This month marks the fifteenth year after the war on Iraq began and supposedly ended. As the war in Afghanistan continues into its seventeenth year and the Syrian conflict its eighth, and as we ponder the awful wave of shootings in our country and violence in Syria, Yemen, and so many other places, we are reminded in the liturgy and especially today’s Scripture readings of the importance of remembering God’s faithful pursuit of humankind despite all our cruelty, forgetfulness, and spite. It is important to bear in mind that when we remember, as the liturgy urges us, we are not retrieving the past, but enlarging the present, increasing our consciousness of the presence of God and our presence before God that stretches all the way back.
Today’s liturgy especially focuses on the covenants God made with our ancestors and with us. Carefully so. A covenant is a bond or pledge of fidelity, like
a testament, which is a binding legal declaration, often a disposition of property. As early as the third century Christians began referring to the Hebrew scriptures as the “Old” Testament or Covenant and the Christian scriptures as the “New” Testament. Recently, Christians have begun to pay attention to the complaint from Jews (and many Christians) that this way of referring to the Bible is misleading.
Calling it the “Old” Testament is often assumed to mean that the Ancient Covenant has been superseded, outmoded, or abrogated by a different arrangement. But Jesus himself insisted that he had not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them [Matt. 5:17] — to complete the Ancient Covenant by renewing it absolutely. He did that by the shedding of his blood for the life of the world, just as the original covenant was sealed with the blood of sacrifice.
Actually, there was not simply one ancient covenant, but a whole series of them — from Adam to Noah to Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, who also hears God promise a new and everlasting covenant of peace [Ezekiel 37:26]. All these covenants were renewed, each in turn, as men and women broke faith with God over and over again. But God renewed and always enlarged that serial covenant, overcoming the estrangement people produced by breaking the more ancient covenants. Ultimately, as God promised Ezekiel, God did establish a new and eternal covenant, not with the blood of lambs or cattle or other animals, but with the blood of Jesus. Listen to the words of consecration and you will hear what Jesus himself said: “This chalice holds my blood, the blood of a new and eternal covenant. It will be shed for you and for many, so that sins may be forgiven.” Don’t forget that the term “the many” meant “everyone” in Jewish use, as opposed to “a few.”
It is this renewed and eternal covenant that Jeremiah promises in today’s first reading, reminding us of all those ancient pacts and pointing ahead to their fulfillment. “This is the covenant I will make with the House of Israel… I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” What Jeremiah did not know was that he was pointing ahead to the cross.
It is also the cross that the great letter to the Hebrews points to as the instrument enacting this new covenant. This long, profound mediation explains how Jesus achieves this renewed and now completed relationship between God and the human race, one that includes all the others. In today’s reading we hear how God ratified and blessed that sacrifice, Jesus’ own willingness to die in testimony to God’s faithfulness, by raising Jesus from death to eternal life. As Risen Lord, Jesus is the pledge and warrant of God’s absolute commitment to humanity, the savior of the world. That is the New Covenant, or better, the eternally Renewed Covenant.
In John’s gospel, we find Jesus saying the same thing — not that God would save him from the hour of his passion and death, but that God would be glorified in that willing self-offering. He speaks of a grain of wheat which, if it could somehow save itself from its small death, falling into the ground and changing into something totally new and different, the way a human being resists death and even the thought of dying, it would never become anything other than a solitary speck of plant tissue. It is by undergoing the transformation, replacing its identity with a whole new way of being, that the single grain becomes a field of living wheat. That, I am sure, will be the legacy of the new martyrs of Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and so many other victims of human folly and hatred.
Jesus applies that lesson first to his followers — follow me, take up your cross, as Matthew, Mark, and Luke have it, and come where I am. Then he applies it to himself: should I ask God to save me from this hour? No, this is why I am here. This is what I have come to do. It all gets down to this:
“Now has decision come upon the world. Now will evil be overthrown. Now will I draw all men and women to me.” And that, ultimately, is where our Lenten pilgrimage brings us on this fifth Sunday. It’s especially a good day to think seriously about mending our own broken relationships. Next week, Palm Sunday, we begin Holy Week, which celebrates the climax and fulfillment of the Ancient Covenant, the pledge of an eternal Easter and for our Jewish sisters and brothers, Passover. So let us pray in this time of war and remembrance that we will come to know fully the forgiveness and renewal God offers, so that we will experience the end of the reign of sin and death in our own lives and that of the whole world.