The first scripture for Sunday Mass that the Church proclaims to us this year during Lent will all present the great covenants of the Old Testament.
A covenant is perhaps best understood as meaning a relationship. Throughout the history of the Israelites, God established himself in particular kinds of relationships with his chosen people. These relationships that God and the Israelites enter into can be likened to a kind of marriage, in which promises are exchanged and oaths are taken. The relationship is expressed in the Scriptures as the ultimate concern of God and the Israelites. For the Israelites, the covenant, that is their relationship with God, becomes the central focus of their cultural existence, in the manner that a marriage, that is, that relationship of the husband and wife becomes the central concern of the spouse’s lives.
The Church is a new kind of Israel (constituted by Christ to be as such). Through baptism we are given a relationship with God in Christ and this relationship (covenant) is ratified in the sacrifice that the Church calls the Eucharist. Yes, as a Catholic you have, and are in, a deeply personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This deeply personal relationship with Jesus Christ happens, not just in your minds or your emotions, but in the Sacraments of the Church. In fact, participating in the Sacraments of the Church is the living source of your relationship with Jesus Christ.
Sacraments are not just cultural events or time honored ethnic traditions. Sacraments were not invented by the Church as a way of remembering the accomplishments of the Lord Jesus. Sacraments are an encounter with the divine life and presence of the Lord Jesus. The Sacraments are expressions of Christ’s relationship (his covenant) with us and our relationship (covenant) with him.
Last Sunday, we heard about God’s covenant, that is, his relationship with Noah and his descendants.
This Sunday we hear about God’s covenant, that is, his relationship with Abraham and his descendants.
If you were listening to our first scripture you could not help being perplexed and terrified. The scripture presented a horrific scene in which Abraham, the progenitor of the Israelites, is commanded by God to kill his own son, Isaac, as a human sacrifice.
Abraham complies with God’s command, and in doing so, demonstrates the depth of his commitment to his relationship with God.
Abraham’s faith in God, so absolute and terrifying, especially to many modern folks like ourselves, for whom religious faith can be about as demanding as a hobby, like bird watching or stamp collecting, a pleasant diversion that we take up and put away at our convenience.
Not so for Abraham! It was the covenant, his relationship, with God that was his ultimate concern, a relationship that had no rival; a relationship that brought into proper order all the other relationships in his life.
The apparent ferocity of Abraham’s faith confounds many, but this tale of terror that we heard from the Scriptures shocks us so as to provoke us to seriously consider our own relationship with God. If God is not at the center of our lives, our ultimate concern, then who or what is? God in Christ reveals that he has made each and every one of us his priority- what priority does Christ have in our own lives?
Do we take seriously our relationship with God in Christ or do we make a mock of it by treating it like a hobby, a faith-based diversion?
While our first scripture insists that we come to terms with the state of our relationship with God, our second scripture, an excerpt from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans, insists that we comes to terms with the reality of God’s relationship to us in Jesus Christ.
The Apostle Paul presents to us that God has in Jesus Christ accomplished something extraordinary for us. What has God done?
God has, in Jesus Christ, experienced for himself suffering and death, and he did this so as to unite his divine life to us, so that when we experience suffering and death ourselves, his divine power will transform those experiences from bleak and meaningless ends to new kinds of beginnings. We cannot exempt ourselves from suffering. We have no power over death. Suffering should render life absurd. Death should render life meaningless. But God in Christ, through his own experience of suffering and death, has transformed both, making them routes of access to his divine life.
This is the reason we Christians reverence the cross. Christ on the cross is not just a representation of a victim of political oppression. Christ’s passage from death into resurrection is not just a symbol of seasons passing from winter into spring. Christ’s cross is the astounding moment when God passed himself into the experience of suffering and death so that when we experience those hard facts we always come face to face with him.
In all this, God in Christ signals to us that his relationship (covenant) with us is such that he is willing to give up his life for us, to accept what he does not deserve, so as to give to us what we could never achieve or earn for ourselves.
You participate in what the Apostle Paul describes in the Eucharistic Mystery- the Blessed Sacrament. Eucharist means “thanksgiving” but what are we Christians thankful for? We are thankful for the Lord Jesus, for his suffering and death that transformed our suffering and our death. We are thankful for his resurrection, which reveals that God’s power can transform suffering into love and transform death into a new kind of life.
But even more than this, in the Eucharistic Mystery you ratify your relationship with Jesus Christ. He gives the same divine life and presence that he sacrificed on the cross to you in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood. You do not in the Eucharistic Mystery encounter a mere symbol of Christ, but the Lord Jesus himself- who gives his life for you and then if you receive his life, taking his life as food and drink, you then give your life to him. That’s what a relationship with Jesus Christ is all about. That’s what the covenant of the Eucharist is all about- God in Christ gives his life for you and you give your life to him.
The question we all have to answer is whether or not what we are doing through our participation in the Eucharist is actually true. Are we giving our lives over to Jesus Christ? If we receive and have no intention of doing so, what does that make of our relationship with Jesus Christ?
In Abraham’s covenant (relationship) with God, he withheld nothing from God, even what he loved most in the world.
In his Eucharistic Mystery, God in Christ withholds nothing from us and he gives himself to us wholly and completely. A covenant or relationship with Christ must be reciprocal if it is to be truly an expression of love. When we receive our relationship with Christ, what are we withholding from him?
Finally, in his Gospel, the Lord Jesus presents himself in his divine glory to his disciples. They see him for who he really is- not just a prophet, an activist, a preacher or philosopher- but, Jesus Christ is God.
This moment is truly apocalyptic, which means, contrary to ideas in the popular culture, not just some kind of destructive end, but a revelation of a new kind of beginning.
God reveals himself in Jesus Christ is a manner that people did not and do not think to be possible. God in Jesus Christ accepts for himself a human nature, and through that human nature, he lives a real, human life. The disciples see for themselves in the face of Jesus Christ the face of God!
The new beginning that appears in the revelation of God in Christ is a clarification of who God really and truly is and what he desires from us.
God in Christ reveals that he loves us enough to become like us, entering himself into all of what it means to be human- even into the experiences of suffering and death, and in doing so draw us to share in his own life.
He comes to offer us a new kind of relationship with him, a relationship that is given, not just in the words of prophets, but in the sacrifice of his own Body and Blood, and what he offers us in this Body and Blood is his love that is stronger than death and infinite in his willingness to forgive.
To accept this revelation, and in response, surrender your life to him, and receive his life in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood, is what it really and truly means to have a covenant, that is, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.