In its Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council presented an integrated vision of the two fonts of Revelation, namely Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. For many Catholics however, the font of Sacred Scripture has been reduced to a steady drip. In a cultural milieu in which we have grown accustomed to deferring to the “expert,” Christians have left the reading and interpretation of Scripture to so called “Scripture Scholars.” But Scripture is not just the ramblings of an absent God sending (now outdated) messages to His people. Instead it is meant to play an active role in the life of every believer. God’s plan of salvation is by no means complete and through His Providential care the Scriptures remain “living and active” (Heb 4:12). In order for us to turn the trickle into a torrent, we must commit to engaging the Scriptures with regularity. To this end, I find no more important interpretive key to unlocking the Scriptures than the idea of Covenant.
We need look no further than how we divide the Bible to see the importance of covenant to the plan of salvation. The word “Testament” is an imperfect rendering of the word “covenant” (Hebrew berit, Greek diatheke). Despite the difference in terms, it should not obscure the fact that the concept of covenant is central to biblical thought.
Although you will not find the term “covenant” defined within Sacred Scripture itself, recent research into ancient covenants in the biblical world has led to scholars defining covenants as “a widespread legal means by which duties and privileges of kinship may be extended to another individual or group” (Protestant scholar Frank Moore Cross’ definition). Although similar to a contract in its nature, a covenant is distinct. As Scott Hahn is fond of saying, “a contract involves an exchange of goods, whereas a covenant involves an exchange of persons.” In essence, covenants form families. This is why marriage, until recently, was viewed as the primordial covenant by most people. In exchanging vows in a covenantal marriage ceremony the spouses are exchanging themselves and thus form a family that cannot be dissolved. A contractual view of marriage merely agrees to share everything while they are married and split it equitably upon dissolution—unless there is a pre-nup. It is also why God uses the imagery of marriage for His relationship with mankind (c.f Is 62.5, John 3:22) and the Church herself is so solicitous to protect a true understanding of marriage.
How a covenant was made is also important. The central act of the covenant making was the swearing of an oath by the parties. The oath invoked God (or the gods) to inflict some curse on its swearer if he does not uphold his obligations. It also called upon God for his help in keeping it. It was usually followed up with a common meal to seal the new relationship. The meal is meant to signify a sharing of life together because food is a source of life. As an aside, we see why families eating meals together is so important. They are truly sacramental (small ‘s’) in that they bring about what they signify—the sharing of food as a source of life leads to the strengthening of that shared life.
A good example of a covenant is found in Genesis 26:27-31. Here Isaac is approached by a supposed enemy Abimelech and the two make a covenant not to do harm to each other (vv28-29). They share a meal (v.30) and swear the sacred oaths (v.31) before taking leave of each other. But this covenant is meant only to be a type of the divine Covenant that God makes with mankind.
Divine covenants act as threads that weave all of the Books of the Bible together. All total, God makes seven covenants with mankind, each mediated by a different person. Not coincidentally, the number seven in Hebrew literally means to swear an oath (c.f. Genesis 21). Each of these covenants contain a liturgical form around their swearing and extend God’s family to more of mankind. Each contains blessings and curses and each contains a sign that acts as a renewal.
Although the word “covenant” is never used explicitly in the Creation account (Hos 6:7 says “Like Adam, Israel transgressed the covenant”), God makes a covenant with all mankind through Adam. Once the stipulations of that Covenant are broken (refrain from the eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil—Gn 2:16-17), God re-establishes a covenant with Noah (c.f. 6:18). This covenant He then renews that covenant with Noah (Gn 6:18) and his family. From there he extends the covenant to Abraham and his descendants (there are two covenants here) and then to Israel through Moses and David. Each of these covenants should be viewed as cumulative, each building on the previous one and inviting more people into the familial bond. Finally, there is the final or “New” Covenant that is Christ, including all mankind through the Church.
Notice that I didn’t say that the New Covenant is mediated through Christ but instead that the New Covenant is Christ. It certainly is mediated through Him, but not in the same way as the others. He brings all the blessings of the covenants to the new People of God which is the Church (we are a new creation because of the new Adam Gal 6:15) and takes all the curses of the previous covenants upon Himself (e.g. Israel deserved death for breaking the covenant in Ex 24:8 when they worshipped the golden calf in Ex 32:14 but the price was paid by Christ Himself for Israel in Heb 915). It is in His name that all mankind is saved. He, Who is the true Son of God, turns us into adopted sons.
That Christ was instituting this New Covenant at the Last Supper is obvious to anyone who reads the Institution narratives (c.f. Luke 22:20, 1 Cor 11:25). But I do not think the implications of it are as obvious unless we understand some of the above covenantal theology. In my opinion a greater understanding of the covenantal nature of salvation history points to an important truth about the Catholic Church as the one true Church formed by Christ.
If Christ was making a new covenant between God and mankind then one must be led to the question of how one enters into this Covenant. To enter into the Old Covenant, a man must have been circumcised (women were Jewish by birth). St. Paul tells the Colossians that Baptism is the “Circumcision of Christ” (Col 2:11-12). This points to the necessity of baptism to enter into a covenant with God and explains why Catholics universally advocate infant baptism. By being baptized, one enters into the New Covenant by putting on Christ. We literally enter the family of God by being sacramentally conformed to His Son.
But there is an even more important tie to the Eucharist. Recall what Christ said over the chalice—“this chalice is the new covenant in my blood.” It isn’t His death on the Cross, but the chalice that is the new covenant in His blood. Now certainly His death and resurrection are necessary to make His blood efficacious for giving new life, but it is the chalice itself that is the new covenant.
We now begin to see why the Church sees the Eucharist as the “source and summit” of the Christian life. The Church ratifies the Covenant with God each time the Eucharist is consecrated and establishes her power to invite others into this covenant family through baptism. It also is more than a mere sign. In human covenants a non-material consanguinity is established between the partners. While this creates a communion between the parties, they still do not have the same blood flowing through their veins. But in the Eucharist a true communion greater than any human covenant is created. God and man now truly have the same blood flowing through their veins. We partake of the blood of Jesus and have the blood of true sons within us. As Pope Benedict said in his Holy Thursday homily in 2009, “Can we now form at least an idea of what happened at the hour of the Last Supper, and what has been renewed ever since, whenever we celebrate the Eucharist? God, the living God, establishes a communion of peace with us, or to put it more strongly, he creates “consanguinity” between himself and us. Through the incarnation of Jesus, through the outpouring of his blood, we have been drawn into an utterly real consanguinity with Jesus and thus with God himself.”
Herein lies the profound truth and necessity of the Catholic Church. Where else does one find all the means necessary to enter into and renew the New Covenant? Notice how the Mass fulfills all the aspects—liturgical, familial and legal—of the covenant-making ceremony outlined in Exodus 24. It is the liturgy in which the sacrifice is offered while invoking the Lord. The familial bond is shown through the shared meal between God and His people. The oath is expressed in each of our Amens and the pouring out of the blood.
May the Blood of Jesus, poured out for me, flow through my veins!