LENT, RENEWAL OF OUR COVENANT WITH GOD
Homily of March 4, 1979.
Texts: Genesis 9:8-15; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:12-15
Dear sisters and brothers, the season that just began with Ash Wednesday is the most important one of the liturgical year. I want to ask you to experience this season with a sincere desire to follow Christ in the spirit of an authentically evangelical church. The essence of Lent is preparing ourselves to celebrate Easter and the paschal mystery that is the death and resurrection of Christ. By his death the Redeemer paid for all the sins of humankind, and by his resurrection Christ offers new life to all men and women. To share in the merits of the cross and in the new life of resurrection, we must dispose ourselves humanly. As Christ said in today’s gospel, we must be converted: «Be converted, and believe the Gospel» (Mark 1:15).
Lent therefore is a time for conversion and for believing in the Gospel. The feast of Easter is not a feast of Christ alone but of Christ as the head of all of us who make up humanity. For this coming Easter of 1979 we ourselves must be the Body of Christ: our flesh, our lives, our concrete situations. We, the baptized people of El Salvador, must be the incarnation of that Christ who appears gloriously alive. Let us pay honor to our Redeemer, the one in whom we hope and believe. Let us prepare ourselves so that we are not dead cells in the living organism of Christ. Let us honor all the cells revivified with this new spring that brings great hope and divine life. That is why the season of Lent down through history has provided a wealth of ways to help us prepare ourselves.
In olden times there were three groups of Christians who prepared for Easter. The catechumens were those who had been through a long course of studying Christianity; they felt that they were ready to receive baptism at the Easter celebration on Holy Saturday night. During Lent they received special preparation for that great sacrament that would incorporate them into the death and the resurrection of Christ.
Another group was called the penitents. These people had all committed sins out of weakness, fragility, or malice, and so they were separated from the body of the church. During Lent they got themselves ready to receive absolution, and this was given on Holy Thursday during the Mass of reconciliation. In this way they were made ready for Easter night, like dead persons who had come back to life or like prodigal sons and daughters who had returned from a far country. These two groups, the catechumens and the penitents, were the objects of special affection on the part of the merciful church, who like a loving mother gives eternal life to her children with each baptism and raises those who are dead with sin to eternal life with each sacramental absolution.
The third group was the faithful, the beautiful name given to us Christians. They recognized their tepidity, their weaknesses, and their temptations, but thanks be to God, they had not betrayed the Lord and been unfaithful. Nevertheless, these faithful souls also prepared themselves so that their faith would be reinvigorated for the new Easter.
So with all of these—catechumens who were preparing to become newly baptized, penitents who were turning from sin to reconciliation, and Christians who walked faithfully with the Lord—there was a revivified church, an Easter parade that stretched from Christ the head to the very last person to be baptized.
Sisters and brothers, I’m telling you about this whole liturgical panorama of Lent and Easter as a way of announcing to you right now that Holy Saturday night must be the culminating point of this whole season. Our young people, when they were confirmed at Pentecost last year, announced a «Youth Easter» for this year, and they’re getting ready for it. Other young people, along with catechists and communities, are also preparing for a holy Easter night.
We must resist a perennial temptation that wrecks Holy Week: the flight to the beaches and the resort areas. This is a time of rest, it is true, and I understand that many people don’t do this out of maliciousness. Still, if we have followed Christ with his cross during Lent, it is a good thing, at least on Holy Saturday night, for us to accompany him as members of his church in celebrating the glory of the resurrection in our own lives. Let us organize our Holy Week vacation so that Holy Saturday night is also the culminating point of our vacation and a true participation in the grace of Easter. Let us therefore prepare, dear sisters and brothers in all the communities and all the parishes, for a holy night that will truly be the finishing touch of this season of Lent that we are just now beginning.
In the center of all this preparation, naturally, is the risen Christ, but in today’s gospel we meet the Christ who Saint Mark says was «driven by the Spirit into the desert» (Mark 1:12). Let us also enter into the desert with him, impelled by the same renewing Spirit. The desert is a figurative way of describing this season of prayer and austerity and renewal. If there is any country that is a desert in need of prayer and renewal, it is ours! How wonderful it would be if all Salvadorans were to use this season of Lent for introspection! We are all responsible for the evil that our country is suffering, but we want to put the blame on others without examining ourselves. Lent is an invitation to enter the desert with Christ and reflect on ourselves.
That is why the pope will be entering on his spiritual exercises starting this afternoon; he will spend a week of reflection with his closest collaborators. In an attempt to imitate him in our diocese, a group of priests and I will begin our spiritual exercises this week. All of us are called to evaluate our fidelity to the Lord, and if we have the misfortune of being among the sinners, then let us do penance. We are already baptized, but Lent has some valuable elements that should make us think about the great dignity of baptism so that we can re-experience at Easter that magnificent dignity of being baptized in the Lord. And that’s the direction in which my homily is going this morning. As is our custom, we will give it a title: «Lent, Renewal of Our Covenant with God». Lent is a renewal of our covenant with God, and I want to give special attention to that word «covenant». As the first point of my reflection I want to present the covenant as a sign of salvation. For the second point I will present Christ as the key of the covenant, and the third reflection will be on baptism as the insertion of each person into this covenant with God.
The covenant, a sign of our salvation
Our first idea is the covenant as a sign of our salvation. Today’s first reading tells us about the first covenant that appears in the Bible. One of the great things about Lent is that we review the history of salvation, that is, God’s project for saving humankind. It is a project of love and benevolence. In the Bible the word «covenant» means the same as «pact», and it is also the same as «testament». These biblical words signify that God is establishing a relation with human beings, a relation that can be summed up in the words God addressed to the people under Moses’ leadership: «I will be your God, and you will be my people» (Lev 26:12).
Today’s first reading tells us what preceded the great flood. Human beings had wandered from the right path, says the Bible, and God almost repented of having created them (Gen 6:5-6). This is a biblical expression indicating that God was grieving over the people’s infidelity. He decided then to punish the earth and all of humankind by opening the floodgates (Gen 7:11), which is biblical language for catastrophic flooding. In the flood «only eight persons were saved», Saint Peter tells us today (1 Pet 3:20). The survivors were Noah and his sons and his sons’ wives, and along with them in the ark were one pair of each type of animal.
When this punishment had passed, God, who always loves us despite his punishments, pronounced the word «covenant», which provides the theme for this homily. Pointing to the rainbow, God said, «This is the sign of the covenant that I am making with you and with every living creature: I will place my bow in the heavens as a sign of my covenant with the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth, the bow will appear in the clouds, and I will recall my covenant with you and with all the animals. Never again will a flood destroy all living beings» (Gen 9:12-15).
What is the significance of this covenant or pact? This was a very frequent and well-respected practice among peoples of the East. Making a covenant meant establishing reciprocal relations between two parties, with all the rights and duties that flow from such an agreement. For example, marriage was a covenant, with the two parties agreeing to live together perpetually and to observe the corresponding rights and duties as equals. A covenant also involved certain conditions. According to ancient traditions, especially in the East, covenants or pacts were made between equals, so that there was a balanced reciprocity. Sometimes, though, a conquering people made a covenant with a conquered people and imposed conditions on them. In the Bible we find a completely new form of covenant that did not appear in other religions: it is God who takes the initiative of making a covenant with a people. Among other peoples a covenant was considered something sacred, so that in a sense a god was always involved, but the gods did not make covenants with humans; rather, they were supposed to protect those who were making the covenant. Consequently, every violation of a covenant was considered sinful; it was an offense against the god who had witness the covenant.
The Bible reveals to us the one true God, and it also tells us how that God created human beings and how he chose one people with which to make a covenant. This covenant was not exactly an agreement based on reciprocal rights and duties. In the language of the prophets, the covenant God made with human beings appears as a grace, a gift, a promise of salvation. This was the original form of the covenant, which was foreshadowing the coming of Christ. It was the covenant of a loving God who marked the stages of history with successive covenants of blessings and promises. That’s why it was easy to change from the concept of covenant to that of testament, which represents the parents’ gift to their children. The covenants of the Old Testament were contrasted—or better, were completed—by the new covenant in the New Testament.
The sacred covenant of ancient times was established by an impressive ritual, and it was called the «covenant of blood» because blood from both parties was mingled. For the ancients blood was the symbol of life, and a covenant was ratified with the lives of both parties. Do you remember when Moses sprinkled blood on the people to signify that God had made with them an alliance that was ratified by the blood of the victims (Exod 24:8)? This was simply a foreshadowing of the blood that would be shed one day on Calvary. This was the blood of God, but in the Old Testament it was the blood of lambs, the blood of pigeons, the blood of animals. It was the expression of life by which human beings pledged to God their commitment of adoration and duty.
Another ritual that appears in the Bible involved killing the animals, cutting them in half, and then placing them on either side so that those making the covenant could walk between them. This was a sign that the pact that they were making was so sacred that if one party did not fulfill its obligations, it would end up like those victims: split in two. This was how seriously the covenant or the pact was taken. That is why this word, originally derived from the customs of other nations, was used in God’s revelation, the Bible, to express God’s benevolence toward human beings and his commitment to saving humankind. So when I speak today of Lent as the renewal of our covenant with God, I want to issue a call to everyone to remember that, as a people of God and as a people of the baptized, we have a commitment.
What theological explanation can be given for the idea of covenant, especially the covenant that appears in the Bible, the one we are now renewing during Lent? The explanation is very simple. According to God’s revelation, every sin is a breaking of the covenant. Sinners are disobeying a law, which means breaking with the supreme Legislator, our God. Disobeying his Ten Commandments causes ruptures with God and brings on tragic consequences.
Theology states that those who commit sin break away from the principle of their existence and their life; as a result, they experience an inner rupture of their being so that they carry disorder within themselves. We learn sadly from experience how bitter sin can be; we feel disordered and troubled and are disgusted with ourselves. And those who don’t feel that way are worse off still—they’re hopeless cases. During this Lent let us all be aware that something is broken within ourselves because we have broken away from God.
From that interior rupture and lack of peace in the sinner’s heart arises another rupture: the rupture with other people. The Bible tells us about Cain killing Abel, and after that divisions multiplied (Gen 4:8). In our own time as well, when there are divisions among us and things that separate us and sow hatred and violence, it is because there is sin. Such ruptures are the consequence of our rupture with God. When we love God and are at peace with God, then we will also love our neighbors, even if they are our enemies.
And there is still another fateful rupture: the rupture with nature. When human beings disobey their Creator, they experience an immediate reaction. Remember what the Bible says: before Adam sinned, he was master of all creation (Gen 1:26), but when he committed a sin, the disorder within himself made him fearful (Gen 3:9), and he was afraid also of the wild animals since they no longer obeyed him. This tragic relation to the whole cosmos is a consequence of sin.
The covenant, then, is meant to draw together all these broken relationships. When we renew our covenant with God, we also renew our covenant with nature, with other people, and even with ourselves. So in these first three Sundays of Lent we are going to reflect on the three covenants of which the Bible speaks. Today’s reading tells how God, after the flood, reveals that he is going to preserve nature: «This is the sign of the covenant that I am making with you and every living creature» (Gen 9:9). It is a cosmic covenant. The rainbow is a cosmic phenomenon. It doesn’t mean that the rainbow was invented at that time; rainbows can be explained scientifically. God did not invent them, but he gave them a religious meaning. It’s as though one of us were to say, «Let that rainbow bear witness to what I’m going to promise you, and whenever you see a rainbow, remember my promise». The covenant is made, and the rainbow is the sign of the covenant. It is a sign of what God has said: «There will be no more floods on earth (Gen 9:15). I will preserve nature, but people must work so that there is greater justice and so that the goods I have created are distributed according to my desires». This is what Paul means when he talks about the fullness of time and about how the nature created by God is groaning under sin (Rom 8:22). Rainbows remind us of the covenant, and the covenant demands that nature not be monopolized by just a few people since God preserves it for the happiness of all of us. Neither should nature be the object of jealousies and conflicts; rather, just as God preserves it with love, so let us lovingly use it for the happiness of all.
This Sunday, then, the rainbow should remind us how God’s cosmic covenant with humanity leads us to examine our use of the goods of the earth: whether we treat them as idols to be worshiped or rather place them at the service of this covenant which should undo the ruptures we ourselves cause. There would be no class struggles if there were true respect for the cosmic covenant. There would be no violence or hatred if we truly felt that God, the Creator of all, wants to form an alliance with his children and therefore wants us all to be sisters and brothers to one another. This is the kind of fraternity that God’s revelation leads us to preach, and that’s why I can never preach violence or hatred or guerrilla warfare. Those who say the contrary are speaking slander because what I’m saying now about the cosmic covenant is what I must say in the name of God.
Next Sunday we will hear about the covenant that God made with Abraham, which was oriented toward another kind of rupture that God wanted to mend. It concerned the descendants of Abraham who were the people chosen by God, and in their case the sign would not be the rainbow but circumcision. The sign of belonging to the Jewish people was circumcision, and it meant that all the descendants of Abraham, all the people chosen by God, were to be sisters and brothers and to form a unity around the promises that God was giving them as a people.
The Sunday after next we will hear about Moses. The covenant that God made with Moses was to help people feel united in their understanding of God and in their respect for him. That’s why the sign of that covenant was respect for the Sabbath, the day that we Catholics now call Sunday, the Lord’s Day. Attending Mass on Sunday means participating in our covenant with God. In every Sunday Mass we experience the covenant that makes us respect God and recognize him as the only true God, before whom we must dethrone all the idols that take God’s place in our hearts and among our people. These are the idol of power, the idol of money, the idol of lust, the idol of all the things that alienate human beings from God. Sunday should be for us the renewal of our covenant with God.
This long season of Lent is like one long Sunday, a time for us to reflect about how God made this covenant so that we human beings would be more united as sisters and brothers and would use the natural world as God wants it to be used. That is the meaning of the covenant, sisters and brothers. Lent is the season when we recall those old covenants of God so that we can live our present problems in the light of the new covenant, accompanied by the Spirit of God who watches over us and hopes that we will be faithful to our commitments.
Christ as the key to the covenant
My second thought, therefore, is this: what is Christ’s role in this desire of God to establish a covenant with humankind? Today the Sacred Scriptures tell us, «The Spirit drove Jesus into the desert for forty days and allowed him to be tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him» (Mark 1:12-13). What a sublime image of Christ—«driven by the Spirit»!
The second reading develops a little further this concept of Jesus being driven by the Spirit. Saint Peter tells us, «Christ died for sins once and for all, the innocent for the sake of the guilty, that he might lead us to God. Since he was human, they killed him, but since he possessed the Spirit, he was brought back to life. With this Spirit he went to proclaim his message to the spirits in prison who in former times had rebelled, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark in which a few were saved by crossing over the water» (1 Pet 3:18-20).
In today’s two readings from the New Testament, Christ appears as the culminating point. All those covenants that God made with the ancient people of Israel were simply symbols and promises of what would reach complete fulfillment in the redemption that Christ would bring about. The true rainbow can be seen in the open arms of Christ on the cross. The true circumcision, says Paul, is the faith Christians place in Christ (Gal 5:6). The true Lord’s Day is the worship that we render to our God. The old signs of the covenant—rainbow, circumcision, Sabbath—have no meaning except in Christ who brings them to fulfillment. Christ is the culmination of all God’s promises to save the world.
Therefore, as Christ enters the desert of Lent to dwell among jackals and wild desert beasts—even though he’s served by angels—he is the image of cosmic redemption. Controlling wild beasts and being served by angels, Christ is master of all things and will return them to the legitimate dominion of God.
Entering into Lent with Christ means claiming for ourselves all the richness that Christ’s covenant has for saving the world; it means collaborating with Christ in the salvation of history. On that last night of his life, when Christ took the bread and the chalice to leave us a remembrance of his life and his passion, he told us, «This is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the covenant» (Mark 14:24). Gathered together in that chalice were all God’s love and all his reconciliation with humankind. His blood was shed for the forgiveness of all sinners who seek repentance. Lent is a summons to reconciliation. Lent is the time when the eternal covenants of God become reality in Jesus Christ.
It makes no sense to enter into Lent simply to fast and observe the church’s legal requirements for the season. The church herself can be a problem if all we do is comply on the surface like the Pharisees. Do you remember last Sunday when John’s disciples and the Pharisees, who fell into such legalisms, were criticizing Christ’s disciples? «We are fasting, so why don’t you fast?» Christ told them that what was life-giving was the spirit of the law, not the letter: «While the bridegroom is still with the bride, the friends of the groom do not fast» (Mark 2:18-19). This is a time for happiness and joy in the presence of salvation! No matter how austere and disciplined people may be, no matter how much they may fast and punish themselves and walk on their knees to the sanctuaries, if they carry hatred and resentment in their hearts, all that devotion is of no use to them, not at all. Christ’s renewal comes out of love and fidelity to the Lord. This is true religion! This is the Christ of the covenant, the Christ of love, the Christ of reconciliation, the Christ of goodness!
Baptism, the insertion of each and every person into the covenant with God
And so finally, sisters and brothers, my third thought is this: how do we enter into this covenant which God makes with us in Christ? If Christ died and rose again twenty centuries ago, how do I, a poor citizen of the twentieth century, participate in that redemption that took place so long ago? Saint Peter gives us the answer this morning in the second reading, when he evokes the rainbow and the flood. The rainbow was only a sign, says Saint Peter; the reality is something else. «That was a symbol of the baptism which saves you now. Baptism does not consist in cleaning dirt from the body but in appealing to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ who is at the right hand of God» (1 Pet 3:21-22).
Baptism is an essential element of Lent. How does Christ’s Lent become our Lent? It becomes ours through our baptism, by which we have been incorporated into Christ so that everything that Christ did is credited to us and passed on to us through baptism. Why can we hope that our sins, as great as they may be, will be forgiven us? Because Christ died on a cross in payment for these sins, and the merit of the cross becomes yours and mine through baptism, which incorporates us into the death of Christ. Why do I, a mortal person, feel my life is growing old and my strength is declining, as if I’m on the way to the grave? Why do I feel the weight of mortality and limitation and illness and sin? How can any of us hope for eternal life as risen persons who will not die? We can do so because baptism has made ours the eternal rejuvenation of the risen Christ; we can do so because the glorious life of Christ is ours through baptism. Everything that belongs to Christ becomes ours because we are baptized.
Our glory is great, sisters and brothers, and that’s why Lent seeks to awaken in the heart of every Christian a keen awareness of being baptized. On Holy Saturday night we should all feel that the bountiful merit of the cross and the sublime joy of the resurrection have also become the merit and the joy of the poor persons who live on the margins, of the laborers without work, and of the workers who are deceived and defrauded. Let it also be the merit and the joy of the employers who are just and who try to live as truly baptized Christians, the ones who respect the workers on their estates, ever mindful that they and the workers are all members of the church and so share a common life because Christ is the head of us all. There is no room for social categories: «There are no longer Greeks nor Jews; there are no longer slaves nor free persons; there is no longer anything but sisters and brothers in Christ» (Gal 3:28). The equality implanted by baptism is beautiful. Through baptism we are all of equal category; we are all members of Christ, living by his merits. If we have any worth, it is not because we have more money or more talent or more human qualities. If we are worth anything, it is only to the extent we are inserted into the life of Christ, placed on his cross, and enlivened by his resurrection. This is the measure of humanity! Paul VI expressed it well when he spoke of human development: «People are more precious for what they are than for what they possess» (GS 35). And people are to the extent that they live by the divine life that Christ brought into the world. Even natural values are of little importance in themselves because Christ’s redemption reveals that our human qualities have divine value only when baptized by Christ and incorporated into his divine merits.
This is the kind of Lent we must celebrate, dear sisters and brothers, and that’s why it is worth our while to see how Christ experienced his Lent in the desert, for he is not some character isolated from our reality. This Christ of Lent of 1979 is everything for us, the people of God here in El Salvador; he is our church, he is our country, he is the situation of our people. This is the reality of Lent in 1979.