Anyone who reads the Book of Genesis carefully will notice the prominence of the theme of “covenant.” As summarized in the Catechism, God repeatedly makes covenants: with Noah, with Abraham, with Abraham’s son Isaac, and with his son Jacob (CCC 54-73). Indeed, the theme pervades the Old Testament, as God makes covenants with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai and with David, and then promises a definitive “new covenant.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34). On the night he was betrayed, Jesus himself, through the institution of the Eucharist, established this New Covenant (Luke 22:20). If we are to understand God’s word, then we must have some understanding of this important term.
Sometimes the simplest explanations are the best. It is through a covenant that God binds himself to his people in a relationship of fidelity and care. As a husband pledges fidelity to his wife, God pledges fidelity to his people Israel, both the historic Israel of the Old Testament and the renewed Israel of the New Testament, made up of Jews and Gentiles (Ephesians 2:11-22). The prophet Hosea even describes the Lord’s relationship with Israel as that of husband and wife (Hosea 2:21-22). This binding to his people is a solemn one and God remains faithful even when his people are not.
In his covenant with Abraham, God promised that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through Abraham (Genesis 12:2 et seq.). The call of Abraham takes place immediately after the destruction of the tower of Babel and the scattering of the builders. One of the purposes of this bond with Abraham was to reconcile the peoples of the earth, reuniting them in one family. The Old Testament provides hints at how this reconciliation would come about, but it is only in the light of Christ that we can see more clearly God’s plan to heal his wounded creation.
On Ash Wednesday, we read from the prophet Joel, who calls the people to repentance: “Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God” (Joel 2:13). Later in the same chapter, Joel portrays a vision of the time of restoration: “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even upon the menservants and maidservants in those days, I will pour out my Spirit” (Joel 2:28-29). The prophets frequently speak of the Spirit in connection with God’s care for Israel. According to Isaiah 63, the Spirit accompanied the Israelites during the Exodus, and Ezekiel connects the outpouring of the Spirit with the gift of new life (Ezekiel 37:1-14).
The New Covenant would be ratified by Jesus in his blood, and the Lord’s promises of the Spirit would find their fulfillment on the day of Pentecost, as testified to by Peter (Acts 2:16-21). After Christ’s resurrection and ascension, he poured out the Spirit upon the people, and when they spoke, all those in Jerusalem could understand them in their own language (Acts 2:7-11). Here was the sign that the Lord was at last beginning to undo the scattering of the tower of Babel, that he was fulfilling the promises of the outpouring of the Spirit, that at last by keeping his covenant with Abraham he would bless the whole world.
As we continue our Lenten journey in preparation for the Paschal Mystery, it is important to understand that God’s covenant with Abraham is not just a partnership with an ancient wanderer. Jesus himself attested that Abraham rejoiced to see his day (John 8:56).
The Lord’s covenant of love extends to all of Abraham’s descendants, and we become a part of Abraham’s family in the same way that those first witnesses to the outpouring of the Spirit in Jerusalem did: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
Through our baptism we become “Abraham’s descendant, heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:26-29) and receive the pledge of the Spirit (2 Corinthians 1:22) as a promise of his faithfulness. The covenant with Abraham, fulfilled in Christ, is God’s assurance of his never-failing love for us.