22-24).
In the passages above, we find God commanding His people to offer sacrifice to make atonement for their sins, that these offerings are to be made via the mediation of a priestly office, that the priests should make their offerings in a sanctuary which is to be reserved as holy, that a lamp should be kept burning before the altar continually and that incense should be offered up to God during the sacrifices, and that in particular we are to remember the Passover, the great commemoration of God’s deliverance of His people.
The last of these ordinances – to remember the Passover – is one that should not present too much of a problem for most Christians, in light of the fact that Christ is referred to by John the Baptist as the Lamb of God (c.f.; John 1:29) and is implied to be (c.f.; John 19:14, 31-36; Matthew 26:2; 1 Corinthians 10:1-11) or expressly stated as being (c.f.; 1 Corinthians 5:7) the fulfilment of the Passover; He is the One who offers and the One offered, and, through this Sacrifice, He makes Atonement. However, given that we also know that Christ is the true High Priest and Sacrifice (c.f.; Hebrews 7-10), how do we see the other ordinances as being fulfilled in the New Covenant?
One option is to say that they are simply abrogated and leave it at that. But, as we see with other things from the Old Covenant that have been abrogated in the New, it will not do to just cast them aside – they need to be fulfilled in some way. On top of the examples given at the beginning of this post (Sabbath, dietary laws), we have the civic laws of Israel, which, although their penalties do not apply, because the New Covenant is a universalising movement (in contrast to the particular national quality of the Old), their moral content is still to be recognised, and behaviour seen as immoral then is still seen to be immoral now – this is how their inner essence is fulfilled in Christ.
It seems that there is only one place in which the ritual commandments God had ordained were to be observed by His people ‘forever’ can be seen to be fulfilled, and that is in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, enacted faithfully since apostolic times by the Catholic Church. In the Church we have a continuation of the priesthood (the consecration of the Aaronic version of which is outlined in Exodus 29), wherein the consecration of priests is, like in the Old Covenant, something that leaves a mark on the person consecrated; we have a continuation of the offering of sacrifice itself, as each Holy Mass is a re-presentation of the One Sacrifice offered by Christ to the Father.
Furthermore, we have a sanctuary, with lamps burning before the Blessed Sacrament; incense is offered up to God, with the altar and holy objects of the Mass censed during public worship; offerings are made to the local church that the ministry of the priests may continue and their living be contributed towards, as ‘among the people…they shall have no inheritance’; and, after consecration of the elements, we receive the very flesh and blood of Our Lord (c.f.; Exodus 12; Deuteronomy 12), whilst the accidents of unleavened bread and wine remain. Also, Catholic priests, in recognition of the solemnity of what they are about to do, wash before consecration of the Eucharist, providing a fulfilment of Exodus 30:17-21.
The parallels are so striking that only one plausible conclusion remains – namely that when Our Lord said what He did about not abolishing the law and the prophets but fulfilling them, He really meant it, and not just this or that aspect of the Old Covenant, but all of it. When He founded a Church, He made a point of stating that the Apostles chosen by Him to be its foundation would both be a continuation of the twelve tribes of Israel (c.f.; Luke 22:29-30; Revelation 21:9-14) and would celebrate the act that He was instituting, i.e.; that they would act as priests of the New Covenant (c.f.; Luke 22:7-20; CCC – 1337), and that in doing so, they would fulfil the ‘forever’ commandments of the Old.
N.B. I am indebted to the initiator of this forum thread for bringing the relevant verses to my attention. More OT passages relating to the Mass, as well as further citations from Scripture and the Catechism, can be found there.