Despite a popular notion, the season of Lent is not at all about becoming as miserable as possible in anticipation of Good Friday. Historically, Lent was always the time when Christians prepared to either make or renew their baptismal vows. So, those who were new to the faith were prepared for their initiation into the church; those who had strained relationships with their communities due to something they’d done wrong were prepared to be readmitted (the only strictly penitential group); and the rest of the church members took the opportunity to reaffirm their faith. So, Lent is essentially a happy season of a renewed focus on relationships – with God and each other; a season when we review what it takes to make, repair, maintain, and express our commitment to them. Relational commitments of our lives vary, and so does our expression of them, from the formal ones, such as marriages/baptisms, to the more implicit or even unspoken ones, such as the trust that forms a basis of a good friendship, a parent-child, even a teacher-student relationship, or those which exists within a close-knit community, such as a parish. Intuitively, we know that such connections, we call them “covenants”, run deeper than simple contracts, and aren’t as easily invalided by one of the parties failing to adhere to its responsibilities. So, because of this historical emphasis on the baptismal covenant as an expression of our commitment to God and the church, sometimes, the readings chosen for at least one Sunday service in Lent are those that review some of the many of covenants between God and people, as recorded in the OT. Such is the case this year, just for the second sunday, when Genesis tells of the promise to abraham to give him a spiritual family and home, jesus makes an allusion to Moses and the healing extended to his people, in his conversation recorded in the Gospel, and psalm 121 elaborates on the ways that god’s people can expect god to continue to care for them and bless them.
“Making of a covenant” was a frequent and well-respected practice among the ancient peoples of the Middle East. Covenants were always considered to be sacred, so a deity was always presumed to be involved, but only as a witness who protected the faithful party. The idea of a God who would choose to become a party in a covenant with people, rather than just a witness, was unprecedented until the advent of the Jewish faith, and yet, the belief in this mysterious concept is now central to our own, Christian theology -- and not just any god, but the one “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist”, as Paul describes him to the Romans.
The great covenants found in the Bible are not identical to each other in what God does symbolically, or what he promises, or what is required of the human party in each one (you might recall Noah, Moses, Abraham, as human representatives active in the making of each). What’s common in all of them is that he does offer a universal promise of eternal relationship with us. For us today, all these promises are now summarized and epitomized in Jesus “blood of the new covenant” (as we hear in the words of the eucharistic prayer) - an opportunity for a second birth, really. That is a difficult idea to grasp at first, even for a scholar of the jewish law called Nicodemus, who should have been well-versed in the jewish understanding of the nature of god’s special promises to his people, and much of this understanding comes not from our intellect but from the holy spirit, “from above” as jesus said, and our insights and strengthening of faith often come to us unexpected - “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes”. Paul seems to have had an even fuller intuition, as he wrote, “the promise may rest on GRACE and be guaranteed to all his descendants who share the faith of Abraham”.
But, even with the help of the spirit and by god’s grace, it still takes two to make a covenant. It takes actively looking at the bronze snake to make the healing your own. How will each one of us will participate in it in a unique way? This Lent, let us reexamine our participation in God’s life and what it takes in practical terms, perhaps allowing some new practices to take root in our lives over these weeks. Many great leaders of Christian intentional living (e.g., St Benedict, Augustine, Basil) wrote these so-called “rules of life” for their communities – on the surface looking like they required giving things up, but in fact, quite healthy. Our modern day “rule of life” might involve 1) spiritual goals: quiet/alone time, education, secular/biblical reading, journaling, thanksgiving, Holy Week services; 2) wellness: permission to spend time on oneself, rest and exercise, inventory of priorities, "no" to waste of money and time, maybe a diet, dance or paint; and 3) relational: reconciliation, give up a grudge, visiting a neighbor, a less familiar person, or someone with whom lost touch, a shut-in or palliative patient; discern and resist our prejudices and spirit of criticism and sarcasm. Find a way to be accountable for this all. Yes, it involves giving something up, but, intuitively, we know that by virtue of this relationship being covenantal rather than contractual, what we get in return for the promises we make is something of much greater value than we could ever find for ourselves without making the sacrifices needed.
Finally let us make note of that the full set of God’s blessings to Abram was unfolded in three stages and over the length of 25 years (and only began at the age of 75!)! So, as individuals, we can never be sure God is finished blessing each of us yet.