In some churches, when the morning sky is clear, the people celebrating Mass might be treated to a splash of colors as the sun’s rays shine through the windows of the church. It’s like a rainbow—a perfect image of the covenant love God has for us! It’s a love that we celebrate every time we receive Jesus in the Eucharist.
Throughout Scripture, we see how God has always wanted to have a covenant relationship with us. We see it in the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Ruth, and David. God’s desire for a covenant is evident in all of the prophets; it is a central theme in the gospels, it is explained in the letters, and it reaches its climax in the Book of Revelation. Everywhere we look, we see proof that God is eternally covenanted to us, and he calls us to be covenanted to him.
As we continue to explore different images of the Eucharist, we want to dedicate this article to looking at how the Eucharist reveals God’s covenant and how it deepens our commitment to the covenant.
A Faithful God. At its core, our covenant with God involves responsibilities on both sides. On God’s side, he promises to be our God—to reveal himself to us, to put his laws in our hearts, to forgive us, to give us his Spirit, and to care for us. On our side, God asks us to be his people—to love him, to be faithful to him, to turn to him for help, to say no to temptation, and to obey his commands.
We know that God has always upheld his side of the covenant and that we have not been so faithful. Our love for him has been erratic. We haven’t always obeyed his commands. We have worshipped idols. We have hurt one another. But instead of turning away and rejecting us, our heavenly Father continues to reach out to us. He continues to find ways to draw us to himself and to help us live out our covenant.
Think of the story of Hosea and his wife, Gomer (Hosea 1-3). Gomer was unfaithful to Hosea, and this caused him a great deal of pain and suffering. But God used this painful relationship to teach Hosea two things. First, he explained that the people of Israel had treated God just as Gomer had treated Hosea. Second, he told Hosea to take Gomer back and to be reconciled to her. He told him to love Gomer just as God loves unfaithful Israel. That’s why, for centuries, the story of Hosea and Gomer has been seen as a microcosm of the story of God’s covenant love for us.
But this story changed dramatically when Jesus came to earth. Finally, in him, God found Someone who would uphold the covenant in every way. Not once did Jesus violate his part of the covenant. Not once did he sin. What’s more, when Jesus broke the bread and shared the wine at the Last Supper, he actually became the new covenant between God and us. When he rose from the dead, Jesus ratified a new covenant with God for all of us. He became the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29).
This is what we celebrate every time we participate in Mass. By gathering around the table of the Lord, we are embracing God’s covenant with us. We are promising to be faithful to God even as we celebrate his faithfulness to us. And as we do, God writes his covenant on our hearts and promises that he will never abandon us.
Let It Be Enough . . . As mysterious as it may sound, the new covenant is both a historical event that took place on the cross and a sacrament of grace that transcends time and place. It is true that Jesus’ sacrifice will never be repeated. It happened once, for all time (Hebrews 10:14). But Jesus also told us to recall and relive this sacrifice as we celebrate the Eucharist (1 Corinthians 11:24). As Mary once did, we too may want to ask the Lord, “How can this be?” (Luke 1:34). Perhaps the words of one of the Fathers of the Church can help us here.
St. John Damascene once wrote, “You ask, how can the bread become the Body of Christ and the wine . . . the Blood of Christ. I shall tell you: the Holy Spirit comes upon them and accomplishes what surpasses every word and thought. . . . Let it be enough for you to understand that it is by the Holy Spirit that the Lord, through and in himself, took flesh” (An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, 4, 13).
As John of Damascene acknowledged, we may never fully understand the mystery of the Eucharist. But we shouldn’t let that stop us from receiving its blessings. Perhaps it’s enough to know that Jesus has told us to do this in memory of him. Perhaps it’s enough to believe that eating the Body and drinking the Blood of the Lord can have a life-changing impact upon us.
Protection from Sin. One of the more popular diets these days is something called the “catabolic diet.” This diet focuses on foods that help you burn more calories than you take in: carrots, celery, asparagus, and the like. The catabolic diet promises that you will actually lose weight as you eat.
While the analogy may not be perfect, we can see similarities between this diet and the Eucharist. When we receive the Body and Blood of Christ, we receive the power to fight against sin. The more we partake of the Eucharist, the more our tendencies toward sin are burned up. In other words, when you eat the Bread of Life, you lose “sin-weight”!
When Jesus said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins,” he was promising not only forgiveness but protection as well (Matthew 26:28). Back in Egypt, when God had the people prepare for the angel of death, he told them to take some of the blood from their Passover sacrifice and put it on “the two doorposts and the lintel” of their homes. “Seeing the blood,” God promised, “I will pass over you . . . no destructive blow will come upon you” (Exodus 12:7, 13).
Now, if God used the blood of a lamb to protect the Israelites who had partaken of that same lamb, will he not protect us from the ravages of sin when we eat the Flesh and drink the Blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God? So when we receive Christ in Communion, we are not just renewing a legal covenant; we are entering into the strong, loving arms of God. We are saying that we belong to him and that we trust him to protect us.
The Sacrament of Unity. Now comes a difficult question. Given all that the Eucharist does for us and all that is available to us in the new covenant, why is the Church in the state it is in? Why is there so much division? Why do selfishness and complacency and disobedience keep us separated from each other?
The answers to these questions are long and complex, but one thing is clear: unity in the Church occurs and deepens as each member deepens their own appreciation of the Eucharist. In fact, the Eucharist has often been called the “sacrament of unity.” Every piece of bread that we eat is made up of thousands of grains of wheat. Every cup of wine that we drink is made up of hundreds of grapes. Yet when we eat Jesus’ Body and drink his Blood, we are all eating one Eucharist. We are all participating in one eternal covenant. And that covenant has the power to unite us. If we remain open, it has the power to form us into one people, the one body of Christ.
Just as Jesus and his Father are one, God wants us to be one—not separated by division, disobedience, or indifference, but bound together in a covenant of love and faithfulness. The Eucharist is God’s power to take us to this deeper level of unity. It makes us, individual members of the Church, to be like grains of bread baked into a single loaf or grapes pressed into one cup. It kneads us and crushes us and makes us into the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church that our Father so desires.
As we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection during this Easter season, let’s ask the Holy Spirit to awaken in us a deeper desire for unity and love. May God continue to bless us and our whole Church as we partake of the Bread of Life.