“A New Covenant People” – Fr. Bob’s Homily for Sunday, March 17, 2024

You know, of course, that the Bible is divided into two parts, called the Old Testament and the New Testament. In fact, the two parts could also be called the Old Covenant, and the New Covenant. Covenant is a word that describes an alliance or agreement between two persons, or parties, whereby each party pledges loyalty and support to each other and agree to certain consequences if either should prove unfaithful to the covenant terms. Covenant-making was the usual way in which two nations would pledge allegiance to each other in biblical times, and went beyond a legal contract in that each party pledged a personal commitment to the other. 

The language of “covenant” has found its way into a description of the marriage bond in the last thirty or so years. Before, wedding vows in the Church were considered as a kind of “contract” between husband and wife, whereby each gave to the other certain rights over themselves and their goods. The act of sexual intercourse, on the wedding night, was considered the moment at which the contract was “sealed” by the couple, and, after that, the marriage could not be dissolved by divorce. It came to be realized, however, that the legal idea of a “contract” was inadequate for describing the marriage bond between husband and wife, being too cold and clinical. So moral theologians turned to the idea of a “covenant” instead, drawing on the biblical understanding of the term.  A covenant between husband and wife speaks of a partnership, a sharing of life and love together. Marriage break-up, then, means much more than breaking the terms of the marriage contract. It means a break-down in the personal intimacy of mind, heart and spirit between the couple, and that is why it is so devastating to the couple.

God has always sought to form relationship with us, and the manner in which he has done so is described in the Bible as forming, or literally “cutting” a covenant with us. It was described as “cutting” a covenant, because in the classic example of  covenant –making in the Bible, the one made by God with Abraham, and later with the people of Israel, the “sign” of the covenant was circumcision. The “cutting” of the flesh showed that the agreement entered into between God and Israel was meant to “go deep” into their lives. This was no mere superficial “contract” that either party could walk away from with no hard feelings. A covenant was meant to be “for keeps”. It was meant to be exclusive to the two parties and involve a real sharing of one’s self and one’s life with the other. If the covenant was broken, it was meant to “hurt”, really, really hurt, because the couple had “gone deep” with each other, and, in the process, the two had become “one”- one heart, one spirit.  Perhaps you can see now why marriage is regarded these days, in the church, as a “covenant”, a sharing of life and love, rather than in pragmatic terms as a sort of contract.

God extended his vision of a relationship between Himself and his people into a “marriage” covenant. In the writings of the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament, the idea of God being the bridegroom and Israel his “bride” comes more and more to the fore, whilst in the New Testament, especially in the writings of St Paul it is Christ who is now the “bridegroom” and the Church which is his “bride” (see for example Ephesians 5: 25-33). Far from a husband and wife being regarded as having a mere contractual relationship with each other, St Paul insists that, for Christians, husband and wife must give themselves totally to each other, body, mind, heart and spirit. The husband must “tenderly care “ for his wife and be ready every day of his life to lay down his life for her, just as Christ does , and did on the cross, for the sake of his bride, the Church. 

All this to say, brothers and sisters, that God regards his relationship with each one of us as sacred, special, deep and lasting for all eternity. When we break that relationship through our  sin, we wound him deeply because he is personally committed to us, to our care, our growth, our fulfilment, our happiness, and when we sin, it is like a betrayal in a marriage and it “cuts” him to the heart. We enter into this deeply personal and intimate “marriage” covenant relationship with Christ at our baptism, which is why, when we are asked to affirm our baptismal vows, we respond with the words “I do”. Because it is a marriage covenant, and the vows we make to Christ are not to be lightly entered into. We are sharing our very selves, our life and our love with Christ, who has also pledged to share his very self with us.  it is a relationship which is meant to be exclusive, in that we are not meant to have such a relationship with any other god or idol. And it is meant to be an eternal relationship. We are not meant to walk away from it, disregard it, put it way down in the list of our priorities. God takes the promises we make at our baptism, or the promises our parents make for us at our baptism, with absolute seriousness. A husband and wife cannot, if their marriage is to even survive, let alone grow, pledge themselves to each other on their wedding day, and, thereafter, never bother to live out that absolute self-surrender to each other. Our baptismal commitment to Christ, and the one we make for our children, requires that we invest our lives, and our children’s lives, into that personal, intimate, exclusive, eternal relationship with Christ. How are we doing with that, brothers and sisters? 

In Lent, we put to the test the depth of our commitment to Christ. 

Is he the light of our lives, our dearest love, the desire of our hearts? Do we want to share a deeply personal, intimate, exclusive and eternal relationship with him? Do we make time to spend time with him in prayer and in the reading of his word? The old covenant that God had with his people, Israel was flawed, in that it was imposed from outside of them, it never went “deep” with them, they found it rather easy to break faith with God and be disloyal to him, even though God had proven over and over again the strength of his steadfast love and faithfulness and covenant loyalty to them. But we are not people of the old covenant, we are people of the new covenant.

 The first reading from the prophet Jeremiah today is a “turning point” in God’s relationship with his people. It represents a transition from the old covenant to the new one. And the new covenant that God promises his people will come from within, not from without, it will involve a personal relationship with God, whereby we know him intimately and deeply, not with our heads only, but with our hearts. Above all the new covenant will deal with the power of sin within us and free us from the grip of Satan. The one who God sends into the world to be its savior, its anointed one, its messiah, will inaugurate the era of the new covenant , of the new and greater covenant relationship with God. That Savior, that Messiah, is Jesus. In our baptism, he comes to live within us through his Spirit, and give us a new heart and a new spirit, so we can have a sharing of life and love with Jesus, a real covenant relationship with him, and through him, with God the Father. This Jesus achieves for us, through his death and resurrection. And so, the priest will proclaim over the chalice during Mass, these words of Jesus at the Last Supper, where he established the new covenant: “Take this, all of you, and drink from it, for this is the chalice of my Blood, the Blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in memory of me.”

And so, this season of Lent is also a “turning point “for our spiritual and Christian lives. Do we want to exist as if we were still people of the “old” covenant, keeping God at arm’s length, spiritually, and wanting to go on with our lives with a minimal sharing with him? Or do we want to be, as we are called to be, people of the “new” covenant, who seek a personal, intimate relationship with Jesus, which goes deep within us? Will we try, in what remains of this Lenten season, to seek a new heart and a new spirit, so we are led by love of God, and not fear of him, and believe that, through Christ’s death and resurrection, we can at last overcome the power of sin in  us and enjoy “the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8: 21)? 

Only you and I can answer those crucial questions, brothers and sisters.