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The New and Everlasting Covenant
THE NEW AND EVERLASTING COVENANT
Among the most familiar texts of the Mass are the words spoken by Jesus at the Last Supper, including these which accompanied handing the cup of wine on to his disciples:‘This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant”.
Surely it is more than coincidence that these words are almost identical to those used by Moses during the covenant liturgy as described in the book of Exodus Chapter 24:“This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you…” (verse 8)
Comparing these two foundational events offers some useful insights into the meaning of the eucharist as covenant.
In the Hebrew covenant liturgy, Moses first prepares the space for worship by building an altar at the foot of Mt Sinai and setting up twelve standing stones to represent the twelve tribes of Israel. Young men are sent to sacrifice bullocks and to collect the blood. Moses puts half the blood into basins and sets it aside. He pours the other half of the blood on the altar.
What a graphic example of the impact of symbol and gesture in ritual! Not a word has been spoken so far but so much has been said: that what is happening here is about the whole nation, that it is about matters of life and death as blood on the altar speaks of sacred life, God’s life.
Moses by now has the total attention of everyone present. He takes the Book of the Covenant and reads from it the words of God that spell out the vision of the covenant. Immediately the people respond as one: “We shall do everything that Yahweh has said; we shall obey”. Now Moses completes the symbolic gesture – he takes the basin and sprinkles the people with the remaining blood as a sign that the covenant has been sealed.
We flinch when hit with a spray of water during the rite of sprinkling of holy water. Imagine the impact on the Jewish people of being splattered with blood as Moses proclaims: "This is the blood of the covenant which Yahweh has made with you”!
The link between these words of Moses and those used by Jesus is unmistakable. As the people of Israel were challenged to commit themselves anew to their covenant with God, we are challenged in the same way at the celebration of the Eucharist. When we gather for Mass, we listen to the Word of God and hear what it is that God demands of us, of this community here and now, and how Jesus has shown us the way. We are called to commit ourselves to God’s vision by pledging ourselves to live what we have heard.
And our commitment is also ratified in blood – not by being sprinkled on the outside like the Hebrews at Sinai, but on the inside as we drink from the cup of Christ’s blood. The commitment we make in so doing is both to God and to one another. Together we take up the chalice, we drink from the one cup. Together we commit ourselves to being a community of justice, peace and love.
How then can we pass by the cup of the covenant? How can we ever take the cup lightly?