Holy Thursday: Birth of a New Family Covenant

Covenants establish family bonds — as is the case with marriage and adoption, where new families are created. In the ancient world, covenants were often made by sacrifice, sacred oaths, and a communion meal. In fact, the Hebrew idiom expressed in English translations of “so and so made a covenant” is karath berith, literally, “to cut a covenant” (cf. Gen 15:18Ex 24:8); this idiom is indicative of the close correspondence between sacrifice and covenant-making.

We see this in the Passover sacrifice that leads to the ratification of the Mosaic Covenant at Mt. Sinai. In Ex 12, the Passover lamb is not just slain; it must be eaten (v. 4); this act makes way for God’s great deliverance out of Egypt. In Ex 24:3 on Mt. Sinai, Moses throws half of the blood of the sacrifice upon the altar and half upon the people (Ex 24:6, 8). Strange as this event may appear to us, the biblical imagery is clear: the blood symbolizes life (cf. Lev 17:11; Gen 9:4), here the shared life between God and his people, a point further brought out by the communion meal that follows (Ex 24:11). It is here in this context that Moses proclaims: “Behold, the blood of the covenant”—the very same words echoed by our Lord at the Last Supper.

Drawing from this miraculous deliverance, the Prophets proclaim a hope for a New Exodus — something greater than a deliverance from physical bondage and an arrival to an earthly Promised Land (cf. Isa 65:17-18). Jeremiah proclaims this hope by prophesying a “New Covenant” (Jer 31:31), a phrase once again echoed by our Lord at the Last Supper.

New and Everlasting Covenant

Jesus’ final meal takes place in the context of the Passover (cf. Lk 22:8, 11, 13, 15) — a meal in the first century which both remembered and anticipated the Exodus, both commemorating the past and stirring hopes for the future. But conspicuously absent in the Last Supper is any mention of a lamb—a glaring omission, to say the least! In this context, Jesus takes bread and wine and declares, “This is my bodythis is my blood.” He is the Passover Lamb, bringing about a new and greater Exodus — leading us not to an earthly Promised Land, but to a heavenly one (cf. Heb 12:22).

Jesus here states, “For this is the blood of the covenant” (Mt 26:28), drawing from Ex 24:8 where Moses sealed the covenant with Israel through sacrifice. Jesus is the Paschal Lamb, the sacrifice who will seal the New and Everlasting Covenant. And in Luke’s account, Jesus uses the very words “new covenant” (Lk 22:20), hearkening back to Jeremiah’s prophecy. In fact, Jesus uses the word “covenant” only here — not because “covenant” was unimportant to Him, for it truly is the “red thread” running throughout the entire Bible. Rather, Jesus reserves this all-important motif for the Last Supper, where He will be the New Covenant sacrifice, establishing a new family bond between God and mankind.

In fact, when Paul discusses the Eucharistic cup, he uses a very powerful word — koinonia: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation (koinonia) in the blood of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16). Through the blood of Christ, we now have shared life with God (cf. Jn 6:56).

The Passover sacrifice is not complete with the death of the lamb; rather, we fully enter into this shared life by consuming the lamb — sharing koinonia with God through Christ.

Salvation is not just about being forgiven; it is entering into the family of God — not simply receiving a divine acquittal. In Christ, God becomes Father to us in a way that is unfathomable for the creature qua creature; through Christ we become a child of God, such that God the Father looks upon us and loves us as He does His only-begotten Son (Tweet this). This, in my opinion, is one of the hardest things to believe as Catholics — namely, that the Infinite and Eternal God really loves us that much. But this — and no less — is the Gospel.

Image: Dimitris Kamaras, Flickr, Last Supper by Pieter-Pourbus, 1548.

Andrew Swafford

Andrew Swafford is Associate Professor of Theology at Benedictine College. He is general editor and contributor to The Great Adventure Catholic Bible published by Ascension Press and host of the video series (and author of the companion books) Hebrews: the New and Eternal Covenant, and Romans: The Gospel of Salvation, both published by Ascension. Andrew is also author of Nature and Grace, John Paul to Aristotle and Back Again; and Spiritual Survival in the Modern World. He holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake and a master’s degree in Old Testament & Semitic Languages from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is member of the Society of Biblical Literature, Academy of Catholic Theology, and a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He lives with his wife Sarah and their five children in Atchison, Kansas.