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Cutting a Covenant

Homily for the Second Sunday of Lent (C)

Cutting a Covenant

Most of us, thoroughly modern citizens of Western Civilization, look skeptically at the notion of visions or, more correctly, altered states of consciousness. Consequently, when we read stories like today’s excerpt from the Book of Genesis or the event we call the Transfiguration, we tend to treat them as examples of literary license. However, in the Eastern World and in parts of Native American culture, these altered states of consciousness are viewed as God’s way of communicating with human beings.

In an altered state of consciousness, perhaps a dream, Abraham has received God’s promise of an heir and of “this land.” Abraham asks for a sign, which would be a guarantee of the promises.  God provides a covenant cutting ceremony as the sign. The ceremony itself is well-known in his culture. By walking between the slain carcasses of animals, two people would enter into a contract or covenant. The ritual of ‘cutting the covenant’ was an acted out curse, signifying the agreed upon fate of either partner who might be unfaithful to the pact. It meant: ‘If I violate this pact in any way, you have the right to do to me what we have just done to these animals.’ I know that this sounds brutal and barbaric; it is brutal and barbaric. But it is also a sign of what will come thousands of years later when God’s only-begotten son pays the price for the broken covenant by a brutal and barbaric death on a cross.

As God makes a promise to Abraham, God announces, “I AM the Lord.” God chooses Abraham and his progeny to be God’s chosen people and gives that people “this land.” Notice here that this is not a personal relationship between God and Abraham. In Abraham, God decisively intervened in human history to create a people for himself. God’s choice is, on his side, a sheer act of grace; and faith is set, be it noted, not in the context of individual salvation, but in the context of a people’s history.

This covenant looks forward to the future. God has made this people his own. However, we all know that when Jesus came among his own, they rejected him. So God extended the covenant, through the death of Jesus, to all who would place their faith in God and in God’s Son. This was done through Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus suffered the consequences of the broken covenant and was slain just as the animals were slain in the original contract. His death would be an ignominious and humiliating death. In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul writes: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’”

The evangelists record another story when the apostles, Peter, James, and John, are in an altered state of consciousness. They witness Jesus in his glory, the glory that will be his after his death and resurrection. Moses and Elijah are with him talking about his exodus, literally – his passing over. Both Moses and Elijah had experienced such an exodus. Moses passed through the Red Sea with the children of Israel. Elijah walked dry shod through the River Jordan and was taken up to heaven in a burning chariot. They are there to tell Jesus about what will happen and what to expect when he crosses over. The apostles are chosen to witness this event so that when Jesus dies on the cross, they will eventually come to understand that the shame of Jesus’ death is wiped away by the glory of his resurrection.

On the second Sunday of Lent, we always hear this story in order for us to prepare for the events that will bring us to the climax of Lent, the Sacred Triduum or Sacred Three Days of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. We are not in an altered state of consciousness. Reflecting on the deeds of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospels, we have come to place our faith in the Resurrection of Jesus. We are now God’s chosen people by virtue of our baptism. We have entered into a covenant with God. We have died to sin and have risen to new life through the waters of Baptism. St. Paul tells us in his Letter to the Philippians that we will someday experience the same transformation and will be conformed to Jesus.

Most of us cannot remember the day of our Baptism. I learned of my baptism through my mother. I was born sixty some miles from home. My mother would not think of taking me on a sixty mile journey on what was then Highway 41 without first having me be baptized. So she took me to the hospital chaplain and asked the chaplain to baptize me before making that trip back home. Some of the sisters have told me about the circumstances of their baptisms. However, we don’t remember the day. So each year, the Church asks us to renew our baptismal commitment on Holy Saturday or on Easter Sunday. The Church will also baptize all the catechumens at the Easter Vigil as the entire Church renews the covenant made with God through Jesus’ death. Our Lenten journey stretches on ahead of us as we prepare ourselves through prayer, sacrifice and through charitable deeds for the great celebration of Jesus’ triumphant victory over death.

Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator

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