Old and new covenants

Editor’s note: This begins a series of columns by Father Martin L. Buote on Catholic worship.

Catholics are sometimes challenged that the Mass is not mentioned in the New Testament and is not based on the Bible. It is further pointed out that the title of priest is not attributed to any of the Apostles or other leaders of the Christian movement by the writers of the New Testament.

Those who have become experts in the history of worship know the answers to these questions and challenges, but few people can afford the time or the effort to find those answers on their own. Let us begin an exploration of our religious roots! For this investigation, I shall mention several passages from the Bible besides the verses which I quote. I encourage you to read those passages as well.

Two concepts must be examined to make those roots understandable: covenant and sacrifice. While covenants existed for many different social relationships in the Ancient Near East (ANE), our concern will be only for covenants the Bible mentions with God. A working definition for these covenants would be: An agreement between a superior (God) and an inferior (man) in which the superior dictates the terms, and the blood of sacrifice ratifies the bond.

The very first time the Bible uses the word covenant is in Genesis when God promises to establish a covenant with Noah (Gen 6:18). Noah offered sacrifice of birds and animals and God gave a blessing of fertility to the earth. A future with no universal flood was promised by God (Gen 9:11), and man was prohibited from shedding human blood (Gen 9:5,6).

Moving from the religious pre-history of Noah to the historic period in which Abraham lived, we find several times in Abraham’s life that the Bible records a covenant promised or instituted. The most formal setting for the covenant with Abraham is found in Genesis, chapter 17. God promises fertility to Abraham’s progeny and demands the service of circumcision. The blood sacrifice was mentioned in chapter 15.

The covenant God made with Abraham was recalled in Exodus. “God said to Moses, ‘I am the Lord. As God the Almighty I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but My name, Lord, I did not make known to them. I also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they were living as aliens. And now that I have heard the groaning of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians are treating as slaves, I am mindful of My covenant’” (Ex 6:2-5, see also Ex 2:24).

The covenant was reestablished under Moses at Mount Sinai. This Sinai covenant defined the relationship between God and His people throughout the rest of Old Testament times, but it had to be renewed as the people strayed.

“When Moses came to the people and related all the words and ordinances of the Lord, they all answered with one voice, ‘We will do everything that the Lord has told us.’ Moses then wrote down all the words of the Lord and, rising early the next day, he erected at the foot of the mountain an altar and 12 pillars for the 12 tribes of Israel. Then, having sent certain young men of the Israelites to offer holocausts and sacrifice young bulls as peace offerings to the Lord, Moses took half of the blood and put it in large bowls; the other half he splashed on the altar. Taking the book of the covenant he read it aloud to the people who answered, ‘All that the Lord has said, we will heed and do.’ Then he took the blood and sprinkled it on the people saying, ‘This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words of His’” (Ex 24:3-8. You are encouraged to read Exodus chapters 19 and 20).

The Sinai covenant is sometimes expressed in the vocabulary of a conditional form, “... if you hearken to My voice and keep My covenant, you shall be My special possession, dearer to me than all other people, though all the earth is Mine. You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation” (Ex 19:5-6. See also Lev, chapter 26 and Deut, chapter six).

In the New Testament, Jesus announced a new covenant, “This cup is the new covenant in My Blood, which I will shed for you” (Lk 22:20. See also Mt 26:28, Mk 14:24, 1 Cor 11:25). Jesus gave terms for this new covenant in Jn 14:15-23 and Jn 15:12-14. A further explanation of this particular form of love called agape is found in 1 Cor, chapter 13. Please read these three passages from the Bible.

The connection between this new covenant and the Sinai covenant was explained in the writings of Paul, and especially in his Letter to the Ephesians, chapters two and three. Through the Sinai covenant, the people of Abraham’s stock were called to be God’s people. Through the new covenant, all people are called to be God’s people, and even more. By the new covenant, we become living temples of God, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy” (1 Cor 3:16,17). And if that were not enough, we become members of the living, Resurrected, ascended Christ (1 Cor 12:12-31. This is the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ). By virtue of this new covenant, when God’s people worship, it is actually Christ, the Son of God worshipping.

The first letter of St. Peter takes up this same theme in chapter two and connects it to the Sinai covenant of Exodus 19 with direct quotations.

The Biblical covenants give us a great unifying theme for our consideration of worship, even if it is a bit heady. The Letter to the Hebrews further explores the relationship of the Old and New Testament covenants, and give us an introduction to our next topic: sacrifice.

Father Buote is a retired priest of the Fall River Diocese and a frequent contributor to The Anchor.

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