HOMILY FOR THE FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT (B)

Fr James Murphy


In the first reading today we hear God say that he would make a new covenant with the people of Israel because they had broken a previous one.

To understand what a covenant is we have to go back to early Old Testament times when written documents were rarely, if ever used. When important agreements were being made between people, the spoken words were backed up by a short ceremony or sign. This showed the importance and significance of what was being agreed to. This is what we refer to as a covenant. It is a sacred spoken agreement between two people or two parties, which is accompanied by a ceremony or a sign to show the importance of the agreement in question.


There are a number of examples in the Old Testament. The most important ones are found in the Book of Genesis and the Book of Exodus. The first mention of a covenant in the bible is between God and Noah after the great flood. God said "I am now establishing my covenant with you and your descendants. ... Never again shall all things be destroyed by waters of a flood. ... I now set my bow in the clouds and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.


In this case the covenant or sacred agreement was between God and all the people of the world. In the agreement God promised that the earth would never be completely destroyed by water again. The rainbow was the sign which showed the importance of this arrangement.


In chapter 17 of the Book of Genesis we read that God made an important covenant with Abraham. He said to him: "Live in my presence, be perfect, and I shall grant a covenant between myself and you. ... You shall become the father of many nations. To you and your descendants after you I shall give the entire land of Canaan. ... Everyone of your males must be circumcised, and that will be the sign of the covenant between myself and you."


This important agreement between God and Abraham was the beginning, and the basis of the close relationship between God and the Chosen people. The keeping or the honouring of this agreement by God the Father led to a further, and by far the most important agreement of Old Testament times - The Sinai Covenant.


The story of the Sinai covenant began when the Israelites were persecuted in Egypt in the 13th century B.C. God heard their cries and he guided them, with Moses at their head, through the Red Sea into the Sinai Desert. They set up camp facing Mount Sinai. Moses went up the mountain where he spoke with God. God instructed Moses on how He wanted the Israelites to live, and gave him the Ten Commandments. Moses went back to the people and told them what God had said, and they agreed that all the words that God had spoken would be carried out. Moses built an Altar at the foot of the mountain which represented God. (The altar in the church still represents God today.) And he sprinkled the blood of sacrificed animals on the altar and on the people. This was a sign that God and his chosen people were very close. They were united with the one blood. And as a further sign of their close relationship Moses and Aaron and seventy representatives of the people went up Mount Sinai and in the words of chapter 24 of the Book of Exodus "They actually gazed on God and then ate and drank."


But before they left the Sinai Desert the Israelites had broken their covenant with God. And they repeatedly broke it throughout their history in spite of the encouragement and warnings of the prophets. But the prophets also offered hope. In the 5th century B.C. the Prophet Jeremiah wrote today’s first reading: "Look the days are coming God declares when I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel, but not like the covenant I made with their ancestors the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of Egypt, a covenant they broke. Within them I shall plant my law, writing it on their hearts. Then I shall be their God, and they shall be my people."


Although it took hundreds of years to come about, this new covenant became a reality when Jesus Christ, the son of God became a human being. Jesus was as much of God as He wished to give us, and as much of God as we could cope with. Jesus spent three years updating the Sinai Covenant, explaining the Ten Commandments in a modern and new way, offering the chosen people and all humankind, a new and better way of living based on a new agreement which would be God's final offer to us. And in spite of the best efforts of the powerful to prevent it, this new agreement between God and all humankind was approved, not with the blood of animals as at Sinai thirteen centuries earlier, but with the blood of Jesus Christ, "the blood of the new and everlasting covenant." From the cross Jesus sprinkled all of us with his blood so that our sins could be forgiven. This allows us to be united with him in a very special way. And every time we change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, we renew our close relationship with Jesus. This is why he asked us to imitate what he did at the Last Supper, so that we could always be close to him and to our heavenly Father. Just as Moses and representatives of the Israelites celebrated the Sinai Covenant with a meal, we celebrate the new and everlasting covenant with the Eucharist.

As we continue on our Lenten journey let us pray that our commitment to celebrating the Eucharist will always be strong, so that we may remain close to Jesus who alone can give us the strength to keep the terms of the new covenant which he approved on our behalf with his precious blood.