The First Sunday of Lent [B]
Genesis 9:8-15 + 1 Peter 3:18-22 + Mark 1:12-15
February 21, 2021
“Your ways, O Lord, are love and truth to those who keep your covenant.”
“Covenant”. The secular world doesn’t use this word very much. You might hear this word “covenant” used to describe homes in a gated community. It’s called a “covenant community” to give an idea of the community’s exclusiveness and high standards. But in the Bible, the word “covenant” refers to something very different.
In this Sunday’s Responsorial refrain, the Church sings: “Your ways, O Lord, are love and truth to those who keep your covenant.” When the Latin Bible translates this verse, it uses the Latin word “testamentum” for what we in English call a “covenant”.
Another place that Sacred Scripture uses that word is in Luke 22:20, a verse heard at every Mass. In Latin, this verse quotes Jesus at the Last Supper saying: “Hic calix novum testamentum est in sanguine meo, qui pro vobis funditur.” In English, the same verse might be translated: “This chalice is the new testament in my blood, which will be shed for you.” At Mass, of course, the words we hear at the Consecration are: “… 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.”
So there’s a close connection between the words “covenant” and “testament”. But how can the English word “testament” help us to understand the meaning of the word “covenant”? In the Old Testament of the Bible, God enters into several different covenants, including His covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, and David. But above all, when we reflect on the “Old Covenant” of the Bible, we’re talking most often about God’s covenant with Moses, and through Moses, with the People of Israel.
The Law of God in the Old Testament, which sets parameters or boundaries to living out this covenant, is the Mosaic Law: the Law of Moses. This “Old Covenant” was one of protection, by which God would show His fatherly love for His people. Through this “Old Covenant” God drew His People together into one body, and promised to remain with them and to secure a place for them on earth.
As we reflect on this, we can hear some similarities between this “Old Covenant”, and what we live out as Christians in the “New Covenant”. But there are substantial, dramatic differences between the Old Testament and the New Testament: the “Old Covenant” and the “New Covenant”.
The more important difference between the Old and New Covenants concerns sin. Through the Old Covenant, God expressed His fatherly love for His People. Their sins were shown and pointed out to them, the way that a father is responsible for pointing out to his teenage son the son’s sins and failings, whether the son appreciates his father for doing so or not. But this Old Covenant was also a preparation for the New Covenant.
A few Sundays ago in the Breviary, the Church prayed the words of St. Augustine, who in reflecting upon the Letter to the Galatians points to those Christians who “still wanted to be under the burden of the law. Now God had imposed that burden on those who were slaves to sin and not on servants of justice. That is to say, God had given a just law to unjust men in order to show them their sin, not to take it away. For sin is taken away only by the gift of faith that works through love.”
Jesus established The New Covenant by means of His Death on the Cross. In the Sacrifice of the Cross, Jesus took every human sin into Himself, such that He became sin, to use the phrase that Saint Paul used in the Second Reading on Ash Wednesday, where he tells us that “For our sake [God the Father] made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him” [2 Cor 5:21].
Each Christian entered into this covenant at his or her baptism. On Easter Sunday, we will renew the vows of this baptismal covenant. On that morning, we will rejoice that Christ has given His life so that we can have a new life. We will rejoice that because we give our lives to God, our lives have meaning: a meaning that God will continue to reveal to us more each day, as we walk faithfully in the footsteps of our Savior.