One of the interesting aspects of the season of Lent for me is that my earliest and in some deepest encounters with Lent came not through the liturgical cycle of contemporary Christianity, Episcopal or otherwise, but rather because I was trained as a historian of Christianity. Lent’s roots grow deep in the Christian tradition, dating back to the practices of early Christianity. In the fourth century, and perhaps earlier, it was common practice for baptism to occur primarily at the great Vigil of Easter, the wonderful celebration of Christ’s resurrection that begins in darkness on Saturday night, and traditionally ended at the first light of Easter Day. In preparation for baptism, those who had committed themselves to undertake initiation prepared by a season of fasting and learning. Continue reading
This week’s readings are here.
One of my most memorable worship experiences is connected with this story from Genesis. I was still a layperson at the time, member of an Episcopal Church. I remember looking around the congregation and as the description of the covenant ceremony was being read, catching the eyes of a parishioner on the other side of the church. Her eyes grew wider and wider, a look of puzzlement on her face. She wanted to know something about this strange story. The reading ended. The service continued, and the preacher got up and had nothing to say about it, or as I recall, any of the other lessons read that day. That experience cemented for me the conviction that one of the preacher’s greatest obligations is to engage directly the hard questions raised in or by a text.
The story tells of the covenant Yahweh made with Abram. It’s a promise by God to give Abram a son, to make of his descendants a mighty nation, and also to give to them the promised land. Although covenant is a key theme in scripture, it’s almost as strange a notion to moderns as the subsequent description of the ceremony. We might think of it as a treaty, for in many cases, biblical covenants share a great deal with ancient treaties that have been discovered. At its heart is God’s promise. As we see in this text, Abram has a hard time trusting in that promise. He wants to work out his descendants on his own (here in c. 15, later with Ishmael, too). Here, Yahweh shows him the stars in the sky, and says, “So shall your descendants be.” And in that powerful verse used later by Paul, “Abram believed, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
Then comes the ceremony. Abram splits animals in half, lays them out, and “a smoking fire pot and a torch passed between these pieces.” In ancient covenant ceremonies, parties to the treaty passed between similarly-killed animals and promised that if they broke the covenant, the offender would be destroyed as these animals were killed.
In this eerie story, we encounter both the otherness of the text and the otherness of God. Various details contribute to its spookiness–Abraham falls into deep sleep, there’s a terrifying darkness. The story’s ambiguity contributes to its strangeness. Does this take place in a dream, a vision?
In spite of all of that strangeness and other-ness, relics of a far distant age, there is also reassurance. There is God’s promise, and those wonderful words, Abram believed, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Here “righteousness” doesn’t have to do with holiness, but rather with being in right relationship with God. Whatever his doubts now or in the future, Yahweh’s promise to Abram will remain true, and Abram will know that God is with him, and he with God.
It’s a reassuring message in Lent as well. Invited to reflect on our lives, we are also encouraged to encounter and experience God’s promise to us of salvation, and the grace that is offered us in Jesus Christ.
In yesterday’s reading from the Hebrew Bible, we heard about Yahweh’s covenant with Noah. In this week’s Hebrew Bible reading, we hear one version of the covenant with Abraham. The notion of covenant is of enormous significance for Hebrew Scripture and for the understanding of the relationship between God and God’s people. When I was studying Hebrew Bible in college and divinity school, a great deal was made of covenant, and of the important parallels and connections between Hebrew notions of covenant, and covenants among the writings and cultures of Israel’s neighbors. It seems that Hebrew understandings were shaped by those neighbors.
There were really two dominant forms of covenant both in the Hebrew Bible and in other ancient sources. One was an agreement in which each party made commitments; the other between a more powerful ruler or kingdom, and a less powerful one. In the latter, the more powerful one extended protection to the lesser and demanded loyalty and other obligations. Both the covenant with Noah and the one with Abraham recorded in Genesis 17 were asymmetrical. Some sort of response was required of the weaker party—if only acknowledgment of God’s power. Thus Abram bowed deferentially in God’s presence. But the promises of the covenant were not dependent on some action on the part of either Noah or Abram. God promised never again to bring a flood and to Abram, God promised that he would be the father of a great nation. In each covenant there was a sign, the rainbow or circumcision.
The notion of covenant continued to undergo interpretation and reappropriation. Early Christians wrote and spoke of a New Covenant established in Jesus Christ. In later centuries, Christians continued to use covenant as a rich metaphor for relationship with God and with one another. It was particularly important during the Protestant Reformation While language of covenant continues to be present in our theology and liturgy. But I wonder whether it continues to be meaningful. Do we still conceive of our relationship with God, either as individuals or as communities, in terms of covenant? To put it in slightly different words, would we use the language of treaty or contract to describe or understand those relationships? If not, what images are predominant now?
The same question could be asked of our use of covenantal language to describe relationships among people or communities. Is covenant a useful device to construct or define such relationships. One could think here of “the covenant of marriage” or yes, even the Anglican covenant. Is it helpful to understand any of those relationships in terms of loyalty, obedience, or mutual obligation?
That being said, it is clear that covenant was a supple enough concept that the Hebrews and Jews could reinterpret it to fit changed contexts. After the downfall of the monarchy and during the exile in Babylon, the exiles could still see in the idea of covenant a useful way to interpret their experience. God had not abandoned them; rather, their unfaithfulness to the covenant explained their loss of land and freedom.
To read the story of the covenant with Abraham is to read a story of great faith and a story of God’s faithfulness but as the verse that immediately follows today’s reading reminds us, it is also a story of divine mystery, and a certain amount of humor: “Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed.”
In this season of Lent, exploring the nature of one’s relationship with God is an appropriate focus. Whether we think of it in terms of covenant, of friendship, of love, or in some other way, it’s important that we acknowledge who God is, and who we are in relationship with God. Sometimes, I suppose, laughter is the appropriate response in that relationship.