Covenants (Lent 2, 2023)

Did you know that the season of Lent is actually NOT about becoming as miserable as possible in anticipation of Good Friday? Historically, Lent was the time of baptismal preparation, when those new to the faith prepared for their initiation rites, those already in the church reaffirmed their commitment, and those who had strained relationships with their communities prepared to be readmitted – so, only the latter group was truly penitent. In its original intent, Lent is actually a happy season focused on renewing relationships with God and each other; a season when we review what it takes to make, repair, maintain, and express our commitments. Over time, it did acquire a specifically penitential tone, to the point that we don’t even celebrate weddings or baptisms in Lent, even though these rites manifest commitment. However, to me, pastoral reasons nearly always trump liturgical ones; and so today, yes, we will have a baptism. I hope it reminds us that Lent is the time to focus on relationships.   

Psychologists do recognize that deep trust and belonging is an essential need that must be met in order to secure wellbeing. Our commitments range, however, from those explicitly stated, to the ones that underpin our lives implicitly. Some we recognize formally through ceremony and symbol; this includes baptisms, weddings, ordinations, call to the bar, saying the Hippocratic oath, etc. And others build unspoken ties without any special rites, such as close friendships, parent-child and even teacher-student relationships, or those within a close-knit community (they might still have associated symbols – can you think of some?). The scriptures recognize our yearning for relational commitment in a series of episodes we call “covenants”, in which God solemnizes his/her own commitment to us. This is, by the way, a distinctly Judeo-Christian assumption, that God does not only witness our promises to each other, but chooses to enter into one with us. Because Lent calls us to pay increased attention to relationships and promises, typically, we read some of these episodes in church over this season. For example, today we read about God’s promise to Abram, and “overheard” Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. The latter employs baptismal symbolism and reminds us of God’s offer to meet our need for belonging in such a deep manner that he calls it a “new birth” – indeed, the “new covenant”! Let’s reflect on it as we witness this baptism today. Consider also noticing the words of our Eucharistic prayer that point to Jesus as the one through whom God fulfills this “new covenant”.

Indeed, it is God who offers all his/her covenants, from the Old and New scriptural ones, to our own personal moment-by-moment ones. “The wind blows where it chooses,” and there’s nothing we can or need to do to initiate the relationship that’s already there from the moment of Creation. The Spirit chooses to breathe new life into each of us – in our birth and baptism, and in each breath that we take – but, we do have a role in this, which is to notice and respond to the invitation; just like our human love might wilt when given a cold shoulder. For even with the help of the Spirit and by “grace alone”, it still takes two to make a covenant. 

We hear a beautiful expression of what our response might look like in today’s Ps 121. This is a hopeful psalm, if not necessarily cheerful. It is one of the psalms called the Songs of Ascents, perhaps, because ancient Jewish pilgrims sung them on the way from the countryside situated on the lower grounds, towards Jerusalem located within a low mountain range. Hence, “I lift my eyes to the hills.” The reason for travel? Maybe, to attend the Temple observances. Maybe, they were actually priests who had to climb up the 15 steps of the Jerusalem Temple – daily, or at Temple dedication in 959 BC, or at its rebuilding in 445 BC. Either way, these psalms reflect going onwards and upwards: from tragedy to redemption, from lament to praise. What enables this shift? It is the hope to which we cling, that God does want to be involved in our lives, and invites us to participate in mutual commitment. The same hope that, I think, our baptism manifests. 

And here’s the final thought. A true covenant does involve giving up something (say, a sense of freedom) in return for having an essential need met (say, belonging, security, fulfillment). Marriage, parenting, friendships, many professions and important causes both necessitate and yet also inspire such self-giving, which becomes part of the reward. This Lent, let us reexamine our own participation in God’s life. It might take the form of spiritual practices such as meditation, learning, reading, journaling, or attending church. Or, we might decide to take better care of ourselves – yes, that’s a form of responding to God’ love! – by allowing some alone-time, rest and exercise, learning to say “no”, conserving money, time, effort, and food, or taking up a diet or activity. Finally, and perhaps most appropriately to this season, we might set relational goals: reconciliation, giving up a grudge, visiting the lonely, getting to know or reconnecting with someone, foregoing sarcasm, judgment, and anger. All of these involve a sacrificial element, yet may be deeply rewarding when done for the right reasons.

Consider incorporating some of these goals over this Lent 2023 and becoming accountable for them. BUT, recall that for Abraham, it took 25 years to receive the fullness of God’s promises – offered to him at the age of 75! For Moses, it unfolded in three stages – 40 years each… So may we be patient with God and ourselves, and may we also remain assured that regardless of our age and life stage, God hasn’t quite finished blessing any one of us yet. Amen.

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