“Missing the Forest for the Trees”?—The Centrality of the Paschal Mystery
Some time ago I was invited to an evening in a parish and was asked to give some suggestions for the celebration of the Eucharist following the liturgical reforms of Vatican II. As an introductory quotation I chose the Office hymn for the feast of Corpus Christi, “Pange lingua,” by Thomas Aquinas. In the first stanza we read:
Sing, my tongue, the Saviour’s glory,
Of His flesh the mystery sing;
Of the blood all price exceeding,
Shed by our immortal King.1
Before I was able to begin my lecture an elderly woman vigorously raised her hand and asked me what this talk of mysteries was all about. The word “mystery” is mentioned frequently in the liturgy, and she wanted to know which mystery is actually being referred to in the celebration of the liturgy. During a moment of astonished silence I thought of my liturgy teacher, Klemens Richter, who in his lectures never ceased explaining the importance of understanding the word “mystery” in Christian worship. The question raised by the elderly woman touches a highly significant issue, and leads right to the center of our faith. Finally it is all about the hope for which we as baptized Christians must render an account (1 Pet 3:5), the “mysterium corporis gloriosi” mentioned in “Pange Lingua” which we celebrate in the liturgy. What does saying that we are celebrating a mystery in the liturgy mean? What is that mystery about? How is it celebrated?
The Liturgy as Remembrance of the Paschal Mystery
Reminiscere miserationum tuarum, Domine, et famulos tuos aeterna protectione sanctifica, pro quibus Christus, Filius tuus, per suum cruorem instituit paschale mysterium. Qui vivit et regnat in saecula saeculorum. Amen.2
Like a rousing thunderbolt this prayer introduces the liturgy of Christ’s suffering and dying on Good Friday. God, the Almighty, is asked to remember his deeds of salvation that he has worked for his people in the past. The most important deed, as expressed in this prayer, is the paschal mystery that his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, introduced by his suffering, his death, and his resurrection: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”3
The question of how the liturgy celebrates Christ’s mystery can be answered from this prayer alone. Two key phrases are particularly noteworthy:
- The liturgy is a memorial:
- The contents of this memorial celebration are expressed by the words “paschale mysterium”—”paschal mystery.”
To answer the questions posed above we must take a closer look at what is happening in the so-called anamnesis that comprises the first section of the quoted prayer.4 The liturgist Hans Bernhard Meyer explains anamnesis in the liturgical prayer as follows: “Anamnesis is the simultaneity of the celebration of God’s deeds of salvation as they have happened in the past and as they are promised in the future. This simultaneity is effected by the liturgical celebration itself, in which the celebrating participate and in which they encounter the personal foundation of the celebration which is the triune God and the glorified Lord.”5 Therefore anamnesis—the celebration of the memorial—does not imply that we ourselves remember something, but rather that through anamnesis, God’s deeds of salvation become present in the liturgical celebration. What is more—as Meyer points out—we are concurrent to these deeds.
Let me clarify this with an example: The anamnesis of God’s deeds of salvation is more than a pious memory. Think of the Jewish Passover. Even now, in Jewish families, the youngest child asks the housefather the essential question: How is this night different from all other nights? The housefather responds: Once we were slaves, now we are free—or, the children of freedom! The liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt is recounted as a present event. The anamnesis of this deed is not the report of something past but of God’s actions occurring here and now, even though the Israelites were delivered from the pharaoh three thousand years ago. Hans Bernhard Meyer would say that the tradition of the Passover meal is temporally concurrent with the exodus and participates in the very same freedom given by God’s liberating deeds. Based on this definition of anamnesis, it becomes possible to describe the presence of Christ’s sacrifice in the eucharistic celebration with the words of the prayer over the gifts on Holy Thursday:
Lord, make us worthy to celebrate these mysteries. Each time we offer this memorial sacrifice the work of our redemption is accomplished. We ask this in the name of Jesus, the Lord. Amen.6
This anamnesis/memorial is directed towards God the Father. Celebration of the memorial means confronting God with his own deeds of salvation. We do not do this because God is forgetful, but rather to “remind” God of his deeds since trusting in God’s mercy is our only chance for salvation. This mirrors the basic structure of Jewish-Christian prayer, which is exemplified in the following diagram:
Those who pray stand in God’s presence. They praise God here and now. Then they ponder God’s past deeds of salvation. They offer God thanksgiving for his actions in the past, eventually sending a prayer to God, trusting in God’s faithfulness and promises for the future. The opening prayer of Good Friday’s liturgy expresses this in a very condensed form: “Reminiscere miserationum tuarum, Domine …”
What is the Paschal Mystery?
In attempting to explain the term “paschal mystery” we come across a problem of translation. “Mystery,” as it is defined by the dictionary, is “something that is difficult or impossible to explain,” or the equally opaque “condition or quality of being secret.”7 Nowadays “mystery” evokes images of gothic novels, Harry Potter, and fantasy stories. Reiner Kaczynski remarks: “The word mystery brings us the indefinite and mysterious, unrecognizable and inexplicable, the unimaginable and even the sinister.”8 In the New Testament the Greek word muste–rion means something recognizable (in faith) and (theologically) intelligible. For example, Paul points out in the letter to the Romans (16:25-27):
Now to him who can strengthen you, according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery kept secret for long ages, but now manifested through the prophetic writings and, according to the command of the eternal God, made known to all nations to bring about the obedience of faith, to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ be glory forever and ever. Amen.
According to Paul “mystery” does not mean something that is and should stay hidden or secluded but something that will be revealed. This revelation occurs throughout all of salvation history. “Mystery” means God’s plan of salvation, both as a whole and in the individual phases of its realization. For us as Christians the key moments of God’s salvific deeds on behalf of his people are the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.9
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