March 28, 2024

Deacon Tim Papa Homily
The New and Eternal Covenant

Holy Thursday Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper

Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-15

One of the things that I really didn't appreciate before I studied to be a deacon is how well our Lectionary is constructed. For those of you who are not sure, the Lectionary is that book in which the readings for every Mass are laid out, that all Catholic churches throughout the world use. Everyone attending this Holy Thursday Evening Mass of the Lord's Supper will hear the same readings, we will pray using the same words of scripture. But it is not just the uniformity. During the Second Vatican Council, it was reorganized from a one-year cycle to a three-year cycle, which allowed more of particularly the Old Testament to be heard at Mass. In addition to this, they laid it out in ways that, if one takes the time to study them, build our understanding of the scriptural basis of Catholic teaching.

One of those ways that they used this year – we are in cycle B – is that the first readings, the Old Testament readings, we have heard this Lent are laying the groundwork for a full understanding of one very important phrase that Jesus will use at the Last Supper. The phrase was in the second reading, where Saint Paul records these words of Jesus: This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” [1 Cor 11:24b NABRE]. We recognize this phrase because it is preserved in the words of consecration in all the Eucharistic Prayers. The particular words that I want to expand on tonight are what Christ calls the “new covenant” in his blood. If this is the new covenant, what was the old covenant?

Turns out there were several. Depending on how people read God’s promises in the bible, whether it is just good things he gives to his people and whether it is a binding covenant, I've seen theologians count seven, eight, and even nine covenants. However, the Lectionary has presented four of them in the Old Testament readings this Lent.

The First Sunday of Lent, the First Reading told us about the covenant God made with Noah: “I will establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all bodily creatures be destroyed by the waters of a flood; … I set my bow in the clouds to serve as a sign of the covenant between me and the earth” [Genesis 9:11a, 13]. The Second Sunday in Lent presented the covenant God made with Abraham: “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you acted as you did in not withholding from me your beloved son [Isaac], I will bless you abundantly and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore” [Genesis 22:16-17a]. Then in the Third Sunday of Lent, we read of the covenant between God and Moses. In exchange for Yahweh, “I am who am,” being their God, the people promised as part of the Sinai Covenant to follow God’s law, that is to say, the Ten Commandments.

Then, in the Fourth Sunday of Lent, we didn’t read about another covenant, but instead heard how the prophets warned Israel that they were not living up to their covenant commitments, which in turn resulted in the Babylonian conquest and exile. But God relented, and Israel returned when Babylonia was in turn conquered by Persia. This, then, set the stage for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, where Jeremiah told us in the First Reading: “See, days are coming … when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors the day I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt. They broke my covenant, though I was their master … this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days …. I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people” [Jeremiah 31:31-33].

Jeremiah told us then that the days of a new covenant were coming. Jesus today tells his apostles that those days are here. He is the new covenant that God promised to write upon the hearts of his people. The Church teaches that, at baptism, we are marked with a permanent mark upon our hearts, and God dwells in us. Christ is the fulfillment of the new covenant God promised his people, and for this he gave us a sign.

Now signs are important. For all of the covenants God made, there was a sign. For Noah, it was the rainbow in the sky. For Abraham, it was circumcision of all males, an outward sign that marked one as God’s own. For Moses, the sign was obedience to the law itself: God’s people would be seen complying with the 613 rules laid out for proper behavior in all aspects of life, such as ritual washings and temple sacrifices. So what is the sign of the new covenant in Christ? Of course, it is the Eucharist. And this is why Christ, at the Last Supper, refers to the new covenant, and why Father Oscar will say in just a few minutes, “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 ….” We were made members of the covenant when we were baptized, and we renew our vow to uphold our part of the covenant when we receive our Lord at the Eucharist, our memorial to the Last Supper and the Lord’s Passion.

The Lectionary has therefore built up this Lent the history as a foundation for where we find ourselves today, starting the Holy Triduum. On Holy Thursday, he gives us the sign of the new covenant. On Good Friday, he will seal the covenant by his obedience to God in atonement for our sins. Then on Easter, Jesus will be the first fruits of the covenant and show us the rewards of being in the covenant, eternal life with God.

Holy Thursday has a bit more to say about the covenant, which I’m not going to speak on today but which all of us should prayerfully consider as part of this holy day. There are three teachings that the Church memorializes on this day. The institution of the Eucharist, which we have discussed. The institution of the ministerial priesthood, the request of the Lord to his Twelve Apostles to do this in memory of me, is the eternal perpetuation of the sign of the covenant. Finally, the great mandate of service when Jesus, following the washing of the feet, told us to do this to others as he did it for us. In other words, today we have Christ’s announcement of the new covenant, the institution of a sign for the new covenant, the ordination of Church leaders that will minister the sign to God’s people, and the mandate to serve the needs of others as our part of the covenant. This then is what we should focus on as we wind up our Lenten journey to become better Christians. We will have time this evening to do so as we end this Mass with an hour of Eucharistic Adoration. The ancient Israelites failed to live up to their covenant with God. Let us tonight spend time with our Lord examining ways that we can resolve to better live up to the new covenant that his sacrifice has won for us.

As we continue with our service with the washing of the feet, let us contemplate how we can better serve our neighbors in Christian devotion. As we participate in the Eucharist, let us purposefully renew our commitment to the covenant and ask Christ to help us understand that commitment. And as we pray before the Blessed Sacrament, let us pray for vocations to the priesthood, that there will be many men called to minister the covenant of the Lord to all people.


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