The covenant narrative found in Genesis 15:1-18 gives us a rare glimpse into some of the liturgical practices of the ancient patriarchs and an insight into how they understood their relationship to God. The story describing a covenant and the ceremony that sealed it was passed down through oral tradition for several generations before it was written in the form we read today.
The story begins with a visit from God to Abram. The patriarch's name has not yet been changed to Abraham. The encounter is set in the context of a vision and later a deep sleep. God tells Abram that he is favored and will receive a great reward. Abram is concerned because he does not have a natural heir. Nevertheless, God promises Abram that he will not remain childless and that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars.
Abram trusted God's promises (“believed the LORD”) and because of that he was considered to be in a right relationship with God (“righteous”). St. Paul later uses Abram as an example in his explanation of "justification by faith" in Romans 4:3. In fact, for Paul, Abraham is the paradigm of justification.
The verses that follow deal, not with sacrifice, but with an obscure covenant ceremony called the “cutting of the covenant.” Animals were killed and their carcasses were split in half. The person or persons involved in the ritual would walk between them and curses were called down if the covenant was not honored. The images of a flaming torch and a smoking fire pot are symbols of the divine presence, reinforcing the belief that God was confirming the covenant.
God always initiates the covenant and our role is one of response. A covenant differs from a contract in that both parties to a covenant are bound to uphold their promises even if the other party does not. The story of the People of God is the story of God's faithfulness in the face of our unfaithfulness. Instead of cursing us, God comes to us and calls us back into a right and just relationship.
Ultimately, God's most profound act was to make covenant with the world through Jesus, though St. Paul makes it clear in Romans 9-11 that the new covenant does not take the place of the old one - it expands it. The Abrahamic Covenant was initiated for the benefit of Abraham and his descendants, who would be used by God to bring blessings to others. It is still valid. “For the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). The Christ Covenant was initiated for the world and for all people, including you and me.
We don't carve up animals and pass through the carcasses with smoking fire pot and flaming torch. Instead, the covenant ceremony for us is Holy Baptism, in which we are joined to Christ in his death and resurrection, sealed by the Holy Spirit, and “marked as Christ's own for ever.”
I hope this reflection will help us prepare for the renewal of the Baptismal Covenant at the Great Vigil of Easter.
The forty days of Lent are set aside for Christian people to prepare for the feast of the Lord’s resurrection. In the early Church, candidates for Baptism were instructed in the Christian faith during this season and prepared for their Baptism early on Easter morning. The already Baptized use this time to remember their own Baptism and prepare for a renewal of their vows.
A good way to begin our preparation is to take a careful look at the faith we profess. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul lays the foundation for the view of salvation based on this faith.
The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, "No one who believes in him will be put to shame." For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved." – Romans 10:8b-13
St. Paul begins by saying that Jesus has put an end to legalism. And who would know better than Paul what a legalistic kind of faith was all about? He believed that radical obedience to God’s Law was the requirement for salvation and for a right relationship with the all-holy God. He looked upon God as a celestial creditor, God’s chosen people as debtors, and everybody else as sub-human and outside of God’s concern.
Then, his encounter with Love Divine on the Damascus Road changed all of that. His faith was transformed from trust in his own goodness to trust in the goodness of God. The new faith Paul describes is born not of works but of faith. Our salvation is in being loved by God. Jesus came to tell us that, show us that, and put an end to legalism.
So, St. Paul says that the essence of this faith is the claim that Jesus is the Sovereign of our lives. That means that we can approach the cares and concerns of daily life out of the strength of his love. Even when all else fails, he will never let us go. That is the promise of our Baptism! We are “marked as Christ’s own for ever.”
Jesus is not a good man who once upon a time was martyred for his convictions. He triumphed over the two forces that cause us the greatest anxiety – sin and death. He is a living sovereign who is near to us in our journey through this world and into the next.
Finally, Paul stresses that Jesus is not our private possession. He is everybody’s Sovereign. This is a testimony to the inclusiveness and universality of God’s salvation. This way of faith is not exclusively for one race, or group, or political movement. It is for everyone. If you and I believe that, we can be saved from arrogance, pride, prejudice, judgmentalism, and self-righteousness. To know that the One who rules my life and loves me also loves others transforms the way I see and treat others.
There is an old story about a vagabond who fell ill in Lombardy centuries ago. He sought the aid of doctors. After they diagnosed his malady, one of them said in Latin, “Let us try an experiment with this worthless creature.” Then, to their amazement, from the sick man lying in rags came this question, also in Latin: “Will you call him a worthless creature for whom Christ died?”
Jesus Christ is everybody’s Sovereign!
So, as we begin our Lenten journey, let us examine the faith we confess. Let us reclaim the belief that Jesus came to replace a legalistic relationship with God with one based upon Love Divine freely and generously lavished upon us and all sorts and conditions of people. Let us search for new ways to confess this faith with our lips and in our lives.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
With these words and with the sign of a cross of ashes imposed on our foreheads, we begin our annual Lenten journey. Those ashes, made from the palm branches we waved as we sang hosannas in celebration of Christ's Triumphal Entry last Palm Sunday, are a sign of the tentativeness of our praises and the shortness of our lives in the grand scheme of things. They mark the beginning of a season of reflection upon the impact we will leave in a universe that can and will go on without us.
Anglican priest and physicist John Polkinghorne expanded my own thinking about those ashes and our place in this universe in his book Quarks, Chaos, and Christianity. He writes, "Every atom of carbon inside our bodies was once a star. We are all made from the ashes of dead stars." Then, he goes on to explain how special our universe is. "Only a cosmos at least as big as ours could endure for the fifteen billion years necessary for evolving carbon-based life. You need ten billion years for the first-generation stars to make the carbon, then about five billion years for evolution to yield beings of our sort of complexity."
Woven into the complexity of our life is the "invincible divine purpose for good" and "the faithfulness of God who will not allow anything good to be lost." The death and resurrection of Christ bear witness to that truth and constitute the "seed event" of the new creation. From that "seed" springs forth fruit in the lives of those who follow him.
So, when you receive those ashes, marked on your forehead in the sign of the cross of Christ, receive with them the invitation to examine your life, seek what is good, and discard whatever interferes with the fruitfulness and goodness you may contribute during your brief sojourn.
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word. (BCP)
Wednesday, February 10, is Ash Wednesday. At the services on that day, we will be invited to observe a holy Lent with these words:
Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord's passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provideda time in which converts to the faith were prepared for HolyBaptism. It was also a time when those who, because ofnotorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithfulwere reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored tothe fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregationwas put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution setforth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word. And, to make a right beginningof repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us nowkneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.
There are many ways to observe a holy Lent. Some people give things up. Some people take things on. There’s a way to do both at the same time. The chief purpose of these disciplines is to become more conscious of ways we depend on things more than we depend on God so that we may draw closer to God and grow in our love for our neighbors.
Here are some ways to keep a Holy Lent, by William Arthur Ward:
Fast from judging others; Feast on the Christ dwelling in them. Fast from emphasis on differences; Feast on the unity of life. Fast from apparent darkness; Feast on the reality of light. Fast from thoughts of illness; Feast on the healing power of God. Fast from words that pollute; Feast on phrases that purify. Fast from discontent; Feast on gratitude. Fast from anger; Feast on patience. Fast from pessimism; Feast on optimism. Fast from worry; Feast on divine order. Fast from complaining; Feast on appreciation. Fast from negatives; Feast on affirmatives. Fast from unrelenting pressures; Feast on unceasing prayer. Fast from hostility; Feast on non-resistance. Fast from bitterness; Feast on forgiveness. Fast from self-concern; Feast on compassion for others. Fast from personal anxiety; Feast on eternal truth. Fast from discouragements; Feast on hope. Fast from facts that depress; Feast on verities that uplift. Fast from lethargy; Feast on enthusiasm. Fast from thoughts that weaken; Feast on promises that inspire. Fast from shadows of sorrow; Feast on the sunlight of serenity. Fast from idle gossip; Feast on purposeful silence. Fast from problems that overwhelm; Feast on prayer that strengthens.
—William Arthur Ward (American author, teacher and pastor, 1921-1994.)
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