A People of the Covenant

Two themes echo throughout the readings: covenant and sacrifice. Exodus recounts the ratification of the Sinai covenant by a sacrificial ritual in which the people affirm the whole content of Exodus 19-24, proclaiming all that the Lord has said, we will heed and do. The Letter to the Hebrews presents a Christian interpretation of the ritual for the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16), stressing that Jesus is mediator of a new covenant. The Gospel roots this in the final Passover meal of Jesus with his disciples, in which Jesus offers his body and his blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many.

Covenant is one of the major theological ideas of the Old Testament. It has its roots in agreements made in the ancient Near East between peoples that created peace through the exchange of promises of shared obligations and respect. The Sinai covenant recalls God’s rescue of the people from slavery (Ex. 19:4-6), and the people respond by committing themselves to God’s Torah or way of acting as a grateful and liberated people. God’s gift precedes God’s commands.


Covenants were ratified often by sacrifices, which symbolized the total commitment of the partners, and often concluded with a meal during which the offering was consumed, symbolizing that the commitments affirmed would continue to nurture the people. In the New Testament Jesus becomes both the one who enacts the new covenant and the one who offers his whole life (body and blood) as a covenant meal. Eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ is a commitment to be nurtured by the kind and quality of life embodied by Jesus of Nazareth. As the early Jerusalem Catechesis states, His body is given to us under the symbol of bread, and his blood is given to us under the symbol of wine, in order to make us by receiving them one body and one blood with him (Office of Readings for the Saturday after Easter).

The readings remind us of those covenants that shape our Christian lives. All the sacraments are covenants, in which the initiative comes from God and the commitments are to be lived out by those who affirm or receive the sacraments. Marriage is perhaps the best human analogue to biblical covenants. People who have experienced already the gift of mutual love give to each other their whole selves, as Jesus gave his body and blood for those he loved. The sacrifice offered by Jesus and enacted at every celebration of the Eucharist is also a reminder that Christian life, and especially marriage, is sacrificial as ordinary existence is transformed into something holy, which is experienced by self-giving in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health.

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