A Covenant of Hope
by Fr. John D Whitney, SJ
In the land of Ur, in what is today Iraq, the son of a successful herder received a message from God to leave the land of his ancestors and to go west, into unknown territories across the river. Though he and his wife were both elderly, God promised to make of them a great nation--something absurd on the face of it. Abram, however, believed this God he had come to know, and left all his hopes behind in favor of this promise. He ended up symbolizing his commitment in the small but painful sacrifice of circumcision--an act which said to God, "I am all in. You have me." Thus, began the Abrahamic Covenant, renewed by God at Sinai with the gift of the Law and by the promise, "You shall be my people, and I shall be your God."
In the New Testament, the covenant with the children of Abraham comes to its fruition in Christ Jesus. In him, God is wholly joined to the human community, becoming one with us--even to the point of shedding his blood on the cross. At the table of the Last Supper, and each week at liturgy, Christ gives himself to us in an act of love and sacrifice--fulfilling the great desire of God and our deepest desire. We, who offer ourselves to God in the sacramental signs of bread and wine, become one with God through the power of the Holy Spirit and the transformation of the gifts we bring into the body and blood of Christ. In this moment, over and over again, around the world and across the centuries, the Covenant begun is renewed, as we and God become one through sacrificial love.
Covenant is a term often mistaken for contract, but it is not a contract--in the same way the relationship of Abraham and God or Jesus Christ and the Church is not a contract. Whereas a contract establishes a relationship of quid-pro-quo (e.g. if you paint my fence I will give you $50), covenant involves a gift of one's whole self; it involves a sacrifice given in love between persons, where their hearts and lives, not simply their goods and services, are exchanged. It is most often found in the sacrament of marriage, which transcends the simplicity of a civil agreement to become the merging of lives, the union of desires, the mutual fulfillment of the parties through sacrifice in love.
Thus, God was not hiring the people of Israel to worship him at Sinai, but was marrying himself to them (a metaphor used often in Scripture to describe this relationship). Likewise, Jesus doesn't make a contract with us that can be voided by non-performance, but lays down his life for us in a total gift of self--a gift that invites us to the same kind of love, the same kind of sacrifice, not because we have to fulfill the terms of a contract, but because the love offered is our deepest desire.
This weekend, the people of St. Joseph Parish are asked to consider the Covenant in which we live as Church together--the commitment we make to each other and to God. This covenant is not intended as a set of demands or as a contract of responsibilities, but as a description of our desire, a reminder of the sacrificial love which unites us with God in the Church. The articulation of this covenant comes from the years of discernment in which we have all been engaged, and is a call from the heart of the community to the heart of each member. Like Abraham, we are invited by God to enter this covenant, and like the disciples, we are reminded that Christ's love is at the center of the call--and must be at the heart of our response. May we take time and prayer with this covenant, listening if St. Joseph Parish is the community in which we are called to covenant.