Yesterday I drove up to YMCA of the Rockies near Estes Park because the junior high kids from my diocese, the Diocese of Cheyenne, WY were on a retreat there and I was able to join them for part of the day including Mass and lunch. As I was driving up there I saw a sign for the YMCA and it said: “YMCA: Are We There Yet?” and it gave additional driving directions to the YMCA. The sign got me thinking…Are We There Yet? At this point in Lent, the 5thSunday of Lent, I often find myself asking that same question. Are we there yet? Is it Easter yet? Surely Lent must be almost over. But in even asking that question it implies that I have forgotten why we are even in Lent to begin with. If Lent is a time simply to endure and get through, then why do we do it? That attitude implies that Lent has no purpose, which, of course, is false. And so, my friends, today is a good day to call to mind our destination in Lent, the “why” to Lent. The destination of Lent is what we approach to celebrate in just a couple weeks, the death and resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ, or to put it another way, the institution of the new and eternal covenant between God and man. And so today we will delve into that mystery and unpack it.
First up, is Jeremiah who helps us begin to understand this mystery. He prophesies about a “new covenant” that the Lord will make with the house of Israel. Now those to whom Jeremiah was prophesying would have heard the word “covenant” and they would have immediately thought of the covenants of the Old Testament: the covenants God made with Adam, Noah, Abraham, through King David. And it is important to understand this word, covenant. A covenant is a formal, solemn, binding pact between two parties. In many ways, it is similar to a contract. But the covenants of God are more than that. God’s covenants are not merely an exchange of goods as if God will give us something in exchange for us giving something back to God, as in a contract. Rather, God, in making those covenants in the Old Testament wanted to share His life with His people Israel, and Israel was meant to share life with God. Covenants entail the sharing of life between the two parties; and a marriage covenant is what should come to mind here. Now we all know how the covenants in the Old Testament turned out, Israel kept failing to keep up the promises they made in the covenants; they kept worshiping false Gods and turning away from God with whom they were in this covenant relationship. Jeremiah is prophesying during this time of Israel repeatedly breaking their covenant with God and Jeremiah says something incredibly profound, he says, “The days are coming, says the lord, when I will make a newcovenant with the house of Israel…it will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers…I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” And this is the covenant that will be fulfilled in Jesus centuries after Jeremiah said these words. Just think of the words Jesus says during the last supper and the words we hear at each Mass when the priest holds up the chalice:
take this, all of you, and drink from it,
for this is the chalice of my Blood, the Blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.
It is through Jesus’ act of sacrifice and shedding of his blood that institute this new covenant with all of humanity. Through His death, Jesus enacts a new covenant with us that brings all of us back into relationship with God. Jesus, being fully God and fully Man was the only one to be able to do this perfectly, unlike sinful Israel. Jesus acted on behalf of mankind in his own humanity and since Jesus is also fully God He is able to keep this covenant perfectly in place of mankind. And we, by virtue of sharing humanity with Jesus, are brought into the new covenant, we are brought into an exchange of life with God. And this is the life we enter into through our baptism. We are all part of the new and eternal covenant.
So what do we do with this truth? In other words, now what? Well, we must live out that covenant relationship we have with God. God loves us by sending His only Son to die for us and we must love him back similarly with our whole being. And Jesus is the example to follow here in how exactly to do that. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us about Jesus’ obedience to the Father, which led to His suffering and death. And his suffering is the source of eternal salvation because it is the institution of the new covenant as I’ve already mentioned. The key point here is the word obedience. It comes from two Latin words meaning, “to listen to.” And listening implies a relationship, as opposed to simply hearing. I can hear the cars on University Boulevard and it can be completely by accident. But, listening implies intentionality. I am intentionally choosing to listen to someone and not just hearing them by accident. In being obedient to the Father, Jesus was intentionally listening to Him and intentionally choosing to do what the Father asked him, because he was in relationship with Him. So we, too, are to be “obedient” to God. This is not something merely external, but we are called to listen to God because we, also, are in a covenant relationship with Him. We are called not to be obedient to ourselves, but to God, meaning we must die to ourselves and let God be the reason for our actions, not our own whims. This is what Jesus means when he says today, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” If we live only for ourselves and don’t live in obedience to God, our lives are ultimately meaningless. A selfish life does not bear fruit; all we need to do is look at some of the people in Hollywood for examples. But if we die to self and live for God, we will bear fruit in our lives, as is seen in the lives of the saints. Now this obedience can be lived in many different ways, and today I’ll offer you only three suggestions. Firstly, you can only listen to God and be obedient to Him if you actively dialogue with him. So Sunday Mass should be your top priority because this is a key moment in which we, as Catholics, converse with God each week. Secondly, you can listen to God speak to you through His Word in the scriptures, so devoting daily time for private prayer with the Bible would be a great way to listen to God in your daily life. And my third and final suggestion: frequent the sacrament of confession. We all fall short in our relationship with God, we all choose ourselves over God too often and need the sacrament to restore us in that covenant relationship God desires for us. We all need help in dying to ourselves.
And so, my friends, as we approach Holy Week, I encourage you not to ask, “Are we there yet?” but rather to recall the awesome gift that Jesus gave us in his sacrifice and death on the cross: a new and eternal covenant for us with God, an eternal exchange of life with God. Remember that we are living that covenant relationship with God and live these last few weeks of Lent “listening” to God in obedience out of love, through Mass, through prayer and through the sacraments. Let us embrace these last days of Lent and draw closer to God, and not merely endure these last days of Lent.