On His last night before His crucifixion, Jesus gathered His disciples together in an upper room to celebrate the Passover meal with Him one more time. This time, however, was different from previous Passovers. This time, Jesus gave to His disciples the gift of a new covenant, together with the gifts of His own body and blood for them to eat and drink.
A covenant is a promise. In the context of Scripture, it is a promise that God makes to be a merciful, loving, forgiving, and saving God. In giving His body and blood to eat and drink, Jesus is saying, “Through these means, I’m giving to you My very self as God, as a forgiving and loving God.” In the meal that Christ instituted on that first Maundy Thursday, He gave Himself to His disciples for their forgiveness and salvation.
If there is a new covenant though, there must have been a first covenant. If there is a new promise, there must have been some promise made previously. The covenant that God made with Abraham in Genesis 15 was that earlier promise. It was a promise to bless all nations through Abraham and his offspring. The fulfillment of this promise, however, must have seemed impossible to Abraham, who was far too old to have children.
God entered into the darkness of Abraham’s doubt, giving physicality to His promise. God instructed Abraham to cut animals in half and place them in his camp. At night, while Abraham was entranced, God came down. He passed through Abraham’s camp and through the halves of the animals that were broken open.
While this seems to us a bizarre way to make a promise, it was one that Abraham would have recognized. In the ancient Near East, when two parties entered into a deal together (maybe a marriage contract, a peace treaty, or a business pact), they would cut open animals and walk between them. It was as if they were saying to one another, “I’m so serious about keeping my promise to you that if I break it, you can break my body open like these animals here.”
So when God passes through these animals that Abraham has cut in half, He is essentially saying, “Abraham, you may not see how I can keep this promise right now, but I am going to do so. Abraham, I am so intent on keeping this promise, that I would sooner break myself open than break My promise to you.”
As Christians, we believe what St. Paul says in Galatians 3: Jesus is the promised offspring of Abraham. We believe that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise to bless the whole world. By His coming to earth, by his death and resurrection, Jesus fulfilled that promise.
In fulfilling this promise, on Maundy Thursday, Jesus makes a new promise, too. He promises: “This is My body; this is My blood, for the forgiveness of your sins.” In giving this new promise, Jesus fulfills, in vivid detail, the original promise that God made to Abraham.
God promised to Abraham that He would rather break Himself open than break His promise to bless all nations through Abraham. Now, on Maundy Thursday, God does both. Jesus Christ, true God, fulfills His promise to Abraham, but He also breaks Himself open in the process: “This is my body, broken for you. This is my blood, shed for you.” No beast is slaughtered in this promise. Instead, Jesus Himself will die to obtain its fulfillment. It is not the blood of an animal, but the very lifeblood of God Himself that will be shed in the giving of this promise.
Christ gave the gift of this promise to His whole Church. Every time God’s people are gathered together, it is only by the broken body of Jesus that we can do so. Every time we claim the promise that God has forgiven our sins, it is only on account of the shed blood of Jesus. This is how the God of Abraham has become our God, too. This is how God has fulfilled His promise to Abraham and His promise to us: by breaking open His own body and shedding His own blood. This is the gift of a promise fulfilled for us.
In these times of COVID-19, many of us Christians are unable to share this gift together because of restrictions on gathering together, restrictions that are necessary for the lives of our weakest neighbors. This situation evokes in us believers a longing to celebrate the new covenant in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Especially on the day on which Jesus instituted the Sacrament, we long to be fed by our Lord’s body and blood. We long to gather around His altar and commune with Him and one another. We long for the fellowship that comes as brothers and sisters who live in the shadow of the crucified.
The present circumstances, however, prevent us from gathering. In the meantime, we are fed by the Word that also brings Christ and all of the benefits of His cross and empty tomb to us. At the same time, we urgently pray that God would end this pandemic so we can return to His altar, to the regular celebration of the Sacrament.
When God’s promise came to Abraham, the circumstances were impossible. Abraham and his wife Sarah were far too old to bear children, yet God promised them that through a son, all peoples of the earth would be blessed. God kept that promise through the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, through whom all humanity has been blessed. Now in our impossible situation, we pray to the one who broke open Himself for us. We pray that He would break through our current darkness, heal us, and gather us together again around the table of His new covenant.