Friday, February 26, 2016

Cutting A Covenant

There is one concept that is the key to understanding the whole Bible. It unlocks the meaning behind all the events from the creation of the world, through the liberation from slavery in Egypt, through the establishment of the Promised Land up to the birth of Jesus. It also is central to our understanding of who we are as a Christian people redeemed in the blood of Christ.

This key concept is “covenant”.

The word, “covenant”, literally means a “treaty” or “alliance”. In the Old Testament world, it had a much deeper meaning than we would give it today. In the ancient Near East, entering into a covenant meant taking two peoples, unrelated by blood, and making them into a family. A covenant created family ties where there previously were none.

What would typically happen is that the king of a small, weak nation would ask the king of a larger, wealthier nation to enter into a covenant. The stronger king would pledge to protect the weaker king as if he were family, the way he would come to the help of a brother, a sister or a cousin. The weaker king would then have to pledge to pay some kind of tribute to the stronger king whether it be camels, horses or gold. This new family relationship would be sealed by a covenant.

In the Old Testament, we see that God understands His relationship to His People in this way. He is the mighty King who choses a weak, enslaved people and brings them into a land flowing with milk and honey. He promises to protect them if they will follow His commandments. They will be a people all His own. Through the covenant, He will create a family tie with Israel. He will be their Father and they will be His sons and daughters.

Today’s first reading recounts for us the covenant that God makes with Abram. For us hearing it in the twenty-first century, it seems strange. But when we understand the concept of covenant, the deeper meaning becomes clearer to us.

God tells Abram to take several animals, to cut them in half and to place the pieces across from each other making a corridor. This was part of the covenant ritual. Traditionally, the people making the covenant would cut animals in half, walk between them and pledge, “If I ever break this covenant, may I also be ripped into pieces.” This was a way of letting each side know how seriously they were taking the promises they were making. By God passing through those animals, He was telling Abram how seriously He was taking the promise that He made to Him to bring him into the promised land and make of him a great nation.

Throughout the Old Testament, God kept His promises to His People. However, time and again, they broke His covenant by worshipping idols and breaking His commandments. Like a good Father, God remained patient with His people promising them that He would make a new covenant with them, a covenant not made in the blood of bulls or goats and not written on tablets of stone, but a covenant that would last forever and would be written on our hearts.

Jesus came to fulfill that promise of a new covenant. It is interesting that, although the concept of covenant figures so greatly in the Old Testament, there is only one time that Jesus uses the word. It is at the Last Supper when He offers the cup of wine saying, “This is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new covenant.” Therefore, this new relationship that God plans to make with His people - with us - is not made through the blood of animals but through the blood of His Son.

Through the blood of Jesus, then, God establishes a new covenant with us. He makes us into His sons and daughters. He calls us to enter into a loving, personal relationship with Him and with all those who also call Him, “Father.” Because He is our Father, we also have a share in His inheritance which is everlasting life. That is why Saint Paul tells us in today’s second reading, “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

We celebrate and renew that new covenant relationship with God every time we gather at Mass. The Body and Blood of Jesus is the offering that seals this family relationship with God. By His eternal sacrifice, we are cleansed of our sins and strengthened to keep His commandments, to live in the freedom of the sons and daughters of God. Every time we gather here we proclaim to the world that we are God’s chosen people, that He loves us and that we will live according to His word. We also proclaim that we look forward to His coming again in glory to raise us up with Him as Saint Paul teaches us in today’s second reading: “He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself.”

God wants a personal relationship with each one of us. He has gone to great lengths to make it possible, even giving His beloved Son over to death. Will you not now say “yes” to Him? Will you not now embrace the friendship He offers us sealed in the blood of His Son? Will you not now listen to His Son as He has commanded us, bringing your life into line with all He teaches us through His Church? Will you give not only your time but also your heart to our Heavenly Father? If you do, you can be assured that He, as a faithful and good Father, will keep His end of the bargain and shower you with graces and blessings beyond what you could ever hope for or imagine.

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