A Covenant is a Serious Business of Love

The liturgical readings of February

It isn’t essential to have schizophrenic leanings to celebrate Lent, but it helps. Based on the origins of the season, it’s not clear what we should emphasize during these 40 days.

Originally, when all baptisms took place on Holy Saturday night, Lent was something like a community revival period. Everyone not only joined in the joy of the catechumens preparing for their big event, it was also a time of reflection for each Christian. I always presume, for instance, during the exchange of vows, the married couples attending a wedding ceremony are thinking more about their commitment to one another than they are focusing on the couple making that same commitment in front of them. In a parallel way, I presume the early Christians participating in the catechumens’ immediate preparation for baptism are also thinking about their commitment to the risen Jesus among them. Whether it’s a baptism or a wedding, both events prompt an examination of conscience. The original Lenten readings were at the center of the church’s catechesis during these unique weeks before baptism. Everyone — catechumens and those already baptized — was expected to reflect on the same Scriptures.

Problems arise when baptism begins to be administered on days other than Holy Saturday. By this time, the community’s penitents are being absolved on Holy Thursday, permitting them to take part in the evening’s Eucharist of the Lord’s Supper. Year after year, the number of penitents grows. Many more are requesting formal absolution than those who demanded the sacrament centuries before. The Lenten focus logically shifts from Holy Saturday to Holy Thursday, from baptism to confession, and from the joy of new life to the somber rigors of penance.

Hard to figure out how exactly to celebrate these 40 days. But before we get to Lent, we still have two Sundays during the season of Ordinary Time to check out.

The Fifth Sunday (February 4) does the exceptional: It first creates a problem, then spends two readings solving it. 

The author of Job brings up what many people of faith feel, but don’t like to admit. “Is not our life on earth a drudgery? Are not our days those of hirelings?” No matter how hard we try, “(Our days) come to an end without hope.” Though we can repeat the lyrics of Psalm 147, “Praise the Lord, who heals the brokenhearted,” we frequently feel God has been taking a vacation from our lives for a long time. The excitement that should be part of our lives of faith simply isn’t there.

Don’t give up! The Gospel Jesus seems to have discovered the key to unlocking that excitement in today’s Marcan pericope. It revolves around biblical hesed.

Hesed is what someone does in a covenant relationship which isn’t expressly covered in the covenant. It doesn’t take long to figure out if one relates with someone only within the actions required by the covenant, the relationship quickly starts to get boring and begins to fritter away. You have to go beyond what’s expected in order to keep life interesting.

Our sacred authors refer to that “beyond” as hesed. Prophets especially employ that word when speaking of Yahweh going beyond the demands of his/her covenant with us. Though Yahweh fulfills all covenant requirements, we’re frequently reminded that we can also expect Yahweh to shower us with hesed.

Today’s Marcan Gospel passage describes what happens on the morning after Jesus’ first day of ministry. In spite of everyone looking for Jesus, he tells his surprised disciples he is leaving town. He is expanding his preaching to other cities and synagogues. He obviously could have stayed in Capernaum and been fulfilled the rest of his life. But he goes beyond expectations, reaching out to places where he might not be as well accepted. (On Good Friday, his followers knew he went one synagogue too far.) Leaving Capernaum is an act of hesed. Though he had no idea what the future would bring, he would never again experience a boring day. 

Paul reminds the Corinthians that he also practiced hesed when he evangelized them. He had a right to expect them to take care of his room and board, yet he went beyond their expectations and his rights, offering “the gospel free of charge,” eventually identifying with those he evangelized. He could have remained just a teacher amid his students, instead of actually becoming one with those he came in contact. As with Jesus, hesed is the key for Paul’s exciting ministry.

This characteristic of going beyond often leads us down roads we never anticipated visiting. Mark’s Jesus demonstrates this at the very beginning of his ministry when he actually touches an untouchable: a leper.

As we hear in the Leviticus reading on the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (February 11), such unfortunates (classical biblical outcasts) are forced to dwell apart from the community. By physically reaching out to one of these, Jesus insists his followers join him in tearing down the walls separating one person from another. As Pope Francis has, in essence, reminded us: “Christians build bridges, not walls.” Even the author of Psalm 32 insists it is up to us to help remove the individual faults keeping us apart.

Paul, a practicing Jew, shares his own beyond experiences with the Corinthian community, reflecting on his present surprising openness to everyone in every way. Though Paul’s former pharisaical friends would find such behavior heretical, like all new creations he simply regards it as an example of biblical hesed.

Should anyone doubt Lent is the season in which we hone our hesed, the reading from Joel on Ash Wednesday leaves no doubt. The prophet actually uses that exact Hebrew word in referring to Yahweh’s care. Translated “steadfast love” or “rich in kindness” (Joel 2:13), we are expected to imitate God’s characteristics in our daily lives. Just as Yahweh goes beyond our expectations, so we are to go beyond just the externals of reforming our lives.
Reflecting on how God relates to us, the psalmist sets out a list of divine fingerprints in Psalm 103. They are attributes we can personally imitate and make our own: compassion, forgiveness, life. Matthew’s Jesus bases his whole reform of Judaism on a determination to go deeper than just the external demands of his organized religion. I am afraid the Lenten practices of my childhood — especially giving up candy and movies — usually covered just the surface of my faith; it took me a long time to go much further. Real faith isn’t for children.

Of course, it’s important we understand in what faith covenants we are involved, before we can appreciate the hesed those covenants demand. The First Sunday of Lent actually presents us with the very first biblical covenant.

Yet as often as Scripture narrates such events, many Christians simply don’t appreciate, or even know anything about covenants. We forget that our biblical authors, from the beginning, had a unique insight about their relationship with God. It wasn’t as though Yahweh was the master and we the slaves, taking whatever God wants to throw our way. The chosen people freely made an agreement with their God. At some point or another, they had entered into a contract with the Holy One exchanging formal promises with one another. “I commit myself to doing such and such; you commit yourself to doing this and that.” Each has contractual obligations; each has contractual benefits. If the obligations are met, the benefits kick in. Hesed guarantees the obligations don’t become rote and abrasive. They are always new, constantly exciting. Though the two best-known covenants are with Abram and Sarai in Genesis 15, and in the book of Exodus with all Israelites at Mount Sinai, we have many other biblical agreements, including today’s post-flood event.

Counter to most other such agreements, Yahweh’s rainbow covenant with Noah, his family and every living creature is one-sided. God alone accepts the responsibility of never again destroying the earth with water, and determines what will be the covenant’s outward sign.

Yet, we know from the Gospels that Jesus of Nazareth, though he keeps the contracts his fellow Jews made with Yahweh, not only commits himself to specific acts of hesed, he also expects his followers to make that same commitment. At the beginning of his public ministry, for instance, he demands they also surface the kingdom of God in their everyday lives; that they recognize God working effectively in everyone and every situation they encounter. Of course, they are only able to pull this off by going through a complete change of their value system — a repentance. This metanoia quickly ends up becoming an essential part of their unique covenant. Like the author of First Peter, we not only have to acknowledge what Jesus has done, we also must acknowledge what we have agreed to do. Thankfully, as the writer of Psalm 25 reminds us, we have God on our side throughout this whole process. It is God’s will we are carrying out.

Paul of Tarsus eventually realized that Jesus completely gave himself over to Abram and Sarai’s Genesis 15 covenant. Though we presume this Galilean carpenter faithfully kept the 613 Sinai regulations, he woke up every morning trying to achieve true righteousness, by totally giving himself over to Yahweh. Knowing he engaged in such a quest, I personally wonder how often he must have reflected on the Genesis 22 passage proclaimed on the Second Sunday of Lent (February 25).

No one could give oneself more deeply to God than Abraham does by carrying out Yahweh’s command to sacrifice Isaac. All the promises God made to this couple revolve around their only son. He is their sign of the covenant.

Though Genesis 22 must be read against the background of the pagan child sacrifice practiced in 8th century B.C.E. Israel, the Elohistic author is also trying to show that our actual dedication to God is more important than even the covenant we have with God. Had Psalm 116 existed at the time of Abraham, I’m certain he would have sung it over and over again on his three-day trip to Moriah. He was more than afflicted. Only Yahweh could help him out of this one.

Jesus of Nazareth faces a parallel situation because of his hesed-filled covenant with Yahweh. Only he’s not offering his son — he’s offering himself. Just from a human point of view, God ends the agreement by having Jesus die. His transfigured personality won’t survive beyond Good Friday. Yet, as we know from the Last Supper narrative in First Corinthians 11, certain he is about to die, Jesus demands his followers sign their names on the same line that is going to bring about his death.

How can someone like Paul talk about God being with us in such a situation? He could only have gotten his definition of hesed from the risen Jesus.
Forget about giving up candy and movies. We have only one thing to do during these next 40 days: Imitate Jesus — no matter the new towns and synagogues he expects us to visit.

CelebrationPublications.org  February 2018

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