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Holy Communion as a Covenant Renewal Ceremony

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Posted by Isaac Pain, 15 Jan 2019

Isaac Pain shares his newfound recognition of the Anglican communion service as a covenant renewal ceremony.

On Epiphany Sunday this year I had, well, an epiphany. During the week leading up to our Sunday service I had been reading Meredith Kline’s The Structure of Biblical Authority. Kline is well known for his insights into how ANE covenant treaties between suzerains and vassals sheds light not only on our reading of Deuteronomy, but in fact upon the whole of the Scriptures. And so it was with covenantal concepts in the forefront of my mind that I stood up to lead our Holy Communion service on Epiphany Sunday. After praying the Prayer of Preparation I began to read the summary of the law, and then it hit me. I knew what we were doing. I suddenly found myself in the middle of a covenant renewal ceremony. I did a kind of mental jaw drop as suddenly rabbits darted in various directions pursuing all the implications of what had just dawned on me. No doubt this is not news to many readers, but for me it was a revelation.

Kline argues that we see covenant renewal ceremonies in a number of places in the Old Testament. Of course in Exodus 24 we see the ‘cutting’ of the covenant by Israel, especially as in v.7 where we read: “Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, “We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey.” But as Kline notes, in the ANE international treaties which the Mosaic covenant resembles there would often be obligations upon the vassal states to periodically reaffirm the covenant through a public reading of the text of the covenant document. And we see this very idea of a reaffirmation or renewal of the covenant written into Israel’s own covenant document, Deuteronomy. In Deuteronomy 31:9-11 we read: “So Moses wrote down this law and give it to the Levitical priests, who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD, and to all the elders of Israel. Then Moses commanded them: “At the end of every seven years, in the year for cancelling debts, during the Festival of Tabernacles, when all Israel comes to appear before the LORD your God at the place he will choose, you shall read this law before them in their hearing.”

In addition to this seven yearly requirement we also find descriptions of occasions where the covenant is reaffirmed after significant events. So, for example, in Nehemiah 8:1-3 after the wall has been rebuilt we read: “all the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded for Israel. So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and woman and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he face the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, woman and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.”

And so there we were, gathered on Sunday hearing the summary of the law being read once again. And I saw what Cranmer was doing. It’s often commented that there seems to be a dearth of covenantal language and concepts in the 39 Articles, the BCP and the Ordinal, but here in the principle service of worship we have a structure entirely shaped by just that. This declaration of the law frames the entire service as covenant. After this we, the covenant community, confess our sin, but not only as creatures confessing our sin to our Creator, but as covenant members confessing our unfaithfulness to our covenant Lord. (Thus finding here a hamartiology shaped by Hosea just as much as by Romans 1.18-32.) Forgiveness and reconciliation are announced, and we hear the covenant preached again through the bible and sermon. As we come to receive Holy Communion we see how it is that covenant violators are able to receive forgiveness as the covenant curses that we alone deserve fall on Christ alone, and in that same moment we, like Moses and the seventy elders, share in the meal of the covenant. And if this is what we’re doing every Sunday, then I for one can’t wait for next Sunday!

After this epiphany The Lord’ Service: The Grace of Covenant Renewal Worship by Jeffrey J. Meyers was recommended to me, and so I pass on the recommendation to the inquisitive reader.

Rev'd Isaac Pain is curate of St Andrew's Church, Burgess Hill

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