Scripture often looks both backward and forward. That’s because Scripture is simultaneously traditional and prophetic. So, for instance, the entire idea of the Messiah is one which constantly calls us to remember the past as well as look forward to the fact that the Lord is doing something new.
The “looking to the past” part is summed up in Psalm 132:11:
The LORD swore to David a sure oath
from which he will not turn back:
“One of the sons of your body
I will set on your throne.
This refers to a promise made in the middle of the epic story of King David and recounted in 2 Samuel 7. In that chronicle, we are told that David, having established his kingdom and his capital city of Jerusalem, decides to make good on something Israel has been looking forward to ever since the Israelites crossed the Red Sea. What is that something?
“Thou hast led in thy steadfast love the people whom thou hast redeemed, thou hast guided them by thy strength to thy holy abode. The peoples have heard, they tremble; pangs have seized on the inhabitants of Philistia. Now are the chiefs of Edom dismayed; the leaders of Moab, trembling seizes them; all the inhabitants of Canaan have melted away. Terror and dread fall upon them; because of the greatness of thy arm, they are as still as a stone, till thy people, O LORD, pass by, till the people pass by whom thou hast purchased. Thou wilt bring them in, and plant them on thy own mountain, the place, O LORD, which thou hast made for thy abode, the sanctuary, O LORD, which thy hands have established. The LORD will reign for ever and ever.” (Exodus 15:13-18)
This passage is from the song of celebration sung after the destruction of the Egyptian army at the Red Sea. It is hugely significant because it makes clear that Israel’s escape from Egypt has a goal. That goal is not “to wander” but to get someplace. And that place is none other than “thy own mountain, the place, O LORD, which thou hast made for thy abode, the sanctuary”. That means that the Tabernacle, in which the Ark of the Covenant was kept, the place where the worship of Israel occurred during the period of the desert wanderings, was always recognized by Israel to be a temporary arrangement. The aim was a permanent sanctuary. That’s why Moses tells Israel:
But when you go over the Jordan, and live in the land which the LORD your God gives you to inherit, and when he gives you rest from all your enemies round about, so that you live in safety, then to the place which the LORD your God will choose, to make his name dwell there, thither you shall bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the offering that you present, and all your votive offerings which you vow to the LORD. (Deuteronomy 12:10-11).
Not accidently then, 2 Samuel 7 tells us that “when the king dwelt in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies round about, 2 the king said to Nathan the prophet, “See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells in a tent.” (2 Samuel 7:1-2). David is, in others, aware of the promises made through Moses and desires to build God a “house” or temple as the “abode” or sanctuary.
In return, God replies to David by telling him that “the LORD will make you a house”. It’s a pun (yes, even God likes puns). For in this sense “house” means “dynasty”. God declares to David:
When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son. When he commits iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men; but I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever.’” (2 Samuel 7:12-16)
That’s what the psalmist is talking about as he looks back to the oath God swore to David. But with a promise like this, it’s not possible to only look back. The nature of the promise forces Israel to look forward too—in expectation of the mysterious “son of David” who is yet to come. That’s because catastrophe falls the nation in the national crucifixion called the Babylonian Captivity. Unthinkably, the political fortunes of the House of David fall on very hard times about five centuries after David. The kingdom of Judah winds up conquered by a succession of foreign dominations, the monarchy fails, and by the time of Jesus the king of the Jews is not a Davidic King, but a foreigner named “Herod”. Yet the Jews do not abandon hope in the promise made to David. Instead, taught by the prophets, they now look forward to the Advent of some great and ultimate Son of David, whom the prophets call by such titles as the Anointed One, the Servant of the Lord, and the Branch. Why “Branch”? Isaiah explains the image:
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. (Isaiah 11:1-3).
The House of David is punished for its sins and the sins of the people. But as God promised long ago concerning the Son of David, “I will be his father, and he shall be my son. When he commits iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men; but I will not take my steadfast love from him (2 Samuel 7:14-15). And so, taught to hope by the prophets, the Jews embrace the truth that, though the house of David has been cut down like tree because of the sins of Israel, nonetheless the story is not over. A future Son of David is coming.
That background of God’s solemn oath to King David is the backdrop to the astonishing moment when Gabriel tells a young girl living in a little town called Nazareth:
Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:31-33).
It has been famously complained that Jesus promised us the Kingdom of Heaven, but instead all we got was this lousy Church. This is to be stone blind to the revelation. For the Church is, precisely, the earthly participation in the reign of Jesus Christ as the Son of David, King of Kings for ever and ever. Is it made up of sinners, dopes, factory rejects, and losers? Of course! (If it comes to that, so was the kingdom of David.) But it is not the subjects who make the kingdom a kingdom. It is the King. And because it is the Holy Spirit of Jesus who is the constitutes the Church and not you and me, we can truly say that the Church is holy, despite the fact that all its earthly members are sinners. As Scott Hahn puts it, “Where King is, there is the Kingdom. And where the Eucharist is, there is the King.”
The Eucharist, like Scripture, also looks backward and forward. It looks back, of course, to such things as the miracle of the loaves and fishes and the wedding at Cana, which in turn look back to things like the manna in the wilderness and the multiplication of food by the prophets. Supremely, the Eucharist looks back to the Last Supper. But this looking back to the Last Supper is not a mere remembering or reminiscence. It is a “making present” of the whole drama of the Passion—as though we ourselves are standing at the cross and the empty tomb with Mary Magdalene. It is not a mere audio-visual aid, but a sacrament.
Sacramentum is the Latin word for “oath”. Sacraments are God’s oath to us, as well as our oath to God. Every time you receive the sacrament you are renewing your entry into the covenant oath God swore to David that one of the sons of his body would be set on David’s throne forever. That oath is ultimately and completely fulfilled in Jesus, the Son of David, who offers us his body and blood, not just his Spirit, in the Blessed Sacrament, the Sacrament of Sacraments and Oath of Oaths—the new and everlasting covenant. Because Jesus shares our body and blood, he is able to redeem us not just “spiritually” but completely, right down to our toes and make us kings and queens in the kingdom he now reigns over forever. Because of this, we await, not just the redemption of our spirits or souls, but the redemption of our bodies when we shall share in his risen life. The oath or sacramentum sworn to David is renewed at every celebration of the Blessed Sacrament.