by Sharon Rolle, Oblate of St. Benedict
1 Peter 3:18-22
The three readings for this First Sunday in Lent are about covenants between God and humanity in the Bible. What is a covenant and how does it differ from a promise?
A promise is one person making a binding agreement with another. For example, if I promise to take my granddaughter to see the movie Frozen 3, it is my obligation to fulfill the promise, whether I like it or not. She has no obligation to do anything for me.
A covenant, however, is a chosen relationship or partnership, in which two parties make binding promises to each other to reach a common goal. Here is an example: I babysit for my younger daughter’s two little girls. Willa is three years old and Naomi is eight months. My daughter and her husband are adamant that Willa should take a nap or have quiet time from 12:30 to 2:00 p.m. daily, but Willa has just found her own voice and has a myriad of excuses for why she won’t do it.
So, I said to her one day, “Willa, if you don’t start obeying the rules and at least rest after lunch, Grandma will not come to take care of you anymore. Mommy and Daddy will find someone else to take care of you. Will you please start resting every day?” Willa responded that she wanted me and no one else to babysit for her and promised to take a rest daily.
The next day, Willa again refused her nap. I said, “Well, I will not be here tomorrow then.” She responded, “OK, Grandma. I’m going to miss you but every time you see the picture that I colored for you yesterday, you can remember me.” We had made a covenant between us, that I would continue to babysit for her as long as she obeyed the rest-time rule. She agreed to follow the rule, and when she didn’t fulfill her obligation to me, the covenant was broken.
In biblical times, covenanting between persons and between countries was part of life in the Near East. It is not surprising that a merciful God would reach out in this way to humans, to reveal himself and his wishes for his people. Most theologians believe that the Bible includes five covenants: between God and Abraham, between God and Noah, between God and Moses, between God and David, and finally the new covenant revealed in the New Testament.
Some include a sixth covenant, a Creation covenant, although the word covenant was never used in Genesis to describe God’s relationship with Adam and Eve, when God gave them the Garden of Eden and all they would need to live a happy life. He told them to go forth and multiply and fill up the earth and provided them with all they needed to survive. He asked one thing of them: not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Of course, this meant he expected obedience to him and his laws.
In Genesis, Eve nagged Adam into breaking the rule, probably saying something like, “Honey, you look like you’ve packed on a few pounds since we got to Eden. We need to eat more healthy food. The fruit on that tree contains probiotics and very few calories. We’ve got to try it!” Adam can’t take any more of her prodding and the rest is history. Having broken the covenant, Adam and Eve were banned from Eden and their lives from then on were much more difficult.
The first two readings for this First Sunday of Lent describe the covenant between God and Noah. In Genesis we hear that Noah had three married sons, Shem, Ham, and … I think the third was called ‘Bob’ after he fell off the ark and had to be rescued from the water. –No, Japheth was his name. Noah and his family were good, God-loving people while the rest of the people of the world had succumbed to evil and violence. God was sorry that he had created them and decided to eliminate all living creatures on earth, with the exception of Noah and his family and any creatures that Noah puts on his ark. After the flood, God promises never again to destroy the earth and its peoples with floods. He tells Noah that the sign of this promise is to be the rainbow.
In his first letter, St. Peter gives us a further interpretation, that the saving of the eight people on board the ark – Noah, his wife, his three sons, and their wives – prefigures the baptismal water that cleanses our consciences from sin and dedicates us to God.
Lastly, we move to the Gospel of Mark for the grand finale. Mark tells of the baptism of Jesus in the river by John, his temptations in the desert, and the beginning of His ministry as the son of God – as God himself called him at his baptism. Jesus proclaims that this is “the time of fulfillment. … Repent and believe in the Gospel.”
Because people failed to live according to God’s covenant, God has sent his son to earth, to teach us by his example how to live. We now experience the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, which causes us to love God and to walk in his ways. We are given bold access to God through his grace, his freely given love. There is now good reason to believe that the world will become a place of peace and righteousness. This is the New Covenant.
Looking back over 2000 years, has our world responded positively to God’s desires? Are we fulfilling our part of the covenant made with God? This is something to reflect on during this season of Lent.
I end with a quote from Amanda Gorman’s poem The Hill We Climb which she presented at President Joe Biden’s inauguration:
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it
And so, this Lent should not be a time of despair, but one of making a greater commitment to bring light to all. We can do this because Jesus has shown us how.
Michelangelo – Flickr: The Creation Michelangelo Vatican Museums Italy – Creative Commons by gnuckx