A covenant is basically an agreement/contract between two individuals or two groups of equal or unequal power. In early times, verbal mutual agreements and obligations were the norm and were as valid as written, signed legal contracts today. Often some ritual signified their solemnity, such as Abraham’s dividing of sacrificial animals with the two sides passing between the severed segments indicating that the same fate would befall the party who broke the promise.
Covenant, as a religious concept, comes from our Jewish ancestors. The whole history of the Hebrew people was expressed as a covenant between God and Israel. It was a loving relationship initiated by God who promised to remain faithful to the chosen people.
Among several expressions of covenant, major ones are those made with Abraham, Noah and Moses. The covenant with Abraham was a solemn promise by God to give Abraham numerous posterity and a land. In return, he and his descendants were to respond in faith.
Circumcision was not something God demanded in exchange for freely-given gifts. It was the sign of Israel’s faith-response and the visible sign of the covenant. God’s covenant pledge to Noah never again to flood the earth was signified by a rainbow as a reminder of God’s promise.
COVENANT AT MOUNT SINAI
The most significant Covenant at Mount Sinai was the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham with the decisive action of the Exodus to the Promised Land. This covenant re-affirmed and sanctioned the special relationship between God and Israel. Obedience to the commandments was a sign of the people’s willingness to accept the covenant but God’s gifts were not contingent upon this obedience.
Josuah’s list (4.2) of God’s gifts granted to Israel was meant to incite gratitude to God and a willingness to accept the Law. God’s gifts were the basis for the right to demand exclusive worship and obedience to the Law.
WRITTEN ON THE HEART
In spite of Israel’s loss of the land and exile, the prophets foresaw a future full of hope in God. God would create a new covenant written in human hearts, not on stone. This covenant would bring about a renewal of hearts, leading humanity to obedience, knowledge and love of God (Jeremiah 31.31-34). The new covenant would come through Jesus, the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53.11).
At the Last Supper, Jesus said “This is my blood, the blood of the covenant which will be shed for many” (Mark 14.24), “for the remission of sins” (Matthew 26.28).
Luke and Paul say: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22.20), (1 Corinthians 11.25). This new covenant is realized in Jesus’ death on the cross which confirmed and completed God’s promises.
The “blood of the covenant” refers to the covenant ceremonial sprinkling of the sacrificial animals’ blood on the altar and on the people, signifying union between God and the people. So, too, the blood of Jesus is the bond which unites the believer to God. Through it, the Spirit of God is given, transforming hearts.
Paul tells us God changes hearts and puts the Holy Spirit in us (Romans 5.5; 8.4-16), God dwells among us (2 Corinthians 6.16) and in the new covenant, sins are taken away (Romans 11.27). This is a covenant of the Spirit, not of the letter (2 Corinthians 3-6). Christ is the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham and salvation comes through faith in Christ (Galatians 3.15-18).
What does covenant mean for Christians today? The repetition of Jesus’ Last Supper covenant-act in the Eucharistic celebration unites Christians to Christ in covenant love and gratitude so that we may serve Christ in faith. Christ will forever remain faithful to this covenant-love relationship.
COVENANT WITH CHRIST
We, too, are called to faithfulness to our covenant with Christ. We are called to be the visible love and service of Christ to the world, especially to those in need.
St. Augustine said: “Let us rejoice and give thanks, not only that we have become Christians but that we have become Christ. Do you understand the enormous grace God has given us? Stand in awe and rejoice -- we have become Christ!”
Since we have become Christ, we are called to live Christ, no matter how great the cost. This is our challenge, our privilege and our destiny.