What did Christ mean by those words, and why does the covenant require His blood?
By Father Randy Stice
When Jesus gave the chalice to his disciples at the Last Supper, he told them, “This chalice is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Corinthians 11:25). This raises several questions. Why does He refer to a covenant? What does He mean by the “new” covenant? And why does it require His blood? In this month’s column I want to answer these three questions.
First, what is a covenant? In the ancient Near East culture of the Old Testament, “covenants between human beings existed in the forms of treaties, agreements, contracts, marriages as well as friendships.” Unique to the Bible, however, was the revelation of “a covenant between divine and human partners.” 1 God’s covenants with individuals (e.g., Noah, Abraham) and with Israel were not agreements between equals “but a pure gift of God. By this gift of His love, God bridges every distance and truly makes us His ‘partners.’” 2
When God led Israel out of Egypt into the desert, he bound himself to his people with a covenant on Mount Sinai. “From the covenant of Sinai onwards, this people is ‘His own,’ and it is to be a ‘holy nation,’ because the name of God dwells in it.” 3 The Sinai covenant is recounted in Exodus chapters 19-24: God manifested His glory on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19), gave the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), and stipulated the requirements of the covenant (Exodus 21-23), concluding with the promise of his blessings. The ratification of the Mosaic covenant, described in Exodus 24, consisted of three actions: the reading of the covenant, a sacrifice that sealed the covenant, and a sacrificial banquet that completed the sacrifice. First, Moses recorded the words of the Lord (verse 4) and read the book of the covenant aloud to the people (verse 7). Then he built an altar, sacrificed young bulls “as communion offerings to the LORD” (verse 5), splashed the altar, a symbol of God, and the people with the blood, symbolically uniting God and His people by the blood of the same victim, and told them, “This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you according to all these words” (verse 8). Blood was an essential element because “the life of the flesh is in the blood…it is the blood as life that makes atonement” (Leviticus 17:11). Finally, Moses ascended Mount Sinai with Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and 70 elders, where “they ate and drank” (verse 11).
According to St. John Paul II, the three elements of the Mosaic covenant prefigured the definitive covenant in Christ’s blood. “By analogy with the Covenant of Mount Sinai, sealed by sacrifice and the sprinkling of blood, the actions and words of Jesus at the Last Supper laid the foundations of the new messianic community, the People of the New Covenant.” 4 On the night of his betrayal, Jesus gathered His apostles in the Upper Room, washed their feet, and gave them the “law” of the new covenant: to love one another as he loved them. He celebrated the Last Supper with them, instituting the Eucharist. He gave the apostles His body under the appearance of bread. He then gave them the chalice of His blood with these words: “This chalice, which is poured out for you, is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). The essential elements from Exodus 24 have now been definitively fulfilled by Christ: the covenant is proclaimed, sealed with the blood of the pure sacrificial victim, and consummated by a sacred banquet. This covenant is the definitive gift of God’s love that “bridges every distance.”
This leads to our second question: What does Jesus mean by a new covenant? This refers to the new covenant God promised through the prophet Jeremiah. “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah….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). The New Testament explains that this prophecy was fulfilled by the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ (Hebrews 10:12-18). And finally our third question: Why the reference to blood? The sprinkling of blood that accompanied the Mosaic covenant prefigured Jesus pouring out His blood of “the new and eternal covenant,” the words of consecration spoken by the priest over the chalice. This is the blood that really and truly unites us to God.
The three elements that we identified in the Mosaic covenant and saw fulfilled at the Last Supper form the basic structure of the Mass: the covenant is announced in the Liturgy of the Word, the sacrifice of the covenant is renewed in the Eucharistic Prayer, and the covenant reaches its consummation in eucharistic communion. “When we receive Him in Holy Communion,” says Pope Francis, “we renew our covenant with Him and allow Him to carry out ever more fully His work of transforming our lives.” 5 It is important to note that these distinct parts are integral and inseparable. “The celebration of Mass in which the word is heard and the Eucharist is offered and received forms but one single act of divine worship.” 6
Every time the Mass is celebrated, the new covenant that Christ instituted at the Last Supper is renewed and we are changed. “The renewal in the Eucharist of the covenant between the Lord and man, draws the faithful into the compelling love of Christ and sets them on fire.” 7
1 Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Bible and Morality: Biblical Roots of Christian Conduct, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2008, no. 17
2 Pope Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini, 22
3 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2810
4 John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 21
5 Pope Francis, Gaudete et Exsultate, 2018, no. 157
6 Lectionary for Mass, 10
7 Sacrosanctum Concilium, 10
Father Randy Stice is director of the diocesan Office of Worship and Liturgy. He can be reached at email@example.com.