“The nature of promises, Linda, is that they remain immune to changing circumstances.”
Those are the words uttered by Francis Underwood in one of the most crucial first scenes in the Netflix blockbuster version of House of Cards.
Francis Underwood has been promised he would be made Secretary of State. In that scene, the news is broken to him that the incoming President of the United States no longer intends to nominate him. It had all been a lie. Someone else had been picked and Francis Underwood is furious.
“I know we promised you the job,” the President’s Chief of Staff says to him, “but circumstances have changed.”
“The nature of promises, Linda, is that they remain immune to changing circumstances,” he replies.
It’s from this terrible moment of betrayal that the whole narrative takes its cue. From this moment onwards, Francis Underwood will do all he can, and use every ounce of political deceit, low skulduggery, and ruthless ambition that he possesses to bring the President down and replace him.
The whole series hangs on that one broken promise.
If House of Cards is a dark narrative that hangs on a broken promise, we see in our readings today that the Bible is actually the opposite: a hopeful narrative about a promise kept.
We hear in our first reading how God makes a promise to Abram. If he trusts in him and sets out as he is told, God will prosper his descendants, that they might become a great nation.
You could argue that the whole rest of the scriptures is simply a working out of that promise: God coming to his people’s aid by saving Israel from Pharoah’s clutches; God restoring his people to the land after the exile; and God sending his Son Jesus Christ to bring his people newness of life and a renewed covenant.
In a way, the idea of promise lies behind our gospel reading too. One of the most ancient patristic interpretations of the Transfiguration is that it happened to strengthen the disciples before Jesus’ Passion.
St Leo, for example, said, “The Transfiguration chiefly occurred for this end that the scandal of the Cross should be taken away from the hearts of the disciples; and so that since they had been given the revelation of this secret majesty, the abasement of the Passion might not cofound their faith.”
God gave them a glimpse of Jesus’ true glory so that they would not be discouraged when he was arrested and lose faith in him. The transfiguration was, if you like, a promise, that despite the betrayal, the ignominious death, Jesus would rise again.
In both readings God seems to agree with Francis Underwood -at least in this one matter only – a promise is a promise, its character is that it remains immune to changing circumstances.
One of the things I think we are called to do each Lent is renew our sense of confidence in God’s promises to us. So often our experience of Lent is one in which we are quite rightly confronted with the reality of our own failure to live up to God’s love: our lapses; our mistakes; our half-heartedness; and our failures. Despite all our betrayals of him, God is always faithful to us.
If that is the case, then Lent not a time of despair, but one of hope. It is a time in which we can always return to the faithful God who wishes to welcome us and renew us. No matter how often we have failed to love to God or betray those around us, God is always faithful in his promise to us.
He has given us all the means we need to return to him. There is the sacrament of confession when we confess our sins to a priest and he gives us the assurance of God’s forgiveness. There is the bounty of the Mass in which we feed on Christ truly present, celebrated every day in this church. There are the many opportunities for quiet reflective prayer that we have in our parish – holy hour, rosary, the daily office. There is the call to generosity in giving more to charity, and deepening our faith through study and reading. All these are ways in which we can respond to God’s promise of abundant life in Christ.
And if we manage to do that, when we come to Holy Week and celebrate Easter together, we realise a very important thing. Easter isn’t just the happy ending to a sad story. No, it is the fulfilment of God’s promise to his people, made time and time again throughout the scriptures. It is the ultimate sign that we are vindicated by his love, and that in the end nothing will ever overwhelm God’s his power to triumph over sin and death.
For God’s promise to us is a concrete assurance we can always rely on, a covenant we know will be kept, for “the nature of promises” – especially God’s promises – “is that they remain immune to changing circumstances.”