POPE BENEDICT XVI’s Apostolic Exhortation after the XII Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Word of God (Oct 5-26, 2008) was published on Sept 30, 2010.
Entitled Verbum Domini [VD] (The Word of the Lord), it gives a theology of the Word of God and goes into the relevance and importance of the Word for the Church’s life and ministry and for her mission to the world as well.
At its meeting in February 2011, the Regional Biblical Commission (RBC) decided to dedicate the annual Bible Sunday message to this document. Because of its richness, the RBC would spread its coverage of the document over the next few years.
So for its Bible Sunday Message last year the RBC highlighted the primacy of God’s word to man in different forms culminating in Jesus Christ, the Word of God. That Word invites all men and women to covenant with God.
This year’s message continues the reflection by highlighting the response of men and women to God’s call to covenantal life with Him.The Covenant with God
“In this vision every man and woman appears as someone to whom the Word speaks, challenges, and calls to enter this dialogue of love through a free response. Each of us is thus enabled by God to hear and respond to His Word.
“We were created in the word and we live in the word; we cannot understand ourselves unless we are open to this dialogue. The Word of God discloses the filial and relational nature of human existence. We are indeed called by grace to be conformed to Christ, the Son of the Father, and, in Him, to be transformed.” (VD 22)
Covenant as relationship
At the heart of God revealing Himself is His deep desire that all men and women live in relationship with Him and with one another. This is the heart of God’s word. This is the heart of God’s action.
Right from the stories of Creation and Paradise in Gen 1-3, the Word of God has revealed that God, who lovingly created the world and entrusted it to men and women, wants all of them to live in Joy – a joy that they will experience not because they are filled with all sorts of material benefits but because of their relationship of faithfulness and obedience to Him, and because of their concern and care for one another.
God’s plan was that men and women experience and express this joy in their prayer, worship, and life lived in family, community and society.
God’s Word and action all through the ages is most beautifully portrayed in the Covenants of the Old and New Testaments. The entire Bible is the story of Covenant. In and through the Covenants God reveals this deep desire that all men and women live in harmony with Him, with one another, and with nature (the environment).The Sinaitic Covenant:
On Mount Sinai God entered into Covenantal relationship with the people of Israel (Ex 19:1 – 20:21). He proposed that He be their God and that they be His people. They agreed.
He gave them the Ten Words to guide them in their relationship with Him and with one another. They accepted His Word. That was the fundamental religious experience of Israel. The people became a religion – i.e. they became bonded with God and with one another and with creation.Unfolding of the covenant in the Bible
Within this fundamental religious experience – the Sinaitic Covenant – Israel viewed its entire history as right from the time of creation and especially from the time of Abraham.The Covenant with Adam:
When God created Adam and Eve He entered into covenant with them and invited them to live in faithful obedience to Him. They were to enjoy the entire creation and be masters and stewards of it to make it grow and develop for the glory of God (Gen 1:28-30).
When Adam and Eve broke that relationship and committed sin, God promised them one born of woman who would crush the head of the devil and all wickedness. And so Israel awaited the Promised One – the Messiah – the saviour (Gen 3:15).The Covenant with Noah:
As the world turned more and more sinful, the people of Israel recognised in the Great Flood not only that wickedness and sinfulness lead to punishment, disaster and destruction, but also that in such a horrible situation God is still loving and merciful and true to His Word and promise to save.
The Covenant with Noah and the earth (Gen 6:18; 9:9-17) was for Israel a sign of God’s saving word and action. The rainbow was God’s commitment to look after the earth and not to destroy it.The Covenant with Abraham:
The people of Israel saw this firm desire of God take shape in the call of Abraham and the promises He made to him (Gen 12:1-3) and renewed with his son (Isaac) and grandson (Jacob).
With Abraham started the recorded history of the people of Israel and their covenantal relationship with God. The Covenant God made with Abraham (Gen 15 and 17) became the basis of God’s faithful expression of love and mercy for Israel and the whole world. God would always remember this covenant with Abraham.
The people of Israel gradually discovered that in the unfolding of their history, God’s word and actions were an ongoing fulfilment of His covenant with Abraham. They were descendents of Abraham and so they realised that all the promises God made to Abraham were going to be fulfilled in them and in their ongoing history.
When the children of Jacob fell into oppression and slavery in Egypt (Ex 1), God remembered His covenant with Abraham. Through His servant Moses, God worked great signs and portents in Egypt (Ex 7:1 – 13:16) and liberated the people from their slavery in the marvel of the Exodus (Ex 13:17 – 14:31).
God led the people through the desert into the Promised land of Canaan – the land God swore to Abraham He would give him and his descendents (Jos 3:1 – 6:21; cf Gen 12:7).Covenantal Life in the Land:
When the people entered the Promised Land of Canaan, the Sinaitic Covenant was to be their way of life in the land (Jos 24).
Those of Israel’s historians, who were guided by the Book of Deuteronomy, viewed the successive stages of Israel’s history from within the perspective of the Sinaitic Covenant. Victories in war were won when the people were faithful to the Covenantal way of life, and losses were suffered when they were not.The Davidic Covenant:
When Israel became a Kingdom (1 Sam 8-12), the role of the King was not only to defend the people in time of war and to provide for their material well-being but also to rule the country in the spirit and way of God’s Covenant with the nation.
David was the king par excellence in the whole history of Israelite Monarchy. God made a very important Covenant with David (2 Sam 7:11-17). He promised David that his throne would last forever. The Messiah would come from the House of David.
The people remembered this Davidic Covenant and looked forward to that successor of David who would rule forever.The Prophets and the Covenant:
But most of the other Kings in Israel were not faithful to the Covenant. Through the years of the Kingdom there was a lot of immorality and injustice.
In this situation God sent the Prophets to the people of Israel. The Prophets were individuals deeply rooted in the Covenant and they kept on pointing the people to the Covenant, urging them to return to the Lord their Covenantal God.
They warned them that if they did not give up their immoral and unjust ways the whole country would be destroyed.
The people did not heed the voice of the prophets. They kept on defying God and violating His sacred Covenant with them.
The Northern Kingdom of Israel suffered defeat at the hands of the Assyrians in 721 BC, and the Southern Kingdom of Judah was taken into Exile by the Babylonians in 587 BC.
The Word of God makes it clear that when people do not live in harmony with God and with one another they bring disaster upon themselves.
Promise of a New Covenant: But God never forgot His Covenant with His people. Through Jeremiah He let them know that in days to come He would make a new Covenant with the House of Israel and the people of Judah (Jer 31:31-33), not a covenant written on stone tablets but on their hearts. He would remove their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh.Jesus the New Covenant
That promise of Jeremiah was fulfilled by Jesus. St Paul tells us that when the appointed time came God sent His Son born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons (Gal 4:4).
Jesus sealed the new Covenant with His blood on the cross. At the Last Supper, when Jesus instituted the Eucharist, he took bread and wine and said, “This is my body which is given for you. This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Lk 22:19-20; see also Mt 26:28; Mk 14:24; Hb 12:24).
Our Eucharistic celebration today is the celebration of this great new covenant Jesus has gifted us through his paschal mystery (suffering, death, resurrection and ascension).
Jesus brought the Covenantal Law to fulfilment in the new commandment He gave His disciples at the Last Supper. He told them to love one another as He loves them (Jn 15:12, 17). By this love they have for one another they would reconstitute that harmony God intended from the very beginning (Gen 1-2).
In that love they would build the new heaven and the new earth where righteousness would once again dwell among people and be their way of life (2 Pt 3:13; Rev 21). This love of Jesus’ disciples would transform and renew the whole universe.Covenant, Communion
The spirit of Covenant understandably still directs the life of the Church today, and this is particularly so in the Eucharist.
The Second Vatican Council, reflecting on the nature of the Church, describes the Church as the light of the nations. What light does the Church have but Jesus himself, the Light of the world?
It is in the light of Jesus that the Church recognises itself as “Communio” (Communion) – a very powerful way of describing Covenant. The Trinitarian life must be and become more and more our way of life today.
Blessed John Paul II stressed – and Pope Benedict XVl has reiterated it – that for this to happen we need to have and develop a “spirituality of communion”, which is essentially living the biblical experience of Covenant.
The Word of God that comes to us through the Bible and through the teaching of the Church challenges us to be that kind of Church: a people of deep communion, living out, in our everyday life, actions, and relationships, the spirituality of communion. We are and always must be a Eucharistic People. nFor reflection and discussion:
1. What do the Biblical Covenants mean to you? How do you think this meaning will help you read the Bible fruitfully?
2. Through our Eucharistic celebration and reception of Holy Communion how can we grow deeper everyday in the spirituality of communion – in our marriage, family life and life of our neighbourhood Christian community and society?
3. How can we contribute towards the building of the “new heavens and the new earth”, i.e. transform our world in the spirit of Jesus?