In our Catholic faith, we hear the word “covenant” quite a bit — Old Testament covenants with Noah, Abraham, and Moses; Jesus as the New Covenant; the Eucharist as a sign of the New Covenant; and the sacramental bond of holy matrimony as a covenant — to name a few. Covenant is a significant term for our Faith. Hence, we must have a proper understanding of what a covenant is, along with its implications, to understand our obligations within it better.

It isn’t uncommon for “covenant” to be understood as a biblical word for “contract,” but that understanding falls short. A contract is a written or verbal agreement that, generally, obliges an exchange of goods or services between two parties. A covenant, on the other hand, is an exchange of persons. There are two types of covenants: one between two human parties and the other between God and a human party. Once established, the covenant effectively makes the parties family, and they form kinship relationships where they were otherwise unrelated.

Traditionally, there is a ceremony to signify the establishment of the covenant, where each party swears an oath to uphold the pre-determined conditions and obligations of the covenantal relationship. For example, during Noah’s liturgical worship of God in thanksgiving for his life, God promises he will never again destroy the earth by flood, and in exchange for Abraham’s obedience, God promises him that he would have as many descendants as there were stars in the sky. In a marriage ceremony, the husband and wife exchange vows promising lifelong fidelity to one another.

After the ritual is celebrated and the oaths are taken, a sign is given to symbolize the establishment of the familial bonds that have been formed and the promises the two parties have made to one another. God puts a rainbow in the sky as a sign of his promise to Noah and the outward sign of the Abrahamic covenant was circumcision, which signifies how God’s people are set apart. Rings are exchanged between a bride and groom to symbolize their eternal bond and the never-ending nature of marriage.

Further differentiating between contracts and covenants is the implication of the obligations of both parties to uphold their parts of the oath. Contracts are typically civil agreements, and while a breach of contract may have negative consequences, the effects are usually material. A covenant, on the other hand, is elevated to a supernatural level and creates a kinship bond. The failure of one of the parties to uphold its promises seriously damages the supernatural familial bond, which transcends the merely material.

Let’s use the Sacrament of Baptism to illustrate how this works. During the liturgical ritual of Baptism, a person is initiated into God’s family as his adopted child. The pouring of water over the head three times symbolizes the death and burial of the person’s former self and their subsequent resurrection into a new life with Christ. The white clothing symbolizes purity of faith, and a cross is traced on the forehead to signify that the person now belongs to God. A candle is lit from the Easter candle and given to the newly baptized person to symbolize how he or she will be the light of Christ to the world. The obligations of the baptized person are to provide fidelity to God, uphold his commandments, and live out the vocation of priest, prophet, and king by offering sacrifice, proclaiming and living the gospel, and serving God and neighbor. In return, God promises the baptized person entry into the Kingdom of Heaven as the eternal reward for upholding the covenantal oath. He also promises to help accomplish that by giving the Holy Spirit as a guide and providing sanctifying grace through the sacraments. When we sin, we are not honoring our covenantal oath, and our familial bond with God is either damaged (venial sin) or destroyed (mortal sin). To repair and restore the relationship, we must express contrition, make reparation for our sins, and amend our lives. God then responds by offering us superabundant mercy and forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, where his sanctifying grace restores our relationship with him.

As we have already covered, God has established covenants throughout human history. Each covenant builds on the previous ones, leading humanity into a deeper and more intimate union with God. Even the covenants of marriage and holy orders are designed to draw the parties into a life of holiness ordered toward God. All covenants, then, are a preparation for or participation in the New Covenant, which finds its completion in Jesus Christ.

During the Last Supper, Jesus establishes the New Covenant at a ritual dinner, saying, “…this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matt 26:28-29). For his part of the covenantal oath, he sacrificed his own life for the sake of our salvation and the forgiveness of our sins. In response, we vow to pick up our cross and follow him. The sign of this New Covenant with Jesus is the Eucharist, which strengthens and sustains us in living out our covenantal bond with him.

We were all made for love and relationship, so covenants are essential to our Catholic identity. It is good for us to rest in the security of knowing that we can be intimately and irrevocably bonded to the loving Father and enjoy the same bonds with our brothers and sisters in Christ as a unified covenantal family. Even when we break our covenant oath through sin, and experience the wounds and brokenness of those breaches, God will never break his oath to us. Thus, healing and growth can be found in a covenantal relationship that could never be found in a mere contract. This is only possible through the grace we receive through God’s divine faithfulness to us.

This week, consider the various covenants to which you belong. What oaths have you taken through the sacraments and your vocations? What promises have you made to God and others, and what has been promised to you in return? Perhaps it would be helpful to review the rites, rituals, and words from some of those covenants. Examine where you have fallen short in your obligations to the familial bond. Ask God to soften your heart so you can turn toward the intimate and familial bonds and better live out your oaths. Remember to thank God for his never-ending faithfulness, which makes restoration possible.

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