Aaron Schock, the Republican representative from Peoria, has taken his leave from Congress with admitted “sadness and humility.” The depth of his humility was revealed by comparing himself to Abraham Lincoln, who once held the same seat as a freshman representative from Illinois.
Somehow the connection with Honest Abe, the impoverished, hard-working log-splitter and store clerk who rose to local fame by his sincerity and honesty and went on to become President, seems not a little misplaced. Sad, yes. Humble? Not exactly. Humiliated? Definitely. But it is doubtful whether the flashy politician with the lavish lifestyle will be remembered as “Honest Aaron.”
God’s age-old covenant with humanity is forever new and eternal. It only breaks on our side.
Jer 31, 31-34
Psalm 51 3-4/12-15
Hebrews 5 7-9
John 12, 20-33.
About forty years ago, Herman Wouk wrote a best-selling novel called War and Remembrance, a phrase that pretty well depicts our situation today, this fifth and last Sunday of Lent before Holy Week.
This month marks the twelfth year after the war on Iraq began and supposedly ended. As the war in Afghanistan continues into its fourteenth year and the Syrian conflict its fifth, and as we ponder the awful wave of shootings in our country and violence in India, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Tunisia, and so many 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Calling it the “Old” Testament is often assumed to mean that the Ancient Covenant has been superseded, outmoded, or abrogated by a different arrangement. Nothing could be further from the truth. 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 everyone, 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 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 Nigeria, 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. 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.
Sir Terry Pratchett was for a long while (pre-J.K. Rowling) England’s best-selling author, and for good reason. Although not well known at the time in the U.S., his work – mainly the very long series of Discworld novels – had a loyal and widespread readership. I met him briefly at a conference and was charmed by his wit, his humanity, and intelligence. He was something of a rascal, but a brilliant one. One of my favorites of his books, Good Omens, which he wrote in league with that other maverick genius, Neil Gaiman, was far better than the work it spoofed. And Thief of Time, a Discworld novel, is a marvelous romp but at the same time (so to speak) a probing philosophical, yea theological exploration.
Diagnosed a few years ago with early Alzheimer’s Disease, Pratchett investigated and agitated for the right to die, but in the end died at home in the good company of his family. He will be greatly missed but long remembered for his wonderful contributions to the art of loving satire and deeply humane observations on the human estate. Mort, be not proud, but relish your new companion. After all, he turned even you into a pretty lovable character.
Gen 22: 1-2, 9-13, 15-18
Ps 115:10, 15-19
When I was a boy of six or seven back in New Mexico, our neighborhood was rocked one day with the news that a little girl had been murdered just a few doors up the street from our house. I remember her name to this day: Darla Jean. She was no more than two or three years old. She had been beaten to death by a drunkard, whose name also haunts me still. The awful murder of a child was a very rare thing then. It seems that as I grew older and perhaps because I now live in huge metropolitan area, it is not so rare to learn that another child has been shot or beaten to death. But it’s no less a shock and a shame, a horrible crime that completely baffles us.
What are we to make, then, of a God who orders his faithful follower, who has obeyed his command to give up everything, to pursue a new life far from the comforts of his home, seeking an ever-receding promise in a faraway, hostile land, this loyal disciple who has been blessed with a child of promise in his old age, now to murder this child in an act of savage worship? And what are we to make of a God we preach as a God of Love who, we are solemnly assured, did not spare his own Son?
It was only a test, we reassure ourselves. God knew that unlike Jihad John, Abraham would stay his hand at the last moment. He would listen to the angel voice, substituting a hapless ram for the child of promise. If so, then what kind of test was that? And did Abraham really intend to kill his child, even hoping against hope, as St Paul reassures us? If so, what kind of father had God chosen to become the ancestor of the Holy People?
On this second Sunday of Lent, Catholics the world over stop to consider this mystery in the light of one of the most astounding manifestations of God’s gracious presence in all of scripture, an event which has acquired the title of Transfiguration. The link between the two readings is a fragment of the Epistle to the Romans, which celebrates God’s unquenchable love for humankind, a love that did not spare his own Son, that ominous phrase that may still disturb us slightly.
Scripture scholars sometimes tell us that the account of the Transfiguration that appears in the synoptic gospels and the second epistle of Peter is a post-resurrection story introduced at this point for theological purposes. Having not read the scholars, the evangelists seem to think it belongs there, and precisely as a prelude to the approaching passion and death of the Messiah. Like Isaac, Jesus is about to be sacrificed to ratify an unbreakable covenant with God. Unlike Isaac, Jesus will not be spared by his Father. For this beloved child is himself the Lamb of God whose death will take away the sins of the world. He will suffer death in our stead.
Mark tells us that Jesus leads his three chief disciples up onto a mountain where his appearance changes. This is not some dubious account of a hidden divinity suddenly breaking through the folds of Jesus’ old clothes, as we sometimes find in pagan myths of the period. True, for a moment, his garments become glistening white, more radiant than any detergent could get them, despite what you might see on television. Worse yet, he is accompanied by two unlikely figures, long dead: Moses and Elijah, who (some scholars tell us) represent the Law and the Prophets. Perhaps they do. But here, something else is at work. They are talking to Jesus. Mark does not say what they were discussing, but Luke tells us they were talking “about his departure, his Passover, which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem” [Luke 9:31]. They were talking about his coming death.
A cloud covers the scene, and the disciples hear a voice telling them to listen to Jesus, who is the beloved Son. But listen to what? In each case, the account is preceded and followed by Jesus’ predictions of his passion and death, and here, in Mark, his resurrection. Jesus cautions them to remain quiet about the experience, and they do. It seems they are too dense to comprehend what Jesus might mean by “rising from the dead.” In fact, they sound a little uncomfortably to one in my profession like philosophers of religion. Curious phrase that. Rising from the dead. Whatever could he have meant by that?
But matters are not so simple, and neither were the disciples. The whole mysterious scene is set in the context of the great covenant promises of God, a covenant which was announced on the tops of mountains amid clouds, and glory, and heavenly voices that terrified their hearers. And those great figures of the past who were most identified with the mountain visions of God Almighty were Moses, who encountered the all-holy God on Horeb and Sinai, and Elijah, who in his flight from the fury of Queen Jezabel, seeks refuge on Mount Carmel, where God appears to him in a mysterious, whispering voice. Moses and Elijah are the great eschatological figures of the Ancient Covenant, whose own deaths are not only clouded in mystery, but according to the ancient promises who were to reappear before the Day of the Lord. That Jesus appears between them has less to do with Law and Prophets than it does with Revelation: here is the final prophet, the one whose appearance inaugurates the Reign of God. Listen to him!
It is that which puzzles the disciples. How can the Prophet of the End Times, the one who will be raised up like Moses of old, appear before Elijah returns to announce his coming? Jesus will tell them, Elijah has come. And he went his way. Luke will explain it further in terms of a day yet to come on which Jesus will tell other disciples “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and so enter his glory?” [Luke 24:6] But that is getting ahead of ourselves. For now, Jesus tells them that he must go to Jerusalem and there he must die. And in that death will be accomplished the inauguration of God’s reign. There is no way to glory around the mystery of suffering and death, but only through it, including the death of the innocent, even the death of children. In that Death, all such deaths are taken up and ransomed. And we are to listen to him. In each version of the Transfiguration, Jesus has just told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” [Mark 8:34].
Abraham listened to the voice of God and proved his faith. The disciples listened to the voice of God and learned to believe. And we, in our turn, are challenged to listen to the voice of God and transform our lives.