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MARCH 1, 2009: FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT

Readings: 

Genesis 9:8-15
I Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:12-15

Today’s Genesis reading surfaces a concept at the center of biblical faith, but often relegated to the periphery of our own faith: the idea of a covenant with God. Our ancestors in the faith (including Jesus) conceived of their relationship with God as a covenant relationship. Unlike many of their pagan neighbors, the Israelites had entered into an agreement with their God, Yahweh. Pagan gods usually reserved the right to do anything at any time, to anyone, no limits, no accountability. Israelites, on the other hand, had some specific guarantees when it came to Yahweh working in their lives. God had promised certain things; the Israelites committed themselves to parallel actions. The two parties had entered into an agreement with one another.

Faith revolving around a covenant with God is an idea running throughout both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures - so much so that years ago people frequently referred to these two sacred collections as the Old and New Covenant, or the Old and New Testament.

The three main covenants in the Hebrew Scriptures are the one in today’s Genesis passage with Noah, the agreement with Abraham and Sarah a few chapters later, and the well-known 613-law contract which the Israelites enter into with Yahweh on Mt. Sinai during the Exodus.

Even before our gospels were written, Paul, in I Corinthians 11, mentions the unique covenant to which Jesus committed himself. Had he not been faithful to this agreement, the author of I Peter could never have praised him in the glorious terms we hear in our second reading. Jesus is the person who uniquely leads us to God.

Because we’ve generally bought into John’s theology of Jesus pre-existing as God before his human birth on earth, we presume he was programmed during that heavenly experience to know exactly what to say or do everyday of his 30 years among us.

Mark doesn’t share John’s Christology. Mark’s Jesus continually works out the details of his ministry. That’s why today’s pericope is so significant. Immediately after his baptism the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness where he experiences Satan’s temptations for 40 days. Only after he returns (and is told about John the Baptist’s arrest) does he begin his public ministry.

Most of us ask, “Why does Jesus go out into the wilderness for those 40 days?” John narrates no such event. But following Mark’s theology, Jesus spends this time working out the responsibilities his part of the covenant entails. The devil’s temptations supply the directions into which Jesus knows he could take his ministry, but they’re not the paths Yahweh wants him to go down. Jesus will spend the rest of his earthly existence living up to the responsibilities he committed himself to during his wilderness experience. When some of our early Christian authors speak of a “new covenant,” they’re referring to those particular responsibilities.

The I Corinthians 11 passage I mentioned above shows how Jesus, on the night before he died, wanted to know that his covenant with Yahweh wouldn’t dead-end at 3:00 on the next afternoon. He had to be certain his disciples would carry on his commitment. Those who drank from his “cup of the covenant” during that night’s meal were assuring him they’d carry on his work and ministry.

Knowing how important the eucharistic cup was to the historical Jesus’ commitment to his (and our) covenant responsibilities, it’s difficult to understand why so many of us pass on it, and some priests even refuse to offer it. Anyone who refused to drink from his cup at the Last Supper probably would have been shown the door - by Jesus!