A clean heart create for me, O God;
and a steadfast spirit renew within me.
Cast me not out from your presence,
and your Holy Spirit take not from me.
In the Old Testament, when God makes a covenant with a patriarch; that man represents the people, usually his own descendents. Though the divine authors "post-date" the covenants of Adam and Noah, the story really begins with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and his twelve sons. After the bondage in Egypt when the people have all but forgotten their special relationship with God, Abraham's covenant is renewed with the prophet/lawgiver Moses and the priest Aaron. Finally, God swears that a descendent of David will reign in the House of Judah forever. But David too represents the people; his descendents are the kings who rule the people.
Some historians see a new age appearing in human evolution during the five hundred years of David's royal sons. This "axial age" witnessed the individual human being discovering her and his identity apart from the people. She or he would have a "personal relationship" with the Lord, which was somehow insulated from the sins and betrayals of that one's family, neighbors, friends and fellow citizens.
The Hebrew prophets ushered in this new awareness even as they pleaded with the rulers, priests and people to remain faithful to the ancient covenants. They did not intend to create a spirituality of individuals, each creating her and his own religion, as we saw appear in the last century.
But, as in today's first reading, the prophets did assure those men and women who recognized the sins of their ancestors that they might yet enjoy God's favor despite their parents. The children's teeth will not be set on edge because their father's ate green grapes.
We are too familiar today with the children, now adults, who never learned their faith and have lost contact with the church. Some are alcoholic children of alcoholic parents, and giving birth (often out-of-wedlock) to a generation of drug addicts. It's a story too painful to tell.
But there are also many extraordinary individuals who recognize their parents' foolishness and go elsewhere. They join a reliable church, enter solid marriages and raise children to the best of their ability. They work hard, make sacrifices and contribute to the wellbeing of others. In many cases they support their parents from a safe distance.
Clearly, this is the work of God. God's spirit will always gather people to the Church because His love is everlasting. You'll recall Jesus warned the Pharisees, "God can raise from these very stones children of Abraham!" He doesn't need them; they need him.
The Church may fail; its leaders may seem to be clueless; its marketing, pathetic. (People have said to me, "How do you expect to have priests for another generation when you don't get married?)
God's promise cannot fail. That is deep reassurance for the devout individual who wonders, where are we going? It is reassurance for the theologian who grieves that we seem to be a people adrift. Ours is not a religion of lifestyles, theories, ideas and marketing; it is the work of God and wonderful in our eyes.