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Saturday, April 27, 2013

From Babel to Pentecost: The Covenant Journey

How many times have churchmice like me heard, on Sundays and at funerals, the words from the book of Revelation in today’s second reading: 
I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem,

coming down out of heaven from God,

prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. 

He will dwell with them and they will be his people

and God himself will always be with them as their God.


He will wipe every tear from their eyes,

and there shall be no more death or mourning,
wailing or pain,
 for the old order has passed away.”
 As Easter progresses toward Pentecost, Acts chronicles Sunday by Sunday the spread of the Church across the Mediterranean and, by extension, to the whole world and universe. Even the cozy vision of the church as a domestic branch of Judaism that is presented at the beginning of Acts begins to give way to a wider audience throughout Greece, Asia Minor, and the whole Roman Empire. It caught my ear, that little text from Revelation that I highlighted above: “God’s dwelling is with the human race. They will be his people, and God himself will always be with them as their God.” 

This is a huge development in the understanding of the covenant, the relationship between God and people that is at the heart of the scriptures. From the time of the
Exodus, and told back into the story of Abraham, there has been one covenant between God and the human race, and it was with a specific tribe, the Hebrews. Establishing the covenant with Abram/Abraham in Genesis 17, God promises to make him the father of a great nation: I will maintain my covenant with you and your descendants after you throughout the ages as an everlasting pact, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. I will give to you and to your descendants after you the land in which you are now staying, the whole land of Canaan, as a permanent possession; and I will be their God. (Gen 17: 7-8) At Sinai the covenant is reiterated and the people of Israel become people of the Torah, who are to walk in the law of God: You have seen for yourselves how I treated the Egyptians and how I bore you up on eagle wings and brought you here to myself. Therefore, if you hearken to my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my special possession, dearer to me than all other people, though all the earth is mine. You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. (Ex. 19: 4-6) 

The covenant is kept alive in the prophetic tradition, when exile has stripped Israel of the temple and the ark, God renews the covenant and through the prophets assures Israel that the covenant does not need the ark or the temple to endure, because it is written within them: The days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers the day I took them by the hand to lead them forth from the land of Egypt; for they broke my covenant and I had to show myself their master, says the LORD. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD. I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jer. 31:31-34) I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts. I will put my spirit within you and make you live by my statutes, careful to observe my decrees. You shall live in the land I gave your fathers; you shall be my people, and I will be your God. (Ez. 26: 26-28) 

This is what is so wonderful about the passage from Revelation that we hear this weekend: the development of the understanding of God’s merciful covenant has spread to include not only the Jews but all of the world, so that as the curtain closes on the Christian scriptures (what we sometimes call the New Testament, another word for “covenant”), it is not only Israel that is taken into covenant with God, but the whole human race, and the terms of intimacy once reserved for the chosen of Israel are now applied to the entire planet. In Genesis, the last of the great stories about the origin of sin, the building of the tower of Babel, is different from the ones that precede it. In each of those previous stories (Adam and Eve’s sin, the murder of Abel by Cain, Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Noah and the flood), punishment for the sin described is softened by some kind of gift from God. God makes garments for Adam and Eve, marks Cain against aggressors, saves Lot and his family from the destruction of their city, and tells Noah how to build an ark to survive the flood. But in the story of Babel, there is no clear narrative of abatement. That is, of course, unless you include the rest of the Genesis narrative as it opens up into the story of Abraham and the covenant with Israel as God’s restorative and merciful response to the hubris of Babel. (For a wonderful, brief theological treatment of “election,” being chosen by God for the mission of Christ as symbolized in the rites of initiation, see Rita Ferrone’s little book, The Rite of Election, available from the Forum Essays series of Liturgical Training Publications.)

For Christians, there is a direct line from Babel to Pentecost, as we can see from the series of readings that are proclaimed at the Vigil of Pentecost, readings which begin with the story of Babel. Pentecost, the sending of the Spirit of God into the Church to continue the divine mission of healing and reconciliation that was made human in Christ, reverses the scattering of peoples described in Genesis after God confuses their languages at Babel. In the Pentecost narrative, the confusion of national tongues is reversed and people of diverse origin are able to understand the proclamation of the Apostles who have been visited by “tongues of fire.” Finally, the “whole human race” has been opened to the covenant action of God through the paschal mystery of Christ. The name of God’s intimacy with humanity is Jesus Christ. It is Christ who is God written upon the heart of us, who is God’s dwelling with the human race. By the outpouring of the Spirit upon the Church, the world begins to bear the likeness of the one who fills the universe in all its parts. God is faithful to us, and to the extent that we keep the covenant by living in agape and giving ourselves for the life of the world as God does in Christ, we live the covenant that is alive in us through our baptism. It’s no longer enough to be parochial, national, or even ecclesial in our vision. The ekklesia is the “whole human race,” the nation is the New Jerusalem, and the family is the community of all people, nations, and worlds who are children of one Father, and sisters and brothers of Christ. The old order has passed away. 

The Lamb on the throne makes all things new. The Spirit, renewing the face of the earth, is the Breath of Genesis, the Wind that moved over the chaos, the Spirit of creation. As once the chaos gave way to cosmos when the logos of God was irrevocably uttered, we can pray over the chaos again today, waiting for darkness to be again shattered: Let there be light! May all humanity, the whole human race, see it together.