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Faith and Family Magazine

The technical meaning of “covenant” is easy
enough to learn: it means
an agreement or contract between two parties.

The heart of re-ligion
By Dermott J. Mullan

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 . . . .”

Unfortunately, the 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 lose.

Moreover, the 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 best!

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.

Similarly, I 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 successful.

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 today
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 . . .
I BIND unto myself today.
I BIND unto myself the power
Of the great love of the Cherubim . . .
The patriarchs’ prayers, the Prophets’ scrolls . . .
And purity of virgin souls . . .
I BIND unto myself today
The power of God to hold and lead,
His eye to watch, His might to stay . . .
The word of God to give me speech . . .
I BIND unto myself the name
The strong name of the Trinity . . .
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.

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 article in HPR.

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