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What Is A Covenant?

On occasion, this word “covenant” will make its appearance in our lives. Sometimes it’ll happen mid-conversation and we just role-on and nod like we know what it means. Other times, you might see it in a book that you’re reading and you may or may not look it up. Well, if you looked it up in any generic dictionary then, let me tell you, you still don’t know what a covenant is because their definition is normally deficient, even the “Bible” definition that some of them provide.

Let me tell you why this word is so important. It’s important because of the one other place that you hear it that I haven’t mentioned: Right in the middle of the climax of every Mass. It goes something like this:

Take this, all of you, and drink from it, for this is the chalice of my Blood, the Blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.

Sound familiar? Well, if this word is so essential to the liturgy, that is, the Mass, then we’d better understand it well. Let me tell you that if you don’t understand what a covenant is, you’ll never really “get” Jesus! In fact, you’ll never really “get” any of the Bible at all. Why? Because it is the role of covenant that unlocks Salvation History (the story of the Bible), which in turn unlocks Jesus and gives Him a context for everything that He does — even today!

Let’s Define Our Terms

What is a covenant? A covenant is the extension of kinship by oath. Let’s break this down a little more. “Kinship” (not “kingship”) is a fancier way of saying “family.” So, now we have: The extension of family by oath. Oath, of course, is a sworn statement or action, often invoking God as a witness, whereby if this oath is broken, severe consequences ensue. Now we have a more workable definition. Covenant: When two or more parties swear an oath and they become family because of it. Simple!

Side note: A covenant is very different than a contract based on one simple thing: A contract involves an exchange of goods or services. A covenant, however, is an exchange of persons. “I give myself to you, and you give yourself to me.” Sounds familiar too, doesn’t it?

Two Modern Examples

“I give myself to you, and you give yourself to me.” This may sound to you a little like what a marriage is. Exactly! A marriage is one example of a covenant. Two people swear oaths to each other, often invoking God, and they become family, husband and wife, because of it! In the Christian faith, we even believe that once the couple have consummated their marriage they, have become one flesh and, just as Jesus told us is Matthew 19:6, this union is only broken by death. A little intense, no? The Apostles thought so too a few verses later: “The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry,” (Matthew 19:10). You’re in good company, most of these guys turned out to be saints and some of them were married too! Why did they marry, though? Because Jesus answered them saying, “Not all men can receive this precept, but only those to whom it is given,” (Matthew 19:11), i.e. God will give you the grace to live it out if you marry.

Another modern example is adoption. Generous couples will often enter into a covenant with a child, often a baby, and become his or her parents. The baby or child, of course, will become their son or daughter too. There’s some paperwork involved, which takes the place of the oath (but is no less an oath), and they become family because of it.

Covenant in the Bible

From the beginning, or I should say “In the beginning,” (Genesis 1:1), God has sought to unite us with Him via a covenant bond. We were created inside a covenant with Him, not added to it after the fact. But, sharing a covenant with God brings about a union like no other. The reason this is, is because of something called “grace.” You know, that other word that we hear all the time. “Hail Mary, full of grace;” “Lord, grant me the grace to…” What is grace? Grace is God’s divine life within us.

Often, because of Martin Luther, non-Catholics won’t agree with us on the issue of what grace is. Martin Luther said that grace is merely God’s favour towards us. As Catholics we give that a big “Amen!” with an added, “But it’s so much more too!” It’s not just God’s favour towards us. It’s God’s very own divine life within us! Let me be more explicit: We become divine! This is the state that Adam and Eve were created in. In theology, we call it “Original Innocence.”

Back to covenant, but keep in mind now what grace is. God made a covenant with Adam and Eve, and then they broke it. What happened to them? They died. I know it doesn’t say that they died, but God did say that they would in Genesis 2:17 if they ate the forbidden fruit and God doesn’t lie. What’s the implication? They spiritually died, which is worse, and they broke the covenant because of it (Remember — Breakable only by death). Remember, a covenant with God, who is pure spirit, happens on the spiritual level, so if you spiritually die, you break the spiritual covenant. Thus, Adam and Eve left the state of original innocence and entered the state of original sin.

Now that we’re here let me explain something that many people get hung up on. Original sin is not something bad that Adam and Eve were given as a punishment. It was something good that was taken away from them, namely, grace. It was something good that they lost, not something bad that they got. This means that they couldn’t give to their future generations what they didn’t have to pass on: Grace. This is why everyone after Adam & Eve is born with original sin.

Let me stress this point. When we are in covenant relationship with God, we’re not just on “good terms.” We are family! And, if we call Him “Father” like Jesus taught us to, do you know what that makes us? His children! As we often hear, we are adopted children of God. But, remember what grace is. Grace is God’s divine life within us. Think of it like God’s DNA (this is the Holy Spirit, by the way!” A man and woman who adopt a child don’t share DNA with it. But God’s children share His DNA with Him because of grace. If you’re face-palming yourself right now, good! It’s a big deal!

Look at what St Paul tells us:

So then, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — for if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.  (Romans 8:12–17)

I KNOW RIGHT! Check out this one. St John completely captures what I’m thinking right now: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are!” (1 John 3:1).

Back to the story. After people like Adam and Eve, Noah, etc, kept falling out of grace (out of the covenant) God kept offering more covenants to bring people back to His family and, every time, the covenant included more and more people. Eventually, after the Davidic kingdom fell (the kingdom of King David — Yes, the guy who took down Goliath), the prophets started talking about a covenant in the future that would include the whole world and would be eternal. However, the term “New Covenant” was only explicitly mentioned once by Jeremiah when he said,

Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, and I showed myself their Master, says the Lord. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jeremiah 31:31-33)

The interesting thing is, this exact term was only on the lips of Jesus one time also. Now, this either makes it super insignificant or immensely important. I’d go with the latter. Why? Because of when He says it: Right in the middle of the Passover! Check it out.

And likewise the chalice after supper, saying, “This chalice which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my Blood.” (Luke 22:20)

The word for “in” there means, “consisting of,” so, “consisting of my Blood.” What does this tell us? The Eucharist is the New Covenant; Jesus is the New Covenant.

Wrapping This Up

A few moments ago I wrote that God is pure spirit and so our relationship with Him, meaning, our covenant with Him, was on a spiritual level. But now, in Christ Jesus, the Word made flesh (see John 1:14), God become man, spirit become corporal, our relationship with God is both spiritual and physical! Our relationship with God goes through the Body and Blood of Jesus. In early Christian times, people who received the Eucharist while being outside the covenant sometimes got sick and some persistent ones died (sometimes God shows us the effects of spiritual evils through physical signs). St Paul told us this. Have a look.

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the Body and Blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the Body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. (1 Co 11:27–30)

However, those who are part of the covenant and come to the table of the Lord are strengthened and moulded, little by little depending on the disposition of each recipient, into Christ Jesus. Our whole lives are about becoming Him. Not just like Him, but becoming Him. How? Through the covenant, in the Holy Spirit, by His Body and Blood; “the Blood of the new and eternal covenant that was poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

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If you found this article helpful, then let me know below in the comments section. If you have any questions, ask them there too!

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By | 2017-08-24T12:15:40+00:00 August 7th, 2017|Sacraments, Scripture|1 Comment

About the Author:

My name is Jeremy and I am a proud cradle-Catholic (sometimes a little too proud…). I am the husband of a beautiful woman named Stephanie and the father of a gorgeous son named Álvaro José. The three of us live in my hometown, Gibraltar. Where on earth is that? Gibraltar is a tiny offshore territory of the United Kingdom that is located on the southern-most tip of Spain. The whole country is a whopping 2.5 sq. miles! Yes, it’s a little cosy but it makes for a great Catholic community!

One Comment

  1. SleepyPrairieMama August 7, 2017 at 15:45 - Reply

    Good article! I especially like your explanation of original sin! I’ve not heard it put so clearly and concisely before. Very helpful.

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