Updated: Mar 8, 2021
Sunday's readings can be found: [HERE]
What is it that defines you most? When every relationship we have adds to our identity, or defines our identity in some way, what relationship trumps all others, should there ever be a conflict between them, that forces an identity crisis?
For some, their marriage is their most important relationship; they define themselves as husbands or wives. For some, their children define them; being a father or mother is their core identity. Others may have their occupation as their defining feature: teachers, doctors, police officers, and so on. Still others might embrace their nationality, race, gender, political party, political philosophy, religion, alma mater, family, race, rank, or something else entirely as the core of their identity.
We know how Noah was defined. He was defined by God as the recipient of a covenant. And through him, his family was defined by that covenant, and the animals he carried with him in the ark. Five times in our reading from Genesis today, God invoked that word, Covenant:
“See, I am now establishing my Covenant with you, and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that was with you… I will establish my Covenant with you, that never again shall all bodily creatures be destroyed by the waters of a flood… This is the sign of the Covenant between me and you… I set my bow in the clouds as a sign of the Covenant… When the bow appears in the clouds, I will remember the Covenant I have made with you…”
With our modern laws and government, it can be easy to forget that there are generally just two ways we make deals with one another. The first way is by contract, which is an exchange of goods or services, involving money or barter, generally speaking.
The second way of agreement is by covenant, as we’re calling it here. Unlike a contract, which is an exchange of things, a covenant is an exchange of persons—or people or nations. Another word for covenant is pact or alliance. NATO is an example of a covenant between nations. The Warsaw Pact was also an example of a covenant between nations.
A covenant establishes a relationship where there was not a relationship before. This can also happen with individuals. For example, marriage is a form of covenant. A brother and sister have no need for a covenant, because they’re already family by having the same parents. But an unrelated man and a woman can become family through marriage.
Or a father has no need for a covenant with his son because they’re already related by blood. But a man can become a child’s father through the covenant of adoption, when they’re not biologically related.
Now, it’s impossible to understand our faith without understanding this idea of covenant. The bible itself is arranged by Covenants. Very generally, the bible consists of the Old Testament and a New Testament, as we all know. But that word, testament—today—has lost somewhat of its original meaning in English.
If you’re familiar with the term: my last will and testament—that’s the kind of testament the bible refers to; it’s a solemn agreement that is activated upon a death. A bit technically, but very briefly, testament is our over-simplified English translation of Saint Jerome’s choice of testamentum; which in Latin is a more faithful translation of the original Hebrew, berith, which means: covenant, alliance, or pact. And so, when we look at our bibles, and see in the table of contents: Old Testament and New Testament, it’s perfectly legit to regard them as the Old Covenant and New Covenant.
The Old Covenant actually includes numerous covenants involving Noah, Abraham, Moses, and King David. But it ultimately refers to the sacrifice of the paschal lamb at the time of Moses. That’s why so many of our readings during Lent remindus of that sacrifice.
Today, we celebrate the first Sunday in the season of Lent. It’s a mere forty days, not including Sundays and the Easter Triduum. Perhaps we can spend these forty days gaining a new appreciation for the great Covenant we’ve received.
A very long time ago, we lost the natural bond we had with God, due to the sin of our first parents. But in God’s mercy, he established a series of Covenants with mankind, age after age. Today, we heard about the first, with Noah; and through Noah, his family. Later God would establish a Covenant with Abraham; and through Abraham, his whole tribe. Even later still, God established his Covenant with the twelve tribes of Israel, with Moses as their Covenant mediator. Later would come the Covenant with David the King, and through David, the entire Kingdom of Israel and Judah.
Finally, God sent to us his own beloved Son to be the mediator of the new and eternal covenant, into which all of mankind is invited. This is the defining relationship given to us by God that ought to be at the core of our identity. This is the alliance by which our God is our Lord. This is the pact by which we are given the name, Christian. This is the Covenant by which God has defined us, and adopted us into his family.
Every Easter, we celebrate the anniversary of its institution, but we celebrate it at every Mass. Every Mass is a participation in the Covenant. May God bless you.