At the Last Supper, Jesus “…took the bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me.’ And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you’” (Luke 22:19-20).
Here we have Jesus instituting the Eucharist and the sacrament of holy orders, and in this context he definitively links the sacraments to the new covenant.
We must ask what the relationship is between these two seemingly odd words: sacrament and covenant.
In understanding the covenant we discover the deeper meaning of all of the sacraments.
Covenants are how God the Father fathers his family throughout salvation history, beginning with Adam and Eve.
On the seventh day, God covenants himself to Adam and Eve. We are told in the Gospel of Luke that Adam is “the son of God” (3:38). There is an intimate familial relationship established by the covenant.
God the Father continues to father his family by means of the covenant, even after its having been broken by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. God establishes a covenant with Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and finally Jesus. In these succeeding covenants we see God expanding his covenant family until there is a one, holy, catholic (universal) and apostolic Church.
However, one crucial element of covenant-making is oath-swearing. In the Canticle of Zechariah, this is made clear. God has promised to be “mindful of his holy covenant and of the oath he swore to Abraham our father …” (Luke 2:72-73). The amazing thing is that God himself swears oaths, thus binding himself to his children forever.
When one swears an oath there are a few things involved. First, there is the invoking of God’s name, e.g. “I swear to God.” Second, there is an exchange, not of goods and services as in a contract, but an exchange of persons: “I am yours, and you are mine,” or “I will be your God and you will be my people.” Third, unlike a contract, covenants are permanent. Finally, covenants invoke blessings and curses. We see this, for example, when someone says, “so help me God” (blessing), or “I’ll be damned” (curse).
It is interesting that the Hebrew word for swearing an oath is, “sheba.” Sheba literally means “to seven oneself.”
On the seventh day, God covenants himself to humanity when he rests, blesses and makes holy the seventh day, and by that act enters into a covenant with Adam and Eve (cf. Genesis 2:1-3). (Interesting, as well, is the fact that in Hebrew the three sentences that make up Genesis 2:1-3 are each made up of seven Hebrew words).
What connection might this have with the sacraments? The answer lies in realizing that the Latin word for oath is “sacramentum,” from which we get the word sacrament. It also just happens to be the case that Christ instituted seven of these “sacramentum.” So, Christ instituted seven covenant-making, and covenant-renewing, oaths.
Even the Romans could see this connection back in 112 AD when Pliny the Younger, while filing a report to the emperor says, “They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, and they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath (sacramentum), not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up. Afterward, it was their custom to…partake of food, but food of an ordinary and innocent kind.”
Of course, he is here describing the Mass. However, the food, though seemingly ordinary to five senses, is none other than the Bread of Life, the flesh and blood of Christ.
Like other oaths, the sacraments involve the invoking of God’s name, an exchange of persons, permanency and blessings and curses.
Let’s take the Eucharist as an example. At the beginning of Mass, we invoke God’s name: “In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” We have thus put ourselves under oath to fulfill the terms of the covenant.
There is an exchange of persons when the priest says, “The body of Christ” and “the blood of Christ,” and we respond, “Amen” and receive the Lord into our very bodies.
He obviously gives himself to us, and through our “amen” and reception of the Lord we are called to do exactly the same thing. We are to give ourselves as completely to the Lord as he gives himself to us. He gave himself up unto death for us so that we might receive him; so, too, we are called to give ourselves up unto death so that he might receive us. This exchange of the totality of the divine person of Christ and the totality of ourselves is to be permanent.
We know that God cannot break the covenant, but we can. This is where the blessing and curse come to the fore.
Throughout our lives, we are to call upon the blessings of the Lord to aid us in fulfilling the covenant. But when we do not keep the covenant, when we do not live a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called in Christ, the covenant curses come to bear upon us.
St. Paul makes this clear when he says: “Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Corinthians 11:27-29).
In the sacraments we swear to God that we believe, and that we will live a faithful life to the Lord, giving ourselves completely to him. This means every aspect of our life: Sunday’s and Monday through Saturday, the boardroom, the family room and the bedroom. There is to be no picking and choosing which part of our lives we give to Christ.
He did not pick and choose which part of his life to give to us; he gave it all on Calvary, and continues to give it all in the sacraments.