1 March AD 2009
Lent and Covenant
Covenant is a central concept in the Scriptures. It is defined by the NOAB as “a term of relationship between a superior and an inferior party, the former ‘establishing’ the bond”. We are used to speaking of the old covenant and the new covenant (and might note here that Testament, as it is used in the Bible is usually a synonym for covenant). In fact the scriptures speak of a series of covenants. In Hunting the divine fox : images and mystery in Christian faith, Robert Farrar Capon discusses the series of covenants, discussing them in terms of the promise, the commandment and the sign of each one.
The concept first appears in the story of Noah, as seen in the first reading today, Genesis 9.8-17 (there is in fact an earlier mention of covenant in the same story (Genesis 6:18). Unlike the later covenants with Abraham (Genesis 17) and the people of Israel at Mount Sinai (Exodus 24), ), this is a universal covenant with Noah, his descendants, and with every living creature, for Noah’s three sons (6.10,18-19) are regarded as the ancestors of all the nations (see chapter 10). The promise of the covenant is that God will never again destroy all life on earth by a flood; in verses 1-7 we read that God commands Noah and his descendants to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”; he gives them the living creatures for food but forbids the eating of blood, which is the life of the flesh. The sign of the covenant is the rainbow (verses 13-16). The bow was thought to be God’s weapon from which the lightnings of his arrows were shot (Ps 7.12-13; Hab 3.9-11) ; God hangs this weapon in the sky as a sign that he has put away his wrath. A further point is that the bow is not merely placed in the sky, but that it is aiming upwards. Thus God can be understood as aiming the bow, and his wrath, at himself (Capon).
The first readings for most Sundays of Lent are concerned with the succession of covenants: On Lent II it is the covenant with Abraham (Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16). On Lent III, the Ten Commandments. On Lent IV in Year B we read of the bronze serpent (Numbers 21.4-9) which is a type of the crucified Lord (John 3.14-21). This seems to be the exception, for on Lent V we read Jeremiah 31.31-34, in which the Lord promises a new covenant. This series of readings provides an important framework for keeping Lent.
If Lent is a preparation for Easter, we might ask in what way we are preparing. It could simply be that the great feast is prepared for by the great fast, so that out celebration is all the more intense and happy. Aside from feasting and celebrating, though, there an action we perform at Easter that needs careful preparation. That is the celebration of Baptism or the renewal of Baptismal vows. It is through Baptism that we enter into the new covenant with God in Christ, the everlasting covenant, and at Easter we are asked to renew the promised we made in Baptism (see BAS, pp. 330-332); it is no accident that in the liturgy of Baptism these vows are entitled: The Baptismal Covenant (p.158). As we hear the first readings on the Sundays of Lent, then, let us remember that we are listening to a history that was constantly pointing to and which were fulfilled in the New Covenant made in the Passover of Christ Jesus from death to new life, of which the signs are chiefly Baptism and the Holy Eucharist, of which the commandments are the laws of love, and of which the promise is the new heaven and the new earth, the dwelling of God with us see Revelation 21).