Today western Christians begin the last full week of Lent, which ends with Holy Thursday and the solemn commemoration of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection begins. There is an underlying tone of urgency in the readings. Jesus’ hour has come. And with it, ours.
The first reading from Jeremiah points ahead to the new, or more accurately, renewed covenant God has made with humanity. Scripture
shows how over the centuries the original covenant was renewed time and time again, each time more expansively and deeper than those broken when our ancestors fell away from the promises made on our behalf. Each time, God forgave, restored, renewed, and expanded the ancient bond. What we learn from Jeremiah and Ezekiel is that the final, renewed covenant will differ in an ultimate sense. It will extend to all humanity and it will be internalized in our hearts and minds, no longer resting on obedience to an external rule. But like the former enactments of that everlasting bond, it requires acceptance and agreement. We ratify that pledge by the way we live, sometimes even to the shedding of blood. “Martyr,” after all, means “witness.”
It wasn’t by accident that the Christian scriptures were collected under the title New Covenant — and we should remember that “covenant” and “testament” mean the same thing, a binding contract between parties, as St. Paul and the Epistle to the Hebrews explain. In ancient times, important covenants – contracts, if you will — were signed in blood. And as we will hear frequently in the days to come, so too the renewed, final convent would be ratified by blood witness, that of Jesus.
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.
In John’s gospel read today, Jesus alludes again as he did when he spoke at night with Nicodemus [John 3:14-15] to the Nehushtan, the ancient symbol used by Moses to heal the Hebrews who had broken their covenant with God [Numbers 21:8-10]. To be “lifted up” meant to the Jews of Jesus’ day this above all – to be crucified.
The “letter” to the Hebrews points clearly to Jesus’ cross as the instrument enacting the ultimate covenant. This long, profound mediation devotes considerable effort to show how this renewed covenant does not abrogate the former pledges, but includes all the others. The culmination of the blood sacrifice that saves all of humanity, as we will hear increasingly in the days to come, is revealed in God’s acceptance and blessing of Jesus’ willingness to die in testimony to God’s faithfulness by raising him 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.
“Now has decision come upon the world. Now will evil be overthrown. Now will I draw all men and women to me” [John 12:31-33]. And that is where our Lenten pilgrimage brings us on this fifth Sunday of Lent. 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.
In the coming week our Jewish sisters and brothers will celebrate Passover, the great enactment of God’s pledge of fidelity, the archetype of deliverance, the model by which the Christian mysteries would in time be illuminated and which are recalled frequently during the Easter liturgies. So let us pray in this time of anxiety and conflict that we will all 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.