Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Cutting a Covenant

As I read the Book of Genesis, I notice a series of covenants that God has made, most notably with Noah and Abraham (another major one will be coming in Exodus with Moses). A covenant is something like a contract, but not exactly. It’s true that an agreement is made, promises are made, but it is not an impersonal transaction. It is a free and loving agreement between persons: “I will establish My covenant between Me and you…” (Gen. 17:7).

But there are conditions to the fulfillment of the covenant. A promise of God that is part of a covenant requires our fidelity to the covenant for its fulfillment. “I have chosen him…to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what He has promised him” (18:19). God made a promise, but Abraham must “do righteousness and justice” if that promise is to be fulfilled.

The sign of the covenant God made with Abraham was circumcision. This is a profound act. It requires much more on Abraham’s part than on, say, Noah’s, in the sign of the covenant God made with him. Noah just had to view the rainbow and relax in God’s promise not to deluge the world again. Abraham and his descendants had to pay a very personal price: “My covenant shall be in your flesh” (17:13). And not just anywhere in the flesh, like a little tattoo on the hand or something. The covenant of the Giver of Life, the Creator of man who breathed a soul into him, was to be inscribed in the place from which life is transmitted to succeeding generations, for this covenant in the flesh was intended to be “an everlasting covenant.” Such respect was paid to this mystery of the transmission of human life that when a particularly solemn oath was made, it was sworn at that very place: “Put your hand under my thigh, and I will make you swear by the Lord…” (24:2-3). The penalty for failure to inscribe this sign of the covenant in one’s flesh is expressed in a pun: whoever isn’t circumcised “shall be cut off from his people” (17:14).

There is a new covenant between the Lord and you (let’s keep it personal), one that Jesus inscribed in his own flesh. He was circumcised on the eighth day, but that was only the beginning of his shedding of blood for us. As the New Adam, He represents us all. Since we had forsaken the first covenant because of infidelity, idolatry, and iniquities and rebellions of all sorts, we were bound to pay an everlasting penalty, to be forever cut off from God and the happiness of life with Him. The only way to save us was through a new covenant, but the penalty still had to be paid, the broken covenant atoned for. We were utterly unable to do it. So the Son of Man established the new one with his Father on our behalf. This new covenant, however, had more severe signs inscribed in the flesh: thorns in the head, nails in the hands and feet, and a lance in the side. Jesus Christ is the only one in whose flesh this covenant could be cut. But this at last is truly the everlasting covenant.

If we break this one, as the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, there’s no hope for another. But it is a feature of this new covenant that our sins can still be forgiven by constant reference to it, by appropriating its gift through the sacraments. By clinging to Christ we can be sure of remaining in the steadfast love and fidelity of God. We may have a lot to learn about keeping our part of the covenant, but in the meantime the Father still looks at the signs of the covenant cut into the flesh of his Son—and so, while there is still time for repentance, He continues to withhold his just judgment…