Sunday, March 22, 2015

Covenants and the Paschal Mystery: 5th Sunday of Lent

(Listen to this homily here).

            We live in a society that is driven by contracts.  Think about it.  If you have a job, you signed a contract.  If you own a home or are renting an apartment, you signed a contract.  Do you have a car?  A cell-phone?  Insurance?  All of these require signing a contract.  Have you ever read the receipt you sign if you pay with a card?  “I agree to pay the following…”  Another contract.
            Contracts, agreements about stuff—money, services, goods—help our economy and daily lives run.  But life would be pretty sad if every relationship was limited to a contract.
            In fact, the Bible reveals a different sort of relationship that goes deeper than contracts—covenants.  This is a key word to our Catholic history, theology and faith today.  Simply put, a contract is a promise that lasts forever.  God forged several covenants with His people in the Old Testament—Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and David—and this is how he built His family. 
The best modern example of a covenant is a marriage.  In the wedding a man and woman promise to be faithful until death.  They promise this through sickness and health, good times and bad for richer or poorer.
            Every covenant had two parts.  The first was the promise or oath, usually addressing future descendants, land or prosperity.  The second was a sacrifice.  These may appear bizarre to our eyes, but was a reality.  An animal (or several animals) was slaughtered and their blood was shed.  Abraham actually divided the parts of the animal and walked through the remains.  The priests in the temple would sprinkle or dump animal blood on the people.  Can you imagine if I brought in a bucket of animal blood and poured it over you during Mass? 
            Why so much blood?  One reason is that the Israelites believed the source of life resided in blood.  To forge a covenant, the offering of blood showed the offering of a life to seal the oath.  Another reason is that it was a sort of accountability.  Sacrificing an animal was like saying, “If I am unfaithful to my promise, let me be like that animal!”
            Now with these thoughts about covenants in mind, listen again to the words of Jeremiah: “The days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (this is why I don’t have to pour blood on you!).  “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD.  I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
            Where is this prophecy fulfilled?  Look at the cross!  Jesus fulfills every covenant through his crucifixion.  Through this act, God promises us eternal life.  He promises us forgiveness of sins.  And Jesus seals this covenant by shedding his own blood.  He gives his own life to ratify the greatest covenant of all.
            Another name for Jesus’ sacrifice is called the Paschal Mystery.  This is another key phrase that we should know well as Catholics.  It simply means dying equals rising.  It is what Jesus is getting at in the parable about the grain of wheat: “…unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.”
            What a powerful image.  Imagine how small a seed is and what it can grow into—what it can produce.  I remember from elementary school a DNR officer coming in to teach us about the habitats of lakes.  He brought in some wild rice and showed us how it had burrs to allow it to embed in the mud.  He also told us never to put it in your mouth…so we all did and it wound up in our bellies! 
            Jesus is that grain of wheat that fell from heaven and came to earth.  He gave his life so that we all may live.  His sacrifice on the cross led to eternally abundant fruit.  Jesus did this for us by fulfilling the Old Testament covenants.  Through the Paschal Mystery we enter into this covenant.  So how do we give our lives to God and others?

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