The National Catholic Review
Fifth Sunday of Lent (B), April 2, 2006
The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah (Jer 31:31)

All our eucharistic prayers contain the phrase “the blood of the new and everlasting covenant” as part of the words of consecration. As the sacrament of our ongoing relationship with God through Christ, the Eucharist stands in the tradition of the meals at which ancient covenants were ratified. From the perspective of Christian faith, Jesus is the climax of God’s covenantal relationship with humankind. Jesus has incarnated God’s covenant fidelity and lovingkindness. Through him we come to know God and God’s will for us. He is the personification and pledge of the new covenant for which Jeremiah so fervently hoped.

 

In the early sixth century B.C., the prophet Jeremiah repeatedly warned the people of Jerusalem and Judah that they would soon fall victim to the Babylonian invaders. Along with other prophets, Jeremiah traced the impending disaster to the sinfulness of God’s people. Because of such warnings Jeremiah is often regarded as a prophet of doom. We call a speech full of doom and gloom a “jeremiad.” Yet Jeremiah is also a prophet of hope. In the midst of his people’s sinfulness and with full expectation that his city would soon be destroyed, Jeremiah was able to look beyond the present to a more glorious renewal of God’s covenant relationship with his people.

The “new covenant” for which Jeremiah hoped was not something external or even something that needed to be written down. Under the new covenant there will be no need for teachers, since its stipulations will be imprinted on the hearts of all God’s people. The God who is rich in mercy will forgive their sins. And all will know God and God’s will directly. This new covenant does not abolish or annul the earlier covenants with Noah, Abraham and Moses. These multiple covenants are really different aspects of, or moments in, the history of the one great covenant between the one God and his people. Perhaps a better way to talk about Jeremiah’s hope is to call it a renewed and more perfect form of Israel’s longstanding relationship with God.

Christians believe that Jeremiah’s hope for a new or renewed covenant has been fulfilled, at least in part, through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. The two New Testament readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent remind us that the inauguration of the new covenant through Jesus came about in the midst of suffering and death—that is, through his blood.

In what is probably the longest quotation of any Old Testament text in the New Testament, the author of Hebrews cites in 8:8-12 the full text of Jer 31:31-34 and makes it an essential element in his presentation of the new and better covenant inaugurated through the high priest Jesus’ offering of himself as the one perfect sacrifice for sins.

Today’s selection from Hebrews 5 reminds us that Jesus struggled to accept his mission of suffering for us and for our sins. Whether the reference here is specifically to the Gethsemane episode or more generally to his passion or even his whole incarnate life, Jesus had to school himself to accept the mystery of the cross as God’s way of bringing about the new and everlasting covenant. The assertion that in doing so Jesus “was made perfect” suggests that thus he has fulfilled his task and reached the goal of his mission, and that through his sacrificial death he became “the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” Jesus’ participation in the paschal mystery allows us to share in the new covenant relationship of intimacy with God and opens up the wonderful possibilities of justification, access to God, reconciliation, sanctification and salvation.

The reading from John’s Gospel also alludes to Jesus’ struggle to accept the cup of suffering associated with his mission to inaugurate the new and everlasting covenant. What enables him to resolve his struggle is the conviction that the cross is only one part of his “hour.” In Johannine theology the “hour” of Jesus embraces his passion, death, resurrection and exaltation. In the final analysis, this hour is Jesus’ way of glorifying his heavenly Father and of being glorified by his Father. It is also the way by which he draws all people into the saving action of God. The “lifting up” of Jesus on the cross will mean the possibility of exaltation and glorification for us all. Here there is a play on the words used for describing crucifixion as a lifting up and the raising up involved in the resurrection-exaltation of Jesus.

We cannot appreciate adequately the “blood of the new and everlasting covenant” that we share in the Eucharist without recognizing the joys and sufferings, triumphs and setbacks that marked the history of God’s covenant relationship with his people. What holds this long history together is the fundamental promise expressed in Jeremiah’s prophecy of hope: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., is professor of New Testament at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass.

Readings: 
Readings: Jer 31:31-34; Ps 51:3-4, 12-15; Heb 5:7-9; John 12:20-33
Prayer: 

• How is Jeremiah’s “new covenant” related to the other covenants? Does it abolish them, or does it fulfill them? Is there a difference?

• What allowed Jeremiah and Jesus to remain faithful to their missions pertaining to the new covenant despite the personal sufferings that were involved?

• What might the concept of covenant and its history contribute to your greater appreciation of the Eucharist?