Lent is regarded by Catholics as a season of promise, building toward the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection at Easter. An emphasis on promise is especially fitting this year, based on the first readings of the first five Sundays in Lent, which amplify the theme of covenants.
In Year B of the church’s three-year liturgical cycle, each of the five consecutive weekly readings beginning March 5 pertains to a covenant God made with Israel. These covenants involve Noah (Genesis 9:8-15), Abraham (Genesis 22:1-2, 9A, 10-13, 15-18), Moses (Exodus 20:1-17 or 20:1-3, 7-8, 12-17), David (2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23) and the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
“According to the Hebrew Bible, the ‘covenantal’ form of divine-human interrelationship was Yahweh’s (God’s) idea. Yahweh chose covenants as the form by which he would initiate a relationship with humanity,” observed Father George Heyman, who serves as visiting assistant professor of biblical studies at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Pittsford. He also is pastor of Catholic Community of the Blessed Trinity in Wayne County.
A covenant, by definition, is usually a formal, solemn and binding agreement between two parties. In a biblical sense, the meaning goes much deeper because the parties involved are God and mankind.
“The covenants described in each of these readings are initiated by God, and contain promises that God makes with his people, along with requirements to be fulfilled by his people. These covenants tell me a lot about God’s deep and undying desire to care for his people,” said Father Walter Wainwright, pastor of St. Anthony/St. Patrick parishes and administrator of Ss. Peter and Paul Parish in Elmira.
Noah stood against the world’s evil and corruption, which had grown so rampant that God was incited to flood the world. Noah and his family survived the ordeal by building an ark. The sign of God’s covenant with Noah was a rainbow in the sky, as described in the reading for March 5. The rainbow stands as a symbol of God’s promise that he will never again destroy the world in such a way, and that man will be fruitful and populate the earth.
“God says that we should let this (rainbow) be a reminder to us of his continued presence in our lives, in our journey to salvation,” Father Wainwright said. “He is always there, and sometimes we need to remind ourselves of that abiding presence.”
Father Heyman noted that God also creates the rainbow as a reminder to himself that no matter how upset he might become with his people, he will not repeat such drastic action.
This passage from Genesis reflects a covenant that “calls for trust in God’s plan,” Father Wainwright said. Indeed, there might be no more supreme example of trust than that given by Abraham in this powerful and dramatic episode in the reading for March 12.
Abraham’s faith in the Lord is so complete that he willingly accepts God’s instruction to sacrifice his own son, Isaac, who was born to him and his wife, Sarah, after they had reached old age. In this passage from Genesis, the sacrifice of Isaac is halted by an angel’s voice. God then promises a multitude of blessings that extend not only to Abraham and his descendants, but to all nations as well.
What prompted God to select Abraham — also known as Abram — as a guiding light for mankind? Father Heyman observed that God’s choice for such a vital role stands as a mystery.
“God simply chose Abram, a wandering Iraqi from the modern-day region of Basra. Why? No one knows,” he said.
Father Heyman noted that Moses and the Israelites wanted God’s protection as he brought them out of the land of Egypt, but they had to obey a set of commandments in order to receive it. The Ten Commandments, which God issued to Moses on two stone tablets as they stood alone atop Mount Sinai, mark Israel as a chosen people and give them a very distinct set of guidelines to follow.
When he reflects on the Mosaic Covenant and the commandments from God, Father Wainwright said, “I see God’s desire for orderliness in the community of all humankind. We will be blessed with peace and happiness if, on our part, we will abide by God’s law.”
The Ten Commandments are cited in the reading for March 19 and repeated in Deuteronomy 5:6-21. Father Heyman pointed out that these edicts are actually “the top 10 commandments. There are 613 in total; we just memorize the top 10.” These 600-plus commandments are contained in the Torah — the first five books of the Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy).
The covenant between God and King David is noted in 2 Samuel 7:8-19,asDavid and his descendants are established as the royal heirs to the throne of Israel, and God promises to “fix a place for my people Israel; I will plant them so that they may dwell in their place without further disturbance.”
However, the reading for March 26 shows that life in the Promised Land is marked by corrupt activity that leads to the nation’s political destruction through foreign invasion. Father Wainwright said this reading serves as a reminder that “infidelity on our part can break the covenant … as we journey along our path of life we need to examine our spirit of fidelity to God, and when we have broken faith we need to come back and seek reconciliation, healing and restoring of the covenant relationship we have with God.”
Father Heyman said that neither the Davidic Covenant, nor the covenants with Noah, Abraham or Moses completely fulfilled God’s intended goals.
“I tell my students, God put a rainbow in the sky, but people didn’t really ‘get it.’ God tried speaking to his people (with Abraham), but it went in one ear and right out the other. God tried to write it down (with Moses) and people tried to find the loopholes to get out of things. God tried to choose a special family, the Davidic line, but they were more than a little dysfunctional,” Father Heyman said.
The New Covenant
Thus, Father Heyman said, God felt the need for a new covenant. In the reading for April 2, God’s unprecedented decision is foretold — that he will become one like us through Jesus. It is Christ’s death and Resurrection that seals the New Covenant described in the Book of Jeremiah.
This covenant of God stands as “the mode through which all humanity for all of time would now be in ‘right’ relationship to him,” Father Heyman said. “Humanity, whether they knew it or not, whether they liked it or not, were now forever valuable in God’s sight because of the sacrifice of Jesus’s own blood.”
Father Heyman added that “Easter becomes the sole source of hope for humanity, because in the risen Jesus, God’s covenantal promises finally were fulfilled. Because of God’s covenantal love in allowing Jesus’ blood to be shed, Christians look into the face of death and see life.” He added that this covenant is inscribed in the heart and not on stone — as was the Mosaic Covenant — in the hopes that it could be better understood and followed.
Meanwhile, Father Wainwright said the Lenten covenant theme “reaches what I see as its high point” with the New Covenant.
“It expresses an even greater desire on God’s part to deepen our covenant relationship, and so it is expressed with the words that the law is to be internalized, written on our hearts,” he said. “This says a lot: We are to abide in this covenant not just outwardly, not just because of external laws, but we must seal that relationship in our hearts.”
Many parts of the New Testament allude to the New Covenant. For instance, Jesus offers the cup and declares his blood the New Covenant (Matthew 26:28 and Luke 22:20). Also, the April 2 reading from Jeremiah is repeated in Hebrews 8:8-12, where St. Paul emphasizes that the New Covenant renders obsolete the Mosaic Covenant: “The covenant (Christ) mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion for a second.”
This “better covenant” includes the removal of sin as well as salvation for all mankind regardless of race. Paul writes in Ephesians 2:12-15 that Gentiles were previously “alienated from the community of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have become near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, he who made both one and broke down the dividing wall of enmity, through his flesh, abolishing the law with its commandments and legal claims.”
Fathers Heyman and Wainwright observed that all of the covenants mentioned in this year’s Lenten readings have lasting impact, and thus merit special reflection as we move toward Easter.
“We might well start out (Lent) reminding ourselves that we are in a covenant with our God, and this year’s journey might help to strengthen that covenant relationship. These Old Testament readings point as well to the covenant we have in Jesus Christ made by his death and resurrection — the covenant that promises our salvation,” Father Wainwright said.
“The idea of ‘covenant’ rehearses for us the path of salvation which God himself chose. We read these covenants as a type of ‘history lesson,'” Father Heyman said. “And, like all history, we learn something from each of them … each express in their unique way the special focus of affection and love that God had for humanity, only to be clinched, if you will, in the Easter victory of Jesus.”