The technical meaning of
“covenant” is easy
enough to learn: it means
an agreement or
contract between two parties.
The heart of
By Dermott J.
At every Mass that I
have attended since the 1960s, when the vernacular was first
introduced, I have heard the English word “covenant” used during the
Consecration. For a long time, the word “covenant” meant essentially
nothing to me. It was not a word that was in common usage when I was
growing up in the land of St. Patrick. As a result, when the time
for the Consecration would come around at Mass, the word “covenant”
would have no effect on my thinking or my prayer. The word would
simply pass me by.
But St. Patrick must
have been praying for me. One day, a transformation occurred when I
attended Mass in a Church where a different vernacular was being
used. Since that day, the word “covenant” has become so charged with
meaning that it is now a highlight of my prayer time at Mass and
elsewhere. And the new meaning of “covenant” is one that, as I
discovered recently, appealed greatly to St. Patrick himself.
To see how the
transformation occurred, it is helpful to start with Latin before we
talk about the vernacular.
The word “religion” is
derived from a combination of two Latin components, “re” and
“ligio”. The word “ligio” means to bind together. From “ligio”, we
obtain the English word “ligament,” the fibrous tissue that binds
bones together or holds organs in place. Anyone who has suffered a
sprained ankle knows what it means to tear the ligaments that bind
the bones of the lower leg to the bones of the foot. And an athlete
who hurts the ligaments in his or her knee badly enough may hear the
dreaded words: “You may never compete again.” If the ligaments are
torn seriously enough, re-constructive surgery may be the only
option for repair.
The prefix “re” means
to do something again. So the word “Re-ligion” means “binding
together again”. This suggests that there used to be an original
binding of something or somebody, but for whatever reason, the
original binding came undone, or was torn. As a result, it became
necessary to do the binding once more.
In the Garden of Eden,
there was no need for “re-ligion.” Our first parents, created in a
state of grace, were “bound” so closely to God that he would come
and visit with them in the Garden “at the breezy time of the day”
(Gen. 3: 8). The binding of God and man was perfect in those days.
There was no need to “re-bind” anything, and so the very concept of
“religion” was meaningless.
But then sin entered
into the world, and things begin to tear. The original binding came
apart, and God banished our first parents from the Garden of Eden.
If man was ever to be re-bound to God, serious repair work of a
spiritual nature was going to be required. Over the space of many
centuries, God worked step by step to re-establish the original
binding of man to himself. He did this by establishing a series of
ever-widening agreements (“covenants”) with a selected group of
people whom he wanted to re-bind more closely to himself. With these
agreements, “re-ligion” came into existence.
Since religion exists
to this very day, the process of “re-binding” is presumably still
going on. The question is: where does the “re-binding” actually take
place? I have learned that it happens par excellence in the
Sacrifice of the Mass.
To see why this is so,
we recall that the central action of the Mass occurs at the
Consecration, when the priest speaks certain words that change bread
and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. Some of the words of
Consecration of the wine are especially noteworthy: when the Mass is
celebrated in English, the words are translated as: “. . . the new
and everlasting covenant . . . .”
term “covenant” is not a common word in the vocabulary of
English-speaking peoples. To be sure, the technical meaning of the
word is easy enough to learn: it means an agreement or contract
between two parties. One party agrees (or contracts) to do
something, and the other party in turn offers an agreed-upon
response. But because of the uncommonness of the word, when the
priest says it during the Consecration at Mass, I used to let the
word go by without paying any particular attention to it.
And yet that word
contains within itself the essence of “re-ligion.”
To appreciate this, it
helped me to consider the words of Consecration from a different
vantage point. In order to gain more insight into the Eucharist, and
to overcome the vagueness associated with the term “covenant” in the
English language, I have found it useful to step outside the limits
of the English-speaking world.
A few years ago, it
happened that I visited the city of Zurich in Switzerland. Now, this
seems an unlikely spot to come to a greater awareness of the
Eucharist: after all, it was in Zurich that the Catholic belief in
the Real Presence of Christ in Eucharist first came under mortal
attack in the 1500s. The principal figure in that attack was
Huldreich Zwingli, a Swiss priest who was an early leader in the
Protestant Reformation. In 1523, he convinced the city magistrates
to impose Protestantism on Zurich. As a result, the Mass was
replaced by what Zwingli called the Lord’s Supper. The doctrine of
the Real Presence was repudiated: the Lord’s Supper in Zurich was
regarded as simply a means of giving thanks to God for graces that
had already been given through other channels (e.g. the gospel). The
shadow of Zwingli still hangs over Zurich: when I inquired at my
hotel about the times of Masses, I was given a brochure with the
opening words “Unlikely as it may seem, there ARE some Catholics in
Zurich.” Not a very propitious opening (said I to myself) for my
visit to the city!
But God’s ways are not
man’s ways. God had prepared for me a Eucharistic treat in Zurich
unlike anything I had experienced elsewhere.
I found a Church where
the Mass was celebrated in German, and during the Consecration, the
phrase “new and eternal Covenant” emerged in a way that was entirely
new to me. The words the priest used were “neuen und ewigen Bundes.”
The first three words are not surprising: they are literal
translations of the English words “new and eternal.” But the word
for Covenant caught my attention: the word “Bundes” was a word that
I had long ago come across in a very different context. It appears
in the German name for what we used to call West Germany: the
natives of that country referred to their homeland as the “Bundes
Republik.” And when I used to collect postage stamps as a boy, I
used to see the words “Bundes Post” on West German stamps.
In these contexts, the
term “Bundes” is translated into English with the word “Federal,”
exactly as we use that term in the USA to describe the large
amalgamation of the smaller units (the states).
Here was the first new
insight into the term “Covenant”: the German-speaking Catholics in
Zurich were in effect telling me that they consider the Mass as
equivalent to entering into Federation with God. As an American
citizen, this image resonated with me.
To be sure, when the
American Federation was being put together originally in the 1780s,
not everyone was delighted with the prospect at first. The smaller
states, such as Rhode Island, were fearful that by joining the
federation, they might be swallowed up by their larger neighbors,
and lose their identity. Therefore, when I, as an American, consider
entering into the Federation with God that Mass offers, it is hardly
surprising that this concern about Federation surfaces: won’t I be
swallowed up and lose my individuality? Should I not hold back and
save myself from becoming merely a very small fish in a huge ocean?
Remarkably, Jesus himself addressed this issue: “Whoever would save
his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will
save it” (Luke 9:24). Jesus assures me that there is far more to be
gained from Federation with God than I will ever
Federation does not consist solely of me and God: on the contrary,
the Federation involves many people and God. I am not alone in the
Federation that is the Church. I have brothers and sisters all over
the world, some of them living in Zurich!
If this was all that
German-speaking Catholics taught me about Covenant, it would have
been well worth the trip to Zurich. But there was more.
The word “Bundes” is
the genitive case of the word “Bund,” from which the English words
“bound” and “bind” originate. I was flabbergasted to hear this at
Mass: here was the very concept of “binding” (“ligio”) appearing
literally in the words of Consecration! This told me that the
purpose of bringing the Body and Blood down onto the altar at Mass
is precisely to establish a “binding” between Christ and his people.
And not merely His people in the abstract: but I myself personally
was being invited by these words of Consecration to enter into a
binding relationship with Christ. Here was “re-ligion” at its
It’s all very well to
talk about the ideas that are contained in a word. But are there any
practical consequences of these ideas? Does it make any difference
in my everyday life if I decide to take advantage of the “Bundes”
(covenant) and allow myself to enter into “binding” with Christ? Two
consequences come to mind, one having to do with strength, and the
other having to do with life.
First, as regards
strength. Consider an arrowhead. On its own, it is a light and
flimsy thing that is unlikely to inflict much damage: but if someone
“binds” it to a shaft of wood, it becomes potent because the
arrowhead now shares the weight and strength of the shaft. Or
consider the mast of a sailing boat: suppose that the top part of
the mast breaks off in a storm, and brings down the spars that
support the sails. What is to be done? The sails can no longer
operate as they should. On its own, the broken top-mast is useless.
But if someone lashes (i.e. “binds”) it to the main part of the mast
(which still remains in its proper place), then the top-mast shares
once more in the strength of the main mast. The sails can then
operate once more. That is, by “binding” a small piece to a large
piece, the small piece can rely on the strength of the large piece.
personally am a very flimsy piece of creation on my own. But if I
allow myself to enter into “binding” with Christ, I can share in His
strength. Thus, the binding at Mass gives me strength and enables me
to do things I would never be able to achieve on my own. St. Paul
was aware of this aspect of covenant: “I can do all things in him
who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13).
Second, as regards
life. Gardeners use a process of grafting in order to create a
single new plant out of two pieces of separate plants: the new plant
combines features of both of the original pieces. One of the pieces
(the scion) is either a bud or a branch or a cutting from a stem.
The other piece (the root-stock) provides a root system to nourish
the grafted plant. In the course of time, scion and root-stock unite
as new cells grow. While the new cells are forming, it is essential
that scion and root-stock must remain firmly in place: to achieve
this, the gardener wraps (i.e. “binds”) the graft joints with some
material such as tape or cloth. As long as the two pieces remain
bound tightly together, food and water flow from the root-stock into
the scion and help to give rise to new life. Flowers and fruits of a
new color or shape eventually appear if the graft has been
Similarly, at Mass,
when I allow myself to become bound to Christ in the “new and
eternal binding,” it is as if I have been grafted into an old
root-stock (Rom. 11:17), and new life begins to flow into me from
Christ. And if I allow the graft to “take”, new spiritual fruits may
one day appear in my life as Christ’s life flows through me. St.
Paul was also aware of this aspect of covenant: “It is no longer I
who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).
In summary, it
is at Mass, and specifically at the Consecration, that I am
permitted to become once more bound up personally with Christ, and
also bound up in federation with my brothers and sisters in the
Church. This is “re-ligion” in its essence.
So why do I think that
St Patrick may have had a part to play in obtaining me the grace of
insight into “covenant” as “binding”? Because the idea of “binding”
oneself to God was one that appealed to St Patrick! In his famous
prayer “St Patrick’s Breastplate”, the part that is best known is
the section containing the words “Christ be with me, Christ within
me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, etc.” But these familiar
words are actually only a small part of a much longer prayer. In the
earlier sections of the prayer, the saint actually “binds” himself
to a number of aspects of God. In the translation of C. F.
Alexander, the Breastplate reads in part as follows (emphasis added)
I BIND unto myself
The strong name of the Trinity . . .
I BIND this day
to me for ever
By power of faith, Christ’s incarnation . .
His death on the cross for my salvation . . .
unto myself today.
I BIND unto myself the power
great love of the Cherubim . . .
The patriarchs’ prayers, the
Prophets’ scrolls . . .
And purity of virgin souls . . .
BIND unto myself today
The power of God to hold and
His eye to watch, His might to stay . . .
of God to give me speech . . .
I BIND unto myself the
The strong name of the Trinity . . .
Praise to the
Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the
Clearly, St. Patrick
wanted to enter into the process of re-binding himself to God in an
intimate way. “Re-ligion” was not a hollow word to St. Patrick: it
was at the heart of his prayer life. Because the idea of “binding”
oneself to God was one that appealed to St. Patrick! In his famous
prayer “St. Patrick Breastplate,” the part that is best known is the
section containing the words “Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me, etc.” But these familiar words
are actually only a small part of a longer prayer. In the earlier
sections of the prayer, the saint actually “binds” himself to a
number of aspects of God.
Dr. Dermott J.
Mullan is an astrophysics professor at the University of
Delaware. Born and raised in Northern Ireland, he first came to
the USA to study fro his Ph. D. He met his wife at the Newman
Center at the University of Maryland. They now have ten
children, with ages ranging from 12 to 30. This is his first