“Thy Body and Thy Blood are for the forgiveness of our sins, and for the New Testament that Thou gave to Thy disciples. We are made worthy to eat of the Tree of Life which is the Body of God and His true Blood.” (Gospel Response, Liturgy of the Eucharist)
On Covenant Thursday prior to the day of Great Friday of the Holy Pascha the Coptic Orthodox Church commemorates the day on which the Lord Jesus Christ made the New Testament covenant with His disciples and celebrated with them this Passover meal which was to become the first Eucharist, the heart and life of our Christian worship.
It is upon Covenant Thursday in which we honor this very first Eucharist meal. Yet, the honor does not stop on this one particular day in time, but it is futuristic being further extended individually as the covenant that we ourselves pledge to God each time we take part in the Eucharist.
St. Paul records, “Take eat: this is My Body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of Me. And the same manner also He took the cup, when He had supped saying, this cup is the New Covenant in My Blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of Me. For as often as ye eat this bread and drink this cup, ye do show the Lord’s death until He comes” (I Corinthians 11:23-25). When we partake of the Holy Communion we are keeping the New Testament covenant with God.
What exactly is a covenant? The term covenant means “primarily ‘a cutting’ or dividing animals in two and passing between the parts in ratifying a promise (covenant)”. The Old Covenant was sealed with the blood of such animals as bulls and goats. In the Holy Old Testament Book of Genesis 15:9 God covenanted with and said to Abram: “Bring Me a three year old heifer, a three year old female goat, a three year old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” Abram was further instructed to cut them in two, each one down the middle with the exception of the birds. God covenanted with Noah following the great flood.
The Old Covenants can be considered “covenants of works” that is God promising to save and bless men on the singular condition of obedience. For instance, doom was horrifically pronounced on all the families but one in Judah and Jerusalem because they did not obey God. In the Holy Old Testament Book of Jeremiah (35:18-19) we read, “And Jeremiah said to the House of Rechabites, ‘Thus says the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, because you have obeyed the commandment of Jonadab your father and kept all his precepts and done according to all that he has commanded you, therefore thus says the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel ‘Jonadab the son of Rechab shall not lack a man to stand before Me…forever.'”
Usually there were witnesses, whether God or man or men, to the covenant. Also there may have been a sign of the covenant such as a gift, or a pillar, or a stack of stones. For example a covenant was made between Abraham and Abimelech at Beersheba and the gift Abraham gave unto Abimelech was seven ewe lambs, “You will take these seven ewe lambs from my hand, that they may be my witness that I have dug this well” (Genesis 21:30).
The witnesses to the Lord’s New Covenant on Thursday were His holy disciples. In instituting the New Covenant the Lord Jesus Christ is seeking by all means to save the life of each one of us.
The New Covenant is firmly sealed by the Lord Jesus Christ’s Blood upon the Holy Cross. His Blood on the Cross therefore is the Blood (witness or gift) of the New Covenant. This New Testament Covenant sealed by the Blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is considered a “covenant of grace”. A “covenant of grace” is sealed with God’s promise to save men (New Covenant).
The Lord Jesus Christ clearly instructed His disciples and so onto the faithful, to partake of the New Covenant in remembrance of Him. Originally the Eucharist was not intended to replace the Passover Sacrifice of Judaism but to bring it into perfection by its offering to all people everywhere. St. Mark the Apostle (14:24) tells us, “And He said to them, ‘This is My Blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many'” (Mark 14:24). Many Biblical scholars define ‘many’ in this context as signifying ‘for all’, ‘all mankind’, and ‘an innumerable people’.
Initially, the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ worshipped at the Temple as faithful Jews. St. Paul writes, “So continuing daily with one accord in the Temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart” (Acts 2:46). This Holy Scripture verse tells us they offered their Eucharist service at home. Disputes would continually arise and eventually cause a split between the Christian disciples and the Jewish people of the day and Christians would cease their worship in the Temple.
St. Clement of Alexandria instructs, “If it appears that conflicting dogmas draw some away, these must be taken out of the wayby explaining the truth by the connection of the covenants” (c.195).
The Lord Jesus Christ’s covenant heals the inner man unifying both his heart and mind. It allows for perfect forgiveness if we willingly comply with its teachings. The special rights given unto the chosen peoples of Israel were now applied to all Christians through the New Covenant. In the Holy New Testament Book of Hebrews, chapter 8, we learn that the Lord Jesus Christ’s covenant is better, much better, based on the promise of better things to come.
The Old Covenant could not solve the issues of sin and death, it was delivered and fearfully complied with having drastic consequences for noncompliance and often gave imperfect forgiveness.
In the New Testament the Lord Jesus Christ’s followers are viewed as members of the New Covenant. A covenant designed to become an integral part of man’s nature, one that would less likely be broken. St. Paul in II Corinthians writes, “…who also made us sufficient as ministers of the New Covenant, not of the letter but of the ‘Spirit’ for the letter kills, but the ‘Spirit’ gives life” (II Corinthians 3:6).
Let us all remember the New Covenant established for us, this Covenant Thursday, and each time we partake of the Eucharist commemorate the ‘Spirit’ that gave us life.
— His Grace Bishop Youssef
Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States