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Covenant Thursday


            On Covenant Thursday, just before the Great Friday of the Holy Pascha, the Coptic Orthodox Church commemorates the day when the Lord Jesus Christ established the New Testament covenant with His disciples and celebrated with them the Passover meal, which was to become the first Eucharist, the core and essence of our Christian worship.


         Covenant Thursday is the day we honor this inaugural Eucharist meal. However, the significance of this day is not confined to this single moment in history; it is futuristic, extending forward as the covenant that we commit to God each time we participate in the Eucharist.

St. Paul recounts, “Take, eat: this is My Body, which is broken for you: do this in remembrance of Me. In the same manner, He also took the cup, after supper, saying, 'This cup is the New Covenant in My Blood: do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.' For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:23-25). By partaking in the Holy Communion, we are upholding the New Testament covenant with God.


        What precisely is a covenant? The term 'covenant' primarily signifies 'a cutting' or dividing animals in two and passing between the parts in ratifying a promise (covenant). The Old Covenant was ratified with the blood of animals such as bulls and goats. In the Holy Old Testament Book of Genesis 15:9, God made a covenant with Abram, saying, “Bring Me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” Abram was then directed to cut them in two, each one down the middle except for the birds. God also made a covenant with Noah after the great flood.


        The Old Covenants can be considered “covenants of works,” that is, God promises to save and bless men on the condition of obedience. For instance, doom was horrifically pronounced on all families but one in Judah and Jerusalem because they did not obey God. In the Holy Old Testament Book of Jeremiah (35:18-19), we read, “And Jeremiah said to the House of Rechabites, ‘Thus says the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, because you have obeyed the commandment of Jonadab your father, kept all his precepts, and done according to all that he has commanded you, therefore thus says the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, ‘Jonadab the son of Rechab shall not lack a man to stand before Me…forever.’” Typically, there were witnesses, whether God, man, or men, to the covenant. There might also have been a sign of the covenant, such as a gift, a pillar, or a stack of stones. For example, a covenant was made between Abraham and Abimelech at Beersheba, and the gift Abraham gave unto Abimelech was seven ewe lambs, “You will take these seven ewe lambs from my hand, that they may be my witness that I have dug this well” (Genesis 21:30).


        The witnesses to the Lord’s New Covenant on Thursday were His holy disciples. In instituting the New Covenant, the Lord Jesus Christ seeks to save each one of us by all means. The New Covenant is firmly sealed by the Blood of the Lord Jesus Christ upon the Holy Cross. His Blood on the Cross is therefore the witness or gift of the New Covenant. This New Testament Covenant, sealed by the Blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, is considered a “covenant of grace.” A “covenant of grace” is sealed with God’s promise to save men (New Covenant).


       The Lord Jesus Christ explicitly instructed His disciples, and thereby the faithful, to partake of the New Covenant in remembrance of Him. Originally, the Eucharist was not intended to replace the Passover Sacrifice of Judaism but to bring it to perfection by offering it to all people everywhere. St. Mark the Apostle (14:24) tells us, “And He said to them, ‘This is My Blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many’” (Mark 14:24). Many Biblical scholars interpret 'many' in this context as signifying 'for all,' 'all mankind,' and 'innumerable people.'


         Initially, the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ worshipped at the Temple as faithful Jews. St. Paul writes, “So continuing daily with one accord in the Temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart” (Acts 2:46). This verse from the Holy Scripture indicates that they offered their Eucharist service at home. Disputes would continually arise, eventually causing a split between the Christian disciples and the Jewish people of the day, leading Christians to cease their worship in the Temple. St. Clement of Alexandria advises, “If it appears that conflicting dogmas draw some away, these must be taken out of the way by explaining the truth by the connection of the covenants” (c.195).

The Lord Jesus Christ’s covenant heals the inner man, unifying both his heart and mind. It allows for perfect forgiveness if we willingly comply with its teachings. The special rights given unto the chosen peoples of Israel were now extended to all Christians through the New Covenant. In the Holy New Testament Book of Hebrews, chapter 8, we learn that the Lord Jesus Christ’s covenant is superior, based on the promise of better things to come.

The Old Covenant could not address the issues of sin and death; it was delivered and fearfully complied with, having drastic consequences for noncompliance and often granting imperfect forgiveness.


        In the New Testament, the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ are regarded as members of the New Covenant, a covenant designed to become an integral part of man’s nature, one that would be less likely to be broken. St. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians, “…who also made us sufficient as ministers of the New Covenant, not of the letter but of the ‘Spirit,’ for the letter kills, but the ‘Spirit’ gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6).

Let us all remember the New Covenant established for us, this Covenant Thursday, and each time we partake of the Eucharist, commemorate the ‘Spirit’ that gave us life.

— His Grace Bishop Youssef
Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

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