Father, you formed man in your own image and entrusted the whole world to his care. . . .
And when through disobedience he had lost your friendship, you did not abandon him. . . .
Time and again you offered them covenants and . . . taught them to look forward to salvation.
What a testament to our Father’s unfailing love and commitment to us! These words, taken from the Fourth Eucharistic Prayer, tell us that from the very beginning God has been at work forming us into his own special people. They tell us that God wants to draw us close to him and teach us how to receive his life, his grace, and his love. And they tell us that one of the primary ways he does all this is by making a covenant with us.
As we begin this new year, and as we continue in this special Year of Faith, let’s take some time to explore this covenant love that God has for us. Rather than focusing on our obligation to keep every letter of God’s covenant, let’s focus instead on how God’s covenants have shown—and continue to show—how deeply he loves us.
Time and Again . . . We don’t tend to think about our faith in terms of a covenant. Nor do we tend to read the Bible as the story of God’s covenant with his people. But Fr. Yves Congar, one of the great theologians of Vatican II, taught that this one word, covenant, sums up the whole of Scripture. The entire story, from creation to the Second Coming, is the story of a God who reaches out to his people, seeking to lift us up to his presence. Beginning with Adam and weaving through the stories of Abraham, Moses, and David, the Bible shows us a God who always takes the first step and invites us to come to him. It also shows us a people who, once they have been touched by God’s covenant love, are changed and transformed by his grace.
From its very first pages, the Bible tells the story of a covenant. It begins with God creating man and woman in his own image and likeness, blessing them, and telling them, “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). Here is the very first covenant: we were to act as God’s ambassadors on the earth, while he showered us with his blessings.
But we all know what happened in that garden. Our first parents sinned and separated themselves from God. They broke the covenant.
What did God do in response? He didn’t reject them. He didn’t wipe them from the earth. He knew they had to live with the consequences of their sin, but he also promised them a future deliverance. He stayed with them and continued to guide them. He kept his part of the covenant! His love prevailed as he paved the way for another covenant with their descendants. And another one. And another one.
For all the various differences between these covenants, one theme remained constant. Every covenant was initiated by God, who reached out to his people and rescued them from a sinful or threatening situation.
So let’s take a look at a few of them to see the different ways God has rescued his people.
A History of Covenants. In the story of the Great Flood, God commanded Noah to separate himself from the sinful world. God was about to cleanse the earth of its sin, and he wanted to preserve the righteous Noah so that he could make a new covenant and a fresh start with him (Genesis 6:17-18). When the flood waters receded, God established that covenant. He again called his people to exercise dominion over the earth, but this time he also promised never again to bring such destruction upon the world (9:1-17).
When the story turns to Abraham, we find him living in a pagan land, surrounded by a people who did not know God. Most likely, Abraham didn’t know God either. But God reached out to him and invited him to go to a new land where he would be richly blessed (Genesis 12:1-4). In a sense, Abraham was lost, but God found him. Once Abraham settled in the Promised Land, God made this covenant with him: “You are to become the father of a host of nations” (17:4). For his part, Abraham had to remain faithful to God, obeying him so that their bond would remain firm.
In a similar way, God reached out to Moses and called him to lead the Israelites out of slavery and into a land of freedom. Through Moses, God made a covenant with all the Israelites. He called them to follow the Ten Commandments even as he promised to form them into a great nation and to be their God for all time. (Exodus 20:1-17; 24:3-8).
When David became king over Israel, he replaced Saul, a king who had failed. In his covenant with David, God promised that his descendants would remain on the throne of Israel forever. Even if a descendant broke God’s commands, God would forgive him and renew his covenant with him (2 Samuel 7:10-17).
Again and again, God reached out to his people, rescuing them from danger and filling them with his blessings. Each of these covenants—and all the others—shows that he truly is “merciful and gracious . . . slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity” (Exodus 34:6).
A New and Everlasting Covenant. As wonderful as these covenants are, they all foreshadow something even more magnificent. For nothing can compare with the last and greatest covenant God made with us: the “new covenant” that was sealed in the blood of his Son, Jesus.
In many ways, this new covenant is distinctly different from all of the previous ones. But in one way it is just like them. Like all the others, God reached out to us and rescued us. Only this time, he not only forgave our sins. He also set us free from sin once and for all. He not only dealt with us according to his grace and mercy, he brought us into a whole new life of grace, giving us divine power to live out the covenant.
A Two-Sided Covenant. While we have focused our attention so far on God’s part in these covenants, it’s important to see that each covenant imposes obligations on us as well. In the covenant with Abraham, for instance, God vowed to make Abraham the father of many nations. For his part, Abraham vowed to walk in God’s presence, be “blameless,” and to practice circumcision—an act that marked him and his descendants as belonging to the Lord. Speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, God promised to bring his people into the land of Canaan, and the people promised to obey his commandments.
The same holds true with this new covenant in Christ. On his side, our heavenly Father promises salvation, and on our part we vow to live a life of faith and surrender to his Spirit. Like so many of the earlier covenants, this one also shows how generous and kind our Father is. He promises so much to us, and all we have to do is trust him and try our best to follow his commands. And even when we fall and break our side of the covenant, he is ready to forgive us and restore us to himself!
But this new covenant is not just a call to live a holy life with the hope of salvation at the end of our lives. Every step along the way, God promises us his grace and power to help us fulfill our obligations. The prophet Ezekiel hinted at this long ago when he spoke in God’s name, saying, “I will put my spirit within you so that you walk in my statutes, observe my ordinances, and keep them” (Ezekiel 36:27). This is precisely what happened on the day of Pentecost—and what happens to each person in the Sacrament of Baptism.
The Holy Spirit is now available to every single person! He lives in our hearts. He is constantly moving in us, offering to help us live out our new covenant and to help build the Church. Miracles, spiritual gifts, healing, unity, love: all this and more is ours because we have been reconciled to God and filled with his Spirit.
This, brothers and sisters, is the great blessing of our covenant in Christ. It is a covenant sealed in the blood of the eternal Son. It is a covenant that can never be revoked or improved upon. Heaven is open, and we can live a new life!
From Age to Age . . . So as this Year of Faith unfolds, let’s put our faith in the One who has made a new covenant with us. If we look at our covenant with God as nothing more than a series of commandments and a call to surrender, the call to holiness can seem intimidating. But our God wants us to know that he is with us and always ready to help us. He has covenanted himself to us, and nothing can come between us!