Let’s begin with this strange scene in the first reading.
Before I explain the passage, recall some facts about Abram.
God has called him from his homeland –
the city of Ur, in what is today Iraq –
to travel a long distance to what is now Israel and Palestine.
Abram is already an old man, and he has no children –
so he has a lot of reasons to doubt his future,
and to doubt the promises God has made.
So notice how the passage begins. God “took him outside and said:
Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can.
Just so, he added, will your descendants be.”
Now, I wonder how many of you noticed something.
The passage, a few lines later, describes the sun going down –
meaning, it’s daytime when God does this!
Why would God do that? Well, because it fit Abram’s situation.
God said, look up at the stars; Abram is thinking, but I can’t see them.
That’s right, Abram, just as you can’t see your offspring.
But those stars are up there, whether you can see them or not.
And your future is real, even if you can’t see it.
Then God promises Abram would have all the land.
And when Abram says, how do I know?
That’s when we have this strange ritual.
At God’s command, Abram cuts up several animals
and lays them on the ground. Then he waits.
As he waits, darkness falls and is terrified.
And in the dark, he sees a “smoking fire pot and a flaming torch,
which passed between those pieces” of animal carcasses.
This ritual was intended to work like this:
after the animals are laid out,
the people forming the covenant would walk between them,
in effect saying to each other, may what happened to the animals,
happen to me, if I do not honor my promises to you.
And who walked between the pieces of the animals?
Abram did not; he watched. But God did.
That’s what the torch and the firepot signify.
A covenant goes beyond a contract or a business agreement.
I have a business relationship with my insurance company.
I haven’t given my whole life to them. If I like another company better,
I can cancel that contract and make a new one.
But a covenant binds one whole person to another; and it’s forever.
By the way, here is the whole misunderstanding about marriage.
Lots of people think it’s a contract; but God says it’s a covenant –
which is what the Catholic Church teaches.
But the truly amazing thing to notice
is that God made a covenant with a human being – with his creature.
As I said to the folks at Mass Saturday morning,
a parent might make a covenant with your children.
But those of you who have livestock,
I’m certain you don’t make covenants with them.
When they get fat enough, off to market they go!
We are God’s creatures. And yet he made a covenant with Abram;
and then, at Sinai, with the Children of Israel.
And then, at the Cross,
he made a “new and eternal covenant” with all of us.
This is what connects the first reading with the Gospel.
In each case, God is giving a reassurance.
To Abram, he performs a familiar ritual.
To the Apostles, Jesus shows the fullness of his glory as God.
He’s on the way to Jerusalem, to the Cross –
he’s told the Apostles this,
and that’s what he and Moses and Elijah were discussing.
This revelation of his glory lets them know: you can believe Me.
The other connection is even more astounding.
When God made this covenant with Abram,
he said, in effect, death will come to me if I do not keep my promises.
In fact, God did keep his promises to Abraham.
And yet – what happened with the Cross?
Jesus, the God-Man, surrendered himself, and was killed!
What more can God do?
Do you have trouble trusting God? Abram did. The Apostles did.
That’s what these signs were about:
letting them know he would keep his promises.
OK, so what is God going to do for me? Where’s my sign?
What do you think the Holy Mass is?
Before your very eyes, Jesus Christ executes his covenant –
here, on this altar.
He lays himself out; he gives himself, totally.
What more do we want?