Please remember that every one of the first scriptures proclaimed at Mass during this year’s Lent has been an Old Testament reading about covenants- specifically the covenants that God made with the Israelites.
A covenant, understood simply, is a relationship. When God makes a covenant with the Israelites he is initiating a relationship. This relationship is best likened to marriage, in which the parties exchange vows and promise to be forever faithful.
The first covenant we heard about in our Lenten scriptures was the covenant with Noah- a covenant that was revealed in a magnificent sign that God displayed in the heavens.
The second covenant that we heard about in our Lenten scriptures was the covenant with Abraham- a covenant that was revealed in a terrifying request and sacrifice.
The third covenant that we heard about in our Lenten scriptures was covenant with Moses- a covenant that was written and explained in a text called the Law.
Last week, we heard of the horrifying consequences that beset the Israelites when they were unfaithful to the covenant. The Israelites gave themselves over to idolatry, worshipping wealth, pleasure, power and honors as gods, and in doing so severely compromised their relationship with God. Entering into a covenant with God is not a small matter and breaking a covenant with God is not without consequences.
This Sunday, the Old Testament Prophet Jeremiah foresees that God will make a new covenant with the Israelites, a covenant that will not be revealed by signs in the sky or in a terrifying request, or in a written text, but the new covenant will be (the prophet describes) “a covenant of the heart”- it is this covenant of the heart that will fulfill, perfect and surpass all the other previous covenants God had made with his people.
What is this mysterious covenant of the heart? It is the Lord Jesus. He is God’s covenant of the heart, the means by which he establishes a relationship with us that is unlike any other covenant before him.
Why is the covenant God makes with us in the Lord Jesus so unique?
Because God in Christ establishes a relationship with us by accepting for himself a human nature, and through that human nature, living, like us, a real, human life. God does not just declare himself to be in a relationship with us, but becomes a man, and invites us to know him, and in knowing him, become his family and friends.
Now remember, this new covenant of the heart means that God shows his love for us by experiencing for himself all that it means to be human- including suffering and death. He accepts the experience of having a real body of flesh, muscle and bone and a real heart that beat with real blood. He knew for himself what it was to love us in his body and felt the pain of our refusal of him in his body.
He also, in his body, did something for us that was as surprising as it was unexpected and undeserved. God in Christ effected what is best described as a marvelous exchange- receiving from us a human life so that we could receive from him a share in his divine life. All this, is the meaning of God’s covenant of the heart.
It is also the point that is being made in our second scripture, an excerpt from the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews.
The Letter to the Hebrews is a theological essay that seeks to help us to understand God’s mysterious revelation in Jesus Christ, particularly, that God in Christ accepted the experience of a body that would suffer and die. The reason God did this was a matter of his heart, that is, his love for us. He didn’t have to do what he did in Christ. But he did it “for us” because he loves us.
As Pope Benedict so aptly put it, and Pope Francis has persistently repeated, God’s relationship with us is best described and understood as a love story- a story of God’s heart meeting human hearts in a way that is as fantastic as it is surprising.
All this signals to us something of great importance of what it means to be a Christian or to profess the Christian Faith.
Our faith is not in abstractions, in ideas or in feelings, no matter how insightful or deeply felt. Nor is our faith in institutions and cultural traditions, no matter how noble and revered. Our faith is in a living, divine person, God, who in Jesus Christ, offers to be in a relationship with us, and through this relationship, offers us a share in his divine life.
This relationship with God in Christ has the power to change us, to transform us and to impart a meaning and purpose to our lives that we cannot make for ourselves or find in any other experience.
This relationship, which is a covenant of the heart, is not simply a matter of an idea about God or a feeling about him, but of a mysterious encounter that happens for us in the Church, particularly in the Sacraments of the Church. You don’t come to share a relationship with God by matriculating through faith-based infrastructure, but by giving your life to Christ and receiving his life as he gives himself to you in the Sacraments of the Church.
The Sacraments are not merely time honored customs or celebrations of ourselves, but a unique, personal encounter with God in Christ, who makes himself known to us, invites us to be his friend, and offers us a holy communion with his divine life that is deeper and more profound, more creative and transformative, than the love of a husband and a wife.
This love story of God for us in Christ is a covenant of the heart that breaks his heart for it is a story of unrequited love.
What is unrequited love?
Unrequited love is love that is met with refusal. God in Christ makes himself vulnerable in his love for us, risking that his overtures of love might mean that he experiences for himself the pain of our rejection- and this is precisely what happens in the suffering and death of the Lord Jesus.
In the suffering and death of the Lord Jesus the unrequited love of God in Christ for us literally breaks open his heart.
Christ speaks about all this in his Gospel, anticipating his suffering and death, and at the same time re-assuring us that from that suffering and death a new kind of life will be revealed to the world. All this is the matter, the substance, the meaning of the great and mysterious events of Holy Week.
The season of Lent is coming to its fulfillment. Several weeks ago, on Ash Wednesday, I reminded you that the purpose of Lent, with its practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, is to prepare you to participate in and receive the great and mysterious events of Holy Week.
And now we are almost there!
As the days of Holy Week draw ever closer, remember, that the mysteries that are placed before you in story, ritual and song are a love story- a living experience of God’s covenant of the heart.