In today's Psalm, we hear the word “covenant” twice as God proclaims through the Psalmist that He has made a firm covenant with His servant David. In the First Reading, we actually witness the establishment of the covenant when God promises David that He will establish a house, or dynasty, for him that will endure forever. We also catch a glimpse of a new covenant to be established in the future through David's heir, and in the Gospel we are invited to contemplate the beginning of this new covenant as Mary says yes to the incarnation of Jesus Christ, Heir of David and Son of God.
What is a covenant anyway? Dr. Scott Hahn defines a covenant as a sacred family bond created by swearing an oath and involving a sacred exchange of persons. In other words, when God makes a covenant with His people, He is making them part of His family. He is giving Himself to them in an intimate way by swearing an oath, and His people are giving themselves to Him in an intimate way by swearing an oath. Covenants create family relationships.
Covenants are not merely contracts or agreements between two parties. They are much more powerful. Dr. Hahn identifies seven differences between covenants and contracts that help us better understand what a covenant is and is not.
1. Determination – Covenants are determined by God before they are made while the terms of contracts are determined through mutual negotiations between humans.
2. Initiation – Covenants are initiated by oaths sworn in God’s name while contracts are initiated by promises made in the names of those signing the contract.
3. Administration – God administers covenants while human parties administer contracts.
4. Application – Covenants apply to a person's entire life and very self while contracts apply to a more limited scope of time or responsibility.
5. Obligation – Covenants require 100% commitment on both sides. They unconditional and irrevocable while contracts are conditional and require only partial commitment on both sides.
6. Duration – Covenants are permanent while contracts are temporary.
7. Motivation – Covenants are created for the exchange of persons in self-giving love while contracts are created for the exchange of property for profit.
God made several covenants with His people throughout salvation history, each of which expanded the family of God and was marked by a special sign to help people remember the covenant. For a more detailed explanation of these covenants, please read Dr. Hahn's book A Father Who Keeps His Promises.
1. God made a covenant with Adam that created a covenantal marriage and was marked by the sign of the Sabbath.
2. God made a covenant with Noah that expanded the family of God into a household and was marked by the sign of a rainbow.
3. God made a covenant with Abraham that expanded the family of God into a tribe and was marked by the sign of circumcision.
4. God made a covenant with Moses that expanded the family of God into a nation and was marked by the signs of Passover, the Tabernacle, and the Ark of the Covenant.
5. God made a covenant with David that expanded the family of God into a national kingdom and was marked by the sign of the house (dynasty) of David.
6. God made the New Covenant through His Son Jesus Christ that expanded the family of God into the international royal priesthood of the Catholic Church and is marked by the sign of the sacraments. This New Covenant fulfills and elevates all the previous covenants, which served as preparation for the coming of Jesus Christ and the establishment of the New Covenant.
Take some time throughout this final week of Advent to ponder 1. how God has made all of history holy through His covenants; 2. how He has entered into an intimate relationship with all of us; and 3. how He has made us His family.