by Father Mike Stubbs
Texting is gaining in popularity. It goes a step beyond email, but still sends a written message.
In that, this most modern means of communication can trace its roots back thousands of years. The written word has been with us a long time and looks as though it will remain with us still.
At the same time, the modes of writing have changed considerably over the years. Five thousand years ago, the Sumerians relied upon clay tablets for writing. They would press a stylus into the soft, wet clay to form the desired characters. The clay tablet then dried in the sun, to leave an extremely durable record of the message.
The Babylonians and Assyrians also adopted this system of writing, called cuneiform. On the other hand, the Hebrews preferred parchment and papyrus as a writing surface, with ink as the writing medium.
However, in Sunday’s first reading — Ex 20:1-17 — we receive a written message which is described as origi- nally delivered through none of these methods. Instead, God writes the Ten Commandments on two stone tablets, a writing medium far more lasting than papyrus or parchment scrolls or clay tablets (Ex 24:12).
Although rare, stone sometimes appeared as a writing surface in the ancient world. Public buildings and monuments would bear inscriptions chiseled in stone. Even now, we attempt to make messages permanent by inscribing them on stone. Gravestones give a good example of that. We want them to last forever.
A desire for permanence also lies behind the choice of stone tablets for the Ten Commandments. As part of the covenant between God and the people of Israel, these Ten Commandments also need to last forever. Parchment and papyrus can burn, clay tablets can dissolve in water, but stone tablets can endure forever.
However, when the people of Israel break their covenant with God by worshipping the golden calf, Moses in anger breaks the stone tablets. They haven to proven so permanent after all (Ex 32:19).
If parchment or papyrus or clay or stone will not work, what will?
Later, one of the prophets will propose a different writing surface: “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord. I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts” (Jer 31: 33). The prophet is suggesting that only by internalizing the message can we ensure that it will remain effective.
St. Paul places a similar importance on the role of the Spirit in spreading God’s message: “You are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by all . . . written not in ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets that are hearts of flesh” (2 Cor 3:2, 3b). The new covenant that God establishes with us through Jesus Christ is not meant to be written on stone tablets, but on our hearts. That way, it can last forever.
During this season of Lent, we trace that covenant upon our hearts once again, in order to renew it.