Peter Espeut: New Covenant, new faith
"If you believe what you like in the Gospels, and reject what you don't like, it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself."
- St Augustine (354-430)
This weekend begins the holiest season of the year for the world's 2.2 billion Christians, when the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, is remembered. This Paschal Season (pascho in Greek = I suffer) is inextricably linked to the Jewish Passover, which remembers the deliverance of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt circa 1300 BC.
It was the blood of the Passover lamb painted on the doorposts and lintels of Hebrew homes that signalled the Angel of Death to pass over those homes, and every year since then, Jewish families have eaten the Passover meal as a memorial of their salvation from slavery and death in Egypt. As Jesus ate his Last Supper with his disciples, he told them that from now on, when they ate this meal, they would do it as HIS memorial.
John's Gospel account tells us that, as Jesus died on the cross, the lambs for the Passover meal that year were being slaughtered in the temple [it was preparation day (19:21)]. The night before, when Jesus took the cup (of thanksgiving = Eucharist), he said: "Take this, all of you, and drink of it, for this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the NEW AND EVERLASTING COVENANT, which shall be shed for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins. Do this as MY memorial." (emphasis mine)
And so Jesus gave new meaning to a 1,300-year-old celebration: The Jews were saved from slavery and death in Egypt by the blood of the Passover lamb, but Christians would be saved from slavery to sin, and from death, by the blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God; and that is what is to be forever remembered by His followers.
SIGNED IN BLOOD
Sometime after the Hebrew people were liberated from slavery in Egypt, they signed a Covenant with God in the blood of lambs and bullocks (see Exodus 24). Half the blood was poured on the altar (God signed the Covenant) and the other half was sprinkled on the people (their signing).
But God's people broke that covenant, and God promised a new one (see Jeremiah 31:31). At the Last Supper, the New Covenant was inaugurated, but this time in the blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God. Instead of the Covenant blood going on the outside, the blood of the New Covenant is taken inside the body, by drinking.
Instead of an exclusive Covenant between God and one small ethnic group, everyone has the potential of being included; everyone can sign the New Covenant by sharing in the cup at a Eucharistic memorial.
Christians saved from death? The fulcrum of the Christian faith is that after three days, Jesus rose from the dead, "the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep" (1 Corinthians 15:20). Those who take up their cross and follow Him will have their Calvary, but they, too, will have their resurrection.
Because Jesus' resurrection and the day of Pentecost took place on the day after the Sabbath, the first day of the week became known as The Lord's Day.
As the early Christian Church grew in its understanding of what having a New Covenant meant, the marks of the old were gradually replaced. The requirement of circumcision was removed in the Council of Jerusalem, despite the protests of the Judaisers who wanted Christians to be required to keep the law of Moses (see Acts 15).
The strict Jewish dietary laws were removed quite early on (see Mark 7:19, Acts 10:11-16, 1 Cor 10:25), allowing the eating of pork or anything by Christians. And early Christians held that the Lord's Day was the Christian day of worship (see Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 16:2, Colossians 2:16-17, Revelations 1:10); writing in the Second Century, Justin the Martyr wrote: "And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place ..." for Eucharistic worship.
The New Covenant led to the establishment of a new faith, a new religion - Christianity. And its most important season is the Paschal Season, which some people call Easter. And its date changes from year to year because it is linked to the celebration of the Jewish Passover, which is determined by the lunar cycle.
True Christianity is under attack from without (by secularists and atheists), and from modern-day Judaisers who wish Christians to return to the Law of Moses long ago replaced by the Law of Christ. True Christians - children of the New Covenant - should joyfully and confidently share in the Paschal mysteries this holy season firm in the faith of their fathers.
- The Rev Peter Espeut is a Roman Catholic deacon. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.