The Early Church: Integration through Mystagogy (Part 1)
He felt as though he was actually on the road to Emmaus, listening to Jesus as He explained the Scriptures to His disciples and broke the bread in their presence. If he closed his eyes, the young man could picture the scene. He knew, though, that the voice he was hearing was that of his bishop, a holy man who, for him, really was the visible representative of the Lord Jesus. The bishop spoke slowly and with great care to the group of new Christians before him, a group dressed in white garments, a group that had been baptized two days before on Easter Vigil. The neophytes, as they were called, had also been anointed with the holy chrism and had participated in the Liturgy of the Eucharist for the first time. The young man was part of this group, and he was ecstatic. Becoming a Christian was the best thing he had ever done. It had not been easy. In fact, it had taken months and months of preparation, and his pagan family had been anything but supportive. But the young man had remained firm. He had heard about Jesus from some of his friends who had become Christian, and he believed that He was indeed the Son of God Who had come to save the world. The young man had approached the bishop and asked for instruction. He had learned the stories of Jesus and of the patriarchs and prophets of the Old Testament. He had learned the psalms and the Apostles’ Creed. Later he had been introduced to the Lord’s Prayer. He had participated in all the rites of the catechumenate and had assisted at the Mass up until the catechumens were dismissed after the Liturgy of the Word. He had been introduced to the sacraments that he was to receive at Easter Vigil, but he knew only enough to understand the basics about what would happen that holy night. Now he was eager to learn more. He was eager, now that he was actually a Christian, to delve into all the mysteries of his faith. He was eager for the mystagogy the bishop offered during the weeks after Easter. The young man focused his mind on what the bishop was saying The holy man was explaining how the events of the Old and New Testaments were intertwined and how they prefigured and illuminated the sacraments of initiation the neophytes had just experienced. He was teaching them how the flood, the exodus through the Red Sea, the story of Naaman, the healing of the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda, and even Jesus’ own baptism were types and images of the great sacrament of baptism that had made them sons and daughters of God. He was explaining to them the deep significance and hidden mysteries of the rites they had encountered, showing them what each rite meant and how it connected them intimately to the Blessed Trinity. The young man was a bit disappointed when the bishop came to the end of the day’s mystagogy. He wanted to know more! The bishop assured them he would continue the next day and explain to them all about the Eucharist. But now he wanted them to pray. The young man knelt down with the others, thanking the Lord for the mysteries of his faith, the wonders of the Scriptures, the treasures of the liturgy, and the mystagogy of his wise bishop. (28)
Our ancestors in the early Church had every reason to be thankful for the mystagogy that flourished in their day, a mystagogy that integrated Scripture and liturgy and plunged them deeply into the mysteries of their faith. We will, in the next few pages of our study, take time to look closely at the mystagogy of the early Church and its elements of liturgy, Scripture, and mystery. We will examine early Christian ideas about each of these elements and then look at some specific examples of the mystagogy our ancestors would have heard in their churches. We do this not so much as an occasion of nostalgia or to advocate a complete reversion to the past but rather to discover concepts and techniques that might help the modern Church regain a proper understanding of liturgy, Scripture, and mystery through a renewed mystagogy.
Early Christians loved the liturgy. The Mass, especially, was the center of their whole lives, their very existence. (29) They understood the Eucharistic liturgy as “a sacrament, a sacrifice, the new Passover, the re-presentation of the Paschal Mystery, the communion of God with man, the revelation of heavenly worship, and the source and summit of the Church’s life and unity.” (30) All the other sacraments were oriented towards this high point of worship. Baptism and Confirmation created Christians able to participate in the Eucharist. Penance allowed reentry to the Mass after serious sin. Anointing of the Sick (or Extreme Unction) included a Eucharistic viaticum that was “food for the journey” to eternal life with Jesus. Holy Orders created priests who could confect the Eucharist, and Matrimony helped the Church grow in numbers as couples raised children for the Kingdom of God. (31) Early Christians may not have articulated these ideas in quite this way, but certainly for them the Mass, and the other sacraments ordered to it, was the expression of their intimate relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For them, “[t]o go to Mass was to live in heaven already.” (32) To participate in the liturgy was to encounter God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The highest point of this encounter was, as we have just seen, the Eucharist, and early Christians had no doubts about the Real Presence of Christ under the visible signs of bread and wine. (33) Our ancestors in faith knew that the Eucharist was really “the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the sacramental meal where Christians consumed Jesus’ body and blood.” (34) Let us listen for a few moments to some of the early Church Fathers and hear what they have to say about the nature and necessity of the Eucharist. Ignatius of Antioch assures us that the Eucharist is really “the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, in His goodness, raised up again.” (35) Justin Martyr firmly agrees, maintaining that the Eucharist, “the food blessed by the prayer of His word…is the flesh and blood of Jesus Who was made flesh.” (36) Irenaeus adds, “…our way of thinking is attuned to the Eucharist, and the Eucharist confirms our way of thinking…For the bread, which is produced from the earth, is no longer common bread, once it has received the invocation of God; it is then the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly.” (37) Cyril of Jerusalem confirms the doctrine of the Real Presence once again: “So with full assurance let us partake of the Body and Blood of Christ…Consider, then, the Bread and Wine not as bare elements. They are according to the Lord’s declaration, the Body and Blood of Christ…from faith be fully assured without misgiving, that the Body and Blood of Christ have been given to you.” (38)
For early Christians, then, the liturgy, especially the Eucharist, was the summit of Christian life. “To be a Christian was to go to Mass” and, by extension, to celebrate the other sacraments that allowed one to participate most fully in Eucharistic liturgy. (39) This does not mean, however, that our early Catholic ancestors were so focused on the sacraments as to neglect another vital element of Christianity, namely, the Scriptures. In fact, the opposite is true. For the early Church, liturgy and Scripture were so closely intertwined as to be inseparable. (40) The liturgy was the true home of Sacred Scripture. (41) Here the written text became a “living word.” (42) Here Christians attained intimacy with the Word of God in the words of men. (43) They listened to it proclaimed. They understood that Christ was the One speaking to them as they heard those sacred words. (44) They paid close attention to the homilies of their bishops and priests, who opened up the Scriptures for them and taught them how to recognize Jesus Christ as the unifying principle and fulfillment of all Scripture, to see the Old Testament in the New and the New Testament in the Old (as a result of the unified divine plan, or economy, of salvation), to appreciate the liturgy as the current manifestation of the divine economy and as the “actualization” of the Scriptures, and to apply the sacred writings to their own lives and truly live, as opposed to merely attend, the liturgy. (45)
How did the bishops and priests, or as we call many of them today, the Fathers of the Church, accomplish this lofty goals? Through typology. We mentioned typology in our definition of mystagogy above, but let us take a moment to discuss it in a bit more depth. At its most simple level, typology is a method of Scriptural interpretation that, recognizing the unity of the whole of Scripture, and of God’s divine economy of salvation, studies the ways in which the Old Testament foreshadows or prefigures the New and the New Testament fulfills and reveals the Old. (46) Further, typology is essentially Christocentric; by helping us see the spiritual senses of Scripture (which are based on the literary-historical sense), it shows us how the past, the present, and the future are united by the saving life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which was foreshadowed in the past (allegory), is celebrated in the present (allegory), has become a lived morality for Christians (troplogy), and will come to complete fulfillment in the future, at the end of time (anagogy). (47) Patristics scholars John J. O’Keefe and R.R. Reno explain this point further. The Church Fathers, they maintain, practiced typology on three levels. First, they used it to discover prefigurations of Christ in the Old Testament, to show how “Christ recapitulates that to which the Old Testament bears witness,” and “to illuminate the identity of Jesus Christ.” Second, the Fathers employed typology to “establish the scriptural basis for the practices of the early Church.” Third, and finally, they used typology to explain the contemporary lives of Christians, to see their experiences as a continuation of the divine plan of salvation. (48) A brief example will help to clarify the typological method. As the Church Fathers examined the Passover experienced by the Israelites in Egypt, they noticed that the event was a “type” or prefiguration on several levels. First, the Passover lamb was a type of Jesus, the true Lamb Who was slain for the salvation of the world. The Fathers also recognized the Passover as a prefiguration of the Mass, which re-presents the sacrifice of the true Lamb. Further, all Christians are called to experience their own Passover from death to life as they struggle to slay their own sinful inclinations and live for Christ, the Lamb, Who took all their sins upon Himself. Finally, for Christians, the definitive Passover comes at the time of death when they pass over from their mortal life to their eternal life with the Blessed Trinity. (49) This is, of course, an abbreviated example; the Fathers added much greater detail to their analysis, but this brief illustration shows at least the essentials of the typology they used to interpret the Scriptures, and as we shall see, to practice mystagogy.
As we reflect on the early Christians’ love of liturgy and appreciation for the depths and richness of Sacred Scripture, we may also notice their great respect for mystery. Our ancestors understood that the invisible world was just as real, if not more so, than the visible world in which they lived. They knew that the visible signs in which they participated in the liturgy pointed to realities they could not see and could not fully understand. They realized that the Scriptures contained deeper meanings beyond the literal, historical events its words described; they could sense the interiority of the events and the presence of God working through His words and deeds to touch their lives. In other words, they were comfortable with mystery. They were content that some realities simply could not be grasped by human senses or human reason, but that incomprehensibility did not make those realities any less authentic; in fact it made them sacred.
Because of their deep respect for the invisible, the hidden, and the profound, the early Christians were inclined to protect their sacred mysteries from profane eyes and minds. Therefore, they practiced “the discipline of the secret.” In Matthew 7:6, Jesus instructed His disciples, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, or throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them underfoot, and turn and tear you to pieces.” (50) The early Christians understood this directive to mean that the mysteries of the Christian faith, particularly those surrounding the liturgy, especially the Eucharist, and the typological or spiritual interpretation of Scripture, must not be disclosed to unbelievers or even, fully, to catechumens. They were reserved for the eyes, the minds, and the hearts of baptized Christians alone. (51) What did this mean in practice? First, the unbaptized were not even allowed to be present at the Liturgy of the Eucharist; they were dismissed after the Liturgy of the Word. (52) Bishops and other teachers were careful not to give too much information to outsiders or even to those preparing for Baptism; they proclaimed the kerygma found in Scripture but reserved deeper interpretations and explanations of doctrine for their post-baptismal mystagogy. (53) Further, Christian writers usually did not record the actual words of the liturgical prayers and were quite circumspect in their descriptions of the sacramental rites. (54) Ordinary Christians, too, remained silent about what they did when they gathered for the liturgy, a silence that often lead to outrageous accusations of immorality and cannibalism from the pagan authorities. (55) Christians even used symbolism to communicate with one another; drawings of a fish, a dove, a cluster of grapes, a loaf of bread, or an anchor, for instance, served to remind Christians of their faith but appeared to be mere decorations to outsiders. (56) The discipline of the secret, then, guarded the mysteries of the faith from those who did not have the grace to understand them, protected them from those who might ridicule them, and kept them sacred and holy for the ones called to intimate participate in them. (57) Once again, let us listen for a few moments to some of the Church Fathers speak of the discipline of the secret. Basil the Great explains the lack of written instructions on the details of the sacramental rites; he maintains firmly, “The awesome dignity of the mysteries is best preserved by silence. What the uninitiated are not even allowed to look at was hardly likely to be publicly paraded about in written documents.” (58) Cyril instructs his listeners and readers, neophyte and long-time Christian alike, “If a catechumen asks you what the teachers have said, tell him nothing. For we deliver you a mystery and a hope of the life to come. Guard the mystery for Him Who gives the reward.” (59) Ambrose agrees and explains in On the Mysteries that Christians are to be like the enclosed garden or the sealed fountain in the Song of Songs and keep the mysteries safely inside their hearts. He says, “Whereby He [Christ], signifies that the mystery should remain sealed within thee…that it be not divulged to those for whom it is not meet, that it be not spread among the unbelieving by babbling loquacity.” (60)
28. Cf. Ambrose, On the Mysteries and the Treatise on the Sacraments, trans. T. Thompson (New York: Macmillan, 1919), The Online Library of Liberty, http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.phpoption=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=219&layout=html (accessed March 16, 2009); Mike Aquilina, The Fathers of the Church (Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor, 2006); Jean Daniélou, The Bible and the Liturgy (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008); Aquilina, Mass; Hahn and Aquilina; Mazza.
29. Aquilina, Mass, 17, 20-22, 33-36, 49; Hahn, Lamb’s Supper, 29-30; Daniélou, 17.
30. Aquilina, Mass, 17.
31. Vagaggini, 92-95.
32. Aquilina, Mass, 34.
33. Hahn, Lamb’s Supper, 28, 30.
34. Ibid., 28.
35. Aquilina, Mass, 38.
37. Ibid., 104.
38. Aquilina, Fathers, 163.
39. Hahn, Lamb’s Supper, 29.
40. Hahn, Letter, 34, 52.
41. Hahn, Lamb’s Supper, 47.
42. Hahn, Letter, 100.
43. Aquilina, Mass, 41; Vatican II Council, “Dei Verbum,” 758.
44. Patrick McGoldrick, “Liturgy: The Context of Patristic Exegesis,” in Scriptural Interpretation in the Fathers, eds. Thomas Finan and Vincent Twomey (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1995), 36.
45. Aquilina, Mass, 42; Hahn, Letter, 20, 93-95; Vagaggini, 3; Mazza, 7-8; McGoldrick, 32-36; John J. O’Keefe and R.R. Reno, Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2005), 25.
46. Hahn and Aquilina, 11; Mike Aquilina, Signs and Mysteries: Revealing Ancient Christians Symbols (Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor, 2006), 16-17; Hahn, Letter, 19.
47. Catechism, 32-33, 36; McGoldrick, 33; Mazza, 34, 38; O’Keefe and Reno, 69. Note: For a more detailed discussion of typology and the spiritual senses of Scripture (allegorical, tropological, and anagogical), see Catechism, 32-33, 36; Aquilina, Fathers, 29-31; Hahn, Letter, 16-25, 94-96; Aquilina, Mass, 41-42; Mazza, 7-8, 28-29, 34, 38.
48. O’Keefe and Reno, 73.
49. Cf. Ambrose; Daniélou, 162-176;
50. Matthew 7:6 NAB (New American Bible).
51. Hahn and Aquilina, 23-27; Aquilina, Mass, 43-45; Daniélou, 9.
52. Aquilina, Mass, 32, 43; Hahn and Aquilina, 24.
53. Hahn and Aquilina, 37; Hahn, Letter, 125.
54. Aquilina, Mass, 43-44, 189.
55. Aquilina, Mass, 136-140.
56. Cf. Aquilina, Signs.
57. Aquilina, Mass, 43-44; Hahn and Aquilina, 25.
58. Hahn and Aquilina, 38.
59. Aquilina, Mass, 221.