The Flesh of the New Covenant

by Theodoric · February 11, 2018

If you’re a Catholic Christian who frequently engages in dialogue with non-Catholic, Protestant Christians, then you’ve likely heard the same objections repeated: Why do Catholics pray to Mary? Why do Catholics confess to a priest? Why do you need the Pope when you have the Bible? Of course, all of these questions have answers, many of which I will explore in this blog. However, communicating these answers is extremely difficult. The reality is that most non-Catholics are not truly open to hearing your explanation because their Catholic prejudice is deeply rooted and founded on misinformation provided by people they trust. Being able to explain why Catholics engage in these practices is necessary, but without their openness to the Truth, your reasoning is unlike to touch the hearts of others.

Almost every Protestant I’ve ever met has a deep and personal love for Jesus. Their love for Christ often has a sincerity and genuineness which surpasses that of most Catholics, especially those who don’t attend Mass frequently. Protestants truly love Jesus. Sadly, all Protestants lack one thing. No matter how deeply they love Jesus, they don’t fully comprehend how much God loves them and wishes to be united to them. What no Protestant fully understands, as well as far too many Catholics, is the infinite love which God wishes to express to us through covenant. It is only through covenant which God claims us as His people; it is only through covenant which we can fully give ourselves to Him.

Unlike many within Christianity, the Jews of the Old Testament did not believe that their faith in God was sufficient. Their belief (like ours) was always lacking, yet God stood by them in love. While the faith of Israel was inconsistent, the faithfulness of God was enduring. If we look at the old testament honestly, we see numerous examples of Israel’s infidelity and God’s fidelity. The Bible is explicit that the reason for God’s faithfulness to Israel was not the perfection of their belief in God, but God’s faithfulness  to Israel because Israel had entered into a covenant with Him. In entering into covenant with Israel, God claimed Israel as His own and promised to love them, for better and for worse:

“For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love upon you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples; but it is because the Lord loves you, and is keeping the oath which he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and requites to their face those who hate him, by destroying them; he will not be slack with him who hates him, he will requite him to his face. You shall therefore be careful to do the commandment, and the statutes, and the ordinances, which I command you this day. (Deuteronomy 7:6-11)

The book of Genesis reveals to us the moment in which the Old Testament covenant was established. Because of Abram’s faithfulness, God changed his name to Abraham (meaning father of man) and promised that he would become the father of a multitude of nations:

When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come forth from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. And I will give to you, and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.” (Genesis 17)

However, to enter into covenant God asked more of Abraham than just continued faithfulness, belief and trust. God required of Abraham the physical act of circumcision:

And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your descendants after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He that is eight days old among you shall be circumcised; every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house, or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he that is born in your house and he that is bought with your money, shall be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”(Genesis 17)

While it may be tempting to discard the notion that circumcision, or in fact any physical exchange, is necessary to enter into covenant, this principle continues to exist to this very day. Within the western legal tradition, a valid contract requires three elements: offer, acceptance and consideration. One person makes an offer, the other accepts and, finally, something of value (known as consideration) is exchanged between the parties. Without consideration an agreement is not binding. It is for this reason that can you negotiate an agreement and then reconsider without consequence. Telling a storekeeper that you will return to purchase an item soon doesn’t bind you to do so. Without an exchange of something of worth, there may be a meeting of minds, but no binding agreement. It is for this reason that contracts between family members often state that the land is exchanged for one dollar: without this exchange there is no contract. Therefore, God’s covenant was everlasting, but only so long as each person who sought to benefit from the covenant entered into the contract by an offering of flesh: “any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

Israel remained God’s people so long as they continually renewed the covenant of Abram-renamed-Abraham. Because Israel partook in the covenant, even when they wavered, they benefited from God’s promise that He would remain faithful. It was because of covenant alone that Israel could honestly proclaim that they belonged to God.

It is because of covenant alone that a Christian can honestly proclaim that they fully belong to God. While many Christians state that they are saved when they believe, this is not fully reflected in scripture. Yes, all those who are saved will have belief, but not all those who believe will be saved. It is not the writings of saints or of other faithful Christians which tell us this, but Jesus Himself:

“Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’ “Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. (Matthew 7:21-25)

Jesus tells us that calling Him ‘Lord’ is not sufficient. Even many who acknowledge Jesus as ‘Lord’, prophesy in Jesus’ name, cast out demons in Jesus’ name and do mighty works in His name will be told that Jesus never knew them. They possessed belief in Jesus, but Jesus tells us they will not have eternal life.

Yet, we also know that belief is essential. As John 6:47 states, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life.” While at first glance, there appears to be an incongruence in Jesus’ words surrounding belief, the passages are resolved easily when we look at what Jesus means when we He speaks of belief. ” To learn what constitutes redeeming faith, we must read this passage in context by continuing to read the verses that follow John 6:47:

I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh. (John 6:48-51)

A partial reading of the above is to dismiss portions of the passage and focus exclusively on the fact that Jesus gave His life for the world. This, of course, is true and essential but incomplete. An honest bible-believing Christian must come to terms with the reality that Jesus states that, “if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever”.  Reorganising the passage, its meaning is clear:  “I am the living bread which came down from heaven.” “I am the bread of life.” “[T]he bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” “[I]f any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever”.  We must eat of the flesh of Jesus to live forever. This is explicitly and unequivocally stated in John 6:54-56:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (John 6:54-56)

We can truly eat the Body of Jesus and drink His Blood because during the last supper Jesus established a new and everlasting covenant:

“Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:26-28)

And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after supper, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. (Luke 22:19-20)

Jesus died once and for all, just as God established his covenant only once, with Abraham. In both covenants the promise of the covenant was made in flesh and extended forward in time to all who would follow, to all who would partake in the covenant and accept the offer to be God’s people. For the Israelites, accepting God’s promise to Abraham required the physical act of circumcision and any male who would not circumcise the flesh of his foreskin cut himself off from his people and broke God’s covenant. Similarly, anyone who does not physically eat the Body and Blood of the new covenant cuts himself off from Jesus and rejects the new covenant. While this sounds harsh, it is not merely opinion but the words which the bible proclaims: “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” It is for this reason that Jesus is able to say that he does not know those who worked miracles in His name and called Him Lord. While they may believe Jesus is God, they do not abide in Jesus and Jesus does not abide in them because they do not eat his Body and drank His blood.

In Matthew 4, Jesus fasted in the desert for forty days and forty nights. As he was hungry, the devil tempted Jesus, saying,  “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:1-4) The devil desires for us to believe that the covenant of God is made with bread, a perishing symbol. Unlike the devil, Jesus tells us in John 6, “Do not labour for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life”. We have Jesus’ assurance that His Body is real food and His blood is real drink and that when we eat and drink of His Body and Blood, we enter into the new covenant. If we truly believe that Jesus is God, we must believe every word which proceeds from His mouth. If we truly believe that Jesus is God, we must believe Him when He holds bread in His hands and says, “This is my body”. If we truly believe that Jesus is God, we must believe Jesus when He says, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” The devil wants you to say that Jesus’ words are hard to hear (John 6:66) and seek bread. Jesus loves you so deeply that He desires to give you something infinitely beyond bread. Jesus wants you to accept His Body and Blood so He can claim you as His own in the new covenant.

The Eucharist, Our Greatest Gift

As Cardinal Burke observed, “the Body and Blood of Christ is a gift of God’s love to us. It is the greatest gift, a gift beyond our ability to describe …  A gift is freely given out of love and that is what God is doing for us every time we are able to participate in Mass and approach to receive Holy Communion.” Each time you receive the Eucharist, God gives you His Son. The Eucharist is the greatest gift not just of a particular day, but of you lifetime.

With such knowledge that Jesus is truly present in the the Eucharist, St. Justin Martyr directed early Christians to receive Our Lord with immense reverence and love:

“Approaching, therefore, come not with thy wrists extended, or thy fingers open; but make thy left hand as if a throne for thy right, which is about to receive the king. And having hollowed thy palm, receive the Body of Christ, saying after it, Amen. Give heed lest thou lose any of it; for what thou losest is a loss to thee as it were from one of thine own members. For tell me, if any one gave thee gold dust, wouldest thou not with all precaution keep it fast, being on thy guard against losing any of it, and suffering loss? How much more cautiously then wilt thou observe that not a crumb falls from thee, of what is more precious than gold and precious stones?”

St. Justin’s image of the hands of a communicant as a throne for the King finds modern parallel in the memoirs of Francis Xavier Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan. Persecuted for his loyalty to the Catholic Church, the Bishop spent more than 13 years of extreme sufferings in Communist prisons in Vietnam. During that time it was the Eucharist, reverently celebrated in the most horrendous of conditions, which sustained and strengthened him:

Five Loaves and Two Fish: Meditations on the Eucharist

“When I was arrested, I had to leave immediately with empty hands. The next day, I was permitted to write to my people in order to ask for the most necessary things: clothes, toothpaste…I wrote, ‘Please send me a little wine as medicine for my stomachache.’ The faithful understood right away.

They sent me a small bottle of wine for Mass with a label that read, ‘medicine for stomachaches.’ They also sent some hosts, which they hid in a flashlight for protection against the humidity. The police asked me, ‘You have stomachaches? Yes. Here’s some medicine for you.’

I will never be able to express my great joy! Every day, with three drops of wine and a drop of water in the palm of my hand, I would celebrate Mass. This was my altar, and this was my cathedral! It was true medicine for soul and body, ‘Medicine of immortality, remedy so as not to die but to have life always in Jesus’, as St. Ignatius of Antioch says. Each time I celebrate the Mass, I had the opportunity to extend my hands and nail myself to the cross with Jesus, to drink with him the bitter chalice. Each day in reciting the words of consecration, I confirmed with all my heart and soul a new pact, and eternal pact between Jesus and me through his blood mixed with mine. Those were the most beautiful Masses of my life!”

In the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, the Church states that sacred vessels “should be made from materials that are solid and that in the particular region are regarded as noble. The conference of bishops will be the judge in this matter. But preference is to be given to materials that do not break easily or become unusable.” (290) Through the Holy Eucharist, Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan  came to embody the sacred vessels of which he was deprived. In his weakness, Our Lord made him solid, noble and unbreakable. Despite his persecution, he was filled with life and love. This is the same grace that was offered to the early Church and is available to every one of us each time we attend Mass. Let us prepare ourselves to receive Jesus worthily and respectfully, becoming living tabernacles for Our Lord and King. It is through the Eucharist that you will find the strength to persevere.

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St. Justin, Martyr, “Ordo Romanus I”.

Francis Xavier Cardinal Thuan Van Nguyen: By His Own Accounts” in Vietnamese, compiled by Rev. Msgr. Tran Van Kha (California: Co So Hy Vong Publishers) at  p. 131.

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