Before reading this chapter, ask yourself or share with others: What covenants are there in your life? What does the word mean in the Eucharist?
Covenant Means Agreement
A covenant is a solemn agreement between two parties describing the obligations and benefits of an arrangement being entered into. In Old Testament times before writing was common, it was a verbal agreement as valid as a written contract and binding under pain of severe penalties.
Our interest is the covenants made between God and his people. The first of these was with Noah, inviting him and his family to enter the ark and be saved from the waters of the flood.
But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife and your sons’ wives with you. (Genesis 6:18ff)
The next covenant of interest to us is that with Abraham as described in Genesis 12:1–9; 15:1–21; 17:1–27. In this covenant God bound himself to give Abraham land to call his own and descendants ‘as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore’. (Genesis 22:17) On his part Abraham was to have faith in this God, and circumcision was to be the sign of the covenant. God renewed this covenant with Isaac and Jacob. (Genesis 26:1–5; 28; 10–22) The ritual involved with this covenant consisted of animals cut in half and the Lord in the form of a flaming torch passing between the two halves. (Genesis 15:9–17)
The covenant enacted upon Mt Sinai between God and his people is particularly important. (Exodus 19 and following chapters) On the mountain the Lord gave Moses many observances to be followed by the people. These include what we call the ten commandments. The ritual that was used to seal the covenant consisted in the sacrificing of animals: half the blood was sprinkled on the altar representing God and half was sprinkled on the people.
He (Moses) sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed oxen as offerings of well-being to the Lord. Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he dashed against the altar. Then he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient”. Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people, and said, “See the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words” (Exodus 24:5–8)
This sprinkling of blood symbolised the union between God and his people; they became ‘blood brothers and sisters’. God showed his responsibility to his people by rescuing them from Egypt. They also shared a meal.
God did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; also they beheld God and they ate and drank. (Exodus 24:11)
Sharing both the meal and the blood indicated a sharing of life. Note the three elements of a covenant: responsibility, blood, meal. We will come back to these when we turn to the Last Supper. Meanwhile a very significant change was prophesied.
A New Covenant
God promised there would be a ‘new covenant’.
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 that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand out of the land of Egypt – a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jeremiah 31: 31–33)
This new covenant came into effect when Jesus shed the blood from his own body on the cross. He foreshadowed it at the last Supper when he took the cup of wine and said,
This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. (Luke 22:20)
The three elements for a covenant — responsibility, blood, meal — are again present. In this new covenant it is the blood of Jesus that is shed, the meal is the Last Supper and Jesus takes on the responsibility of caring for his people by being willing to die for them.
Every time we take the blood of Jesus at the Eucharistic meal we are renewing our covenant with God, taking on the responsibility of following Jesus to the best of our ability. This is a covenant written on hearts, a covenant of love. Every time we attend Mass, we hear the words
Take this, all of you, and drink from it: 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.
Drinking from the cup is a powerful reminder that Jesus shed his blood for us from the cross thereby establishing a new covenant of love. We are so fortunate that in our day the cup is again being given to the people and I strongly recommend everyone to take advantage of this return to the ancient tradition of the Church.
Having become more aware how God has kept his side of the covenant through Jesus, I must reflect on how I am keeping my side of the agreement. Covenant suggests a more loving relationship with God than obeying commandments which so easily leads to legalism. This heart-to-heart relationship was the direction that Jesus took. He condensed the ten commandments into his two love commandments: love God and love one another.
The spirituality of the Eucharist is a spirituality of love. It was given to us out of love, we need to respond in love by taking our responsibilities seriously.
Birds passing on the secrets of the universe to sleeping baby (Michael Leunig)