As I tried to impress on you last week, Lent is a time to re-examine our priorities and renew important commitments; a time for reconciliation and new beginning. Yes, realigning our values and practices might mean giving up a few aspects of our lives that are wasteful and dysfunctional. But I believe that we do ourselves a disservice when we intentionally sacrifice them only for a few weeks, and then look forward to returning full-force to what we could, and hence, perhaps, should, do without. Wouldn’t it make a better investment into the future of our relationships -- with God, with others, and with the natural world -- to take this time to commit to some worthwhile “covenants”?
Last week, I spoke about the story of Noah. This was only the first in a whole series of scriptural records that expressed the notion of a formal, shared agreement between humanity and the divine Creator. There were about 12 such “old covenants” (depending on who is counting), in which humanity was represented by Noah, Abram, Moses, Aaron, David, etc. This week’s reading is about the blessing that Abraham received on behalf of the nation into which Jesus was born.
At which age did you stop wondering what you might do “when you grow up”? If you still keep wondering, you’re on the right track! God’s promise to Abram, which entailed the assurance that there was still more to life than remaining at his family home, was made at the age of 75; and if you follow the entire narrative, you will notice that the full set of God’s blessings to him unfolded in three stages and over the length of 25 years! 100 years total stands here for the length of an entire human life. Some of us tend to think that life will always be what it is, and might miss the next turn in the road; whereas others keep trying to see around the next bend, and miss the beauty of the immediate landscape. I find it personally very reassuring to know that as individuals, we can never be sure God is finished blessing us just yet.
Noah’s covenant pointed towards the blessing and renewal of creation as a whole, Abram’s covenant points to the work of the divine Incarnation to bless and renew each human being. The symbol of Noah’s covenant is a rainbow, and the symbol of God’s promise to Abram is the new land inhabited by his innumerable descendants (not just one, but many nations). In the ancient Near East it was common to express legal relationships through familial terms; whereby for example, a king’s gift to his people was referred to as an inheritance -- what we in today’s terms, call “a final will and testimony”. Notice that today, we also equate our terms “covenant” and “testament”, as in the Old Testament and New Testament. So, we use a legal term for an inheritance to refer to what is, essentially, an agreement. If our “old inheritance/agreement” gives us the renewed world, as received by Noah, and the birth of God in us, as received by Abraham, what does the “new inheritance/agreement” give us?
Is there really such a thing as the new vs. old when it comes to God who exists outside of time and space? Recall Jesus’ words, which we now cite as part of a Eucharistic liturgy: “this is my blood, of the new covenant”. Take time to notice it next time I recite the prayer of consecration. This phrase epitomizes the arc of the scriptural narrative; it completes and summarizes every promise, every blessing, individual and collective, and reveals that there is really only one true covenant, maintained by the divine Creator.
Why the blood? Blood is symbolic of life - that is, one’s essence and existence. To symbolize this, in the ancient Near East, covenants involved the ritual mingling of the blood from both parties. So, when the Jewish writers recorded the stages of their history which they perceived to be specifically marked by God’s grace, they used the universal symbol of the shedding of blood to describe the moments of the comingling of the divine and the human existence.
Furthermore, covenants are marked by sacrifices because remaining faithful to our important promises will, at times, require self-giving. As such, God’s covenants with both Noah and Abram were sealed by animal sacrifices, and more poignantly so, in Abram’s case, by splitting the carcasses in half and a vision of God (and only God) walking between them. In the imagery of this culture, the story speaks of God’s willingness to take upon himself the consequences of our failings. Similarly, in the imagery of the Christian faith, Jesus’ suffering and unfair death conveys the hope that the death of self is the gateway to eternal life - the path to growing in God’s likeness.
There are other, less gruesome symbols of the same reality. Take last week’s rainbow. The bow made of refracted light points heavenwards to the source of all Light; the instrument to inflict hurt, and the target who will suffer from it, are of one essence. Or this week’s name change. Abram and Sarai, with the addition of a single consonant, “H”, become Abraham and Sarah; “H” stands for the Hebrew verb “to be” (“hayah”) and points to the willingness of the great “I AM” to join his/her existence to an ordinary couple, whose children (i.e., every one of us) go on to do extraordinary things.
As St Paul notices in his letter to the Hebrews, Abram trusted God well before his children entered their land, established Judaism, and formalized their set of rules and rites. Likewise, we do not need (nor could we ever attain) a full knowledge of the lay of the Promised Land, in order to trust that one day it will be forever ours. We do not need to know, yet, the names by which God will one day call us to himself. We do not need to know, yet, what form our participation in God’s life will take in the world to come. But, there are a couple of things of which we can be sure. First, is the promise of an eternal co-existence with God, and second - the self-sacrificial stand that is required of us to live fully into this promise. We might call this our “capital c” Covenant. In addition, may we continue to discern all kinds of “lower case c” covenants into which God may be calling us, or into which we might like to invite the renewed presence of the Holy Spirit - day by day, this Lent and beyond.