For early Christians, then, there was a time and a place for the mysteries of the faith, the riches of liturgy, the depths of Scripture to be revealed and explained (at least as much as a human being could ever elucidate them). There was a time and a place for mystagogy, which, as we have seen, was specially designed to integrate liturgy, Scripture, and mystery and to guide Christians into the depths of the Catholic faith. The time was the days and weeks after Baptism. The place was in the Church, generally at the feet of the bishop. It was here and it was then that the neophytes, and all other Christians along with them, finally entered into the fullness of the mysteries, finally learned the deep meanings of the sacramental rites in which they had participated for the first time at the Easter Vigil, finally understood the typology that revealed the unity of the whole divine economy, finally realized how all of these elements blended together to guide them into a life of intimacy with the Blessed Trinity.
We will now look briefly at four examples of early Christian mystagogy, noting especially how this very special teaching offered Christians, both neophytes and long-time Church members, an integrated view of their liturgical, Scriptural, and mysterious faith. We will begin with the mystagogy modeled by the Scriptures themselves, particularly in the Letter to the Hebrews and the Book of Revelation, books that “provide Christianity’s first and foundational mystagogy.” (61) Hebrews has been described as “an extended medication on the liturgy of Israel and the liturgy of the church, the liturgy of the heaven and the liturgy on earth.” (62) It constantly alludes to Old Testament prefigurations of Christ and His sacrifice, accomplished in time and continued in the liturgy. (63) Jesus, for instance, is declared to be a “high priest according to the order of Melchizedek,” a high priest who constantly intercedes for us before the throne of God. (64) Here the text is clearly presenting the Old Testament type Melchizedek (the mysterious priest-king of Salem who met the victorious Abraham and offered a sacrifice of bread and wine in Genesis 14:18), the Person and mission of Christ, and the Eucharistic liturgy (in which Jesus in our high priest) as inseparably united. Later in Hebrews, in chapter 12, readers glimpse the “awesome communion of heaven and earth” and are told that “…you have approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and countless angels in festal gathering, and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, and God the judge of all, and the spirits of the just made perfect, and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and the sprinkled blood that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel.” (65) Where does this happen? Where do we approach the mysterious Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem? Where is the blood poured out for us, blood that is more eloquent than its prefiguration in the blood of Abel? In the Mass. Again, we have encountered a mystagogical text, a teaching that invites us to recognize the Old Testament Mount Zion (the Old Testament Jerusalem) as a type; to discover the type’s fulfillment in the New Testament Jerusalem, the Church; to raise our minds to the heavenly Jerusalem we enter into in the liturgy; and to intimately experience the mysteries of our faith.
We see a similar mystagogy in the Book of Revelation, a mysterious book filled with Old Testament allusions, which gives us a glimpse into the liturgy of heaven that is also the liturgy of the earth. In The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth, Dr. Scott Hahn offers a detailed investigation of the liturgical character of Revelation, observing that “the golden thread of the liturgy is what holds together the apocalyptic pearls of John’s vision” and cataloging the liturgical elements present in the book (such as the altar, the Gloria, the “Holy, Holy, Holy,” incense, chalices, the Sign of the Cross, vestments, etc.). (66) Indeed, as Dr. Hahn notes elsewhere, the Book of Revelation is a “veritable icon of the liturgy.” (67) It draws readers into a contemplation of their own liturgical experiences, inviting them to see themselves as a part of the liturgy of Heaven even as they remain on earth. The Book of Revelation, as we have said, is also filled with references to Old Testament types that foreshadow both New Testament events and the Church’s liturgy. Dr. Hahn points out many of these, including Sodom, Egypt, Jericho, and Babylon (which are types of the old, earthly Jerusalem destroyed in 70 A.D.); the Lamb standing as though slain (which refers to Jesus but also calls to mind the first Passover and the Eucharist); and the Temple (which calls to mind the earthly Temple now replaced with the heavenly Temple made manifest on the earth by the Catholic Church). (68) Once more, Scripture, liturgy, and mystery unite within the inspired Word of God to guide readers’ minds to a deeper and richer comprehension of their faith. We could cite many more examples from both the Book of Revelation and the Letter to the Hebrews that illustrate their mystagogical character, but these are sufficient to show that mystagogy began in the Scriptures themselves as the New Testament writers, inspired by the Holy Spirit, sought to reveal the intimate integration between Scripture, liturgy, and mystery.
The Fathers of the Church picked up where Scripture left off and continued to offer a mystagogy that demonstrated the intrinsic unity of Scripture, liturgy, and mystery in the Christian faith. We will quote from the post-baptismal teachings of two Church Fathers, Ambrose and Cyril, to illustrate the mystagogy of the early Church. (69) Once again, we will offer only brief examples and quotations here. Interested readers can find longer excerpts and full texts of the Fathers’ mystagogy by referring to the endnotes.
We began this section on the early Church with a narrative that very well could describe the situation of a neophyte in the diocese of Milan between 374-397. At that time, the bishop of Milan was Ambrose, and his mystagogical teaching stands, even today, as one of the finest examples of the Fathers’ post-baptismal instruction. His sermons have been gathered into two works De Mysteriis and De Sacramentis. (70) We will examine a selection from De Mysteriis that offers a prime example of Ambrose’s knack for tying together liturgy, Scripture, and mystery through mystagogy. The third chapter of this work discusses the Old Testament types that foreshadowed both Christ’s life and mission and the sacramental rites of baptism. Paragraph 14 reads as follows:
The font of Marah was most bitter; Moses cast wood into it, and it was made sweet. For water without the proclamation of the Lord’s cross serves no purpose of future salvation; but when it has been consecrated by the mystery of the saving cross, then it is fitted for the use of the spiritual laver and the cup of salvation. As, therefore, Moses, that is, the prophet, cast wood into that font, so also the priest casts the proclamation of the Lord’s cross into this font, and the water becomes sweet unto grace. (71)
Here Ambrose is proposing to his hearers, neophytes and probably other Christians who came to listen to his teachings, that the Old Testament foreshadows the New. The wood that Moses cast into the bitter water at Marah prefigures the cross of Jesus Christ, which brings sweet salvation to those who believe. Further, the entire Old Testament incident prefigures the sacramental rite of baptism. The bitter water of Marah is a type of the plain, unconsecrated water that is brought into the baptistery before the rite begins. It becomes consecrated and able to convey salvation only after the “wood” has been thrown into it; the wood here refers to the “mystery of the saving cross,” shorthand for the death and Resurrection of Jesus that brought life to the world. When the priest “throws in the wood,” or proclaims the consecratory words, which he is able to pronounce only because Jesus Christ died and rose again, the plain water becomes sweet, or consecrated, and ready to receive the catechumens seeking baptism in its depths. We may notice especially, for the purposes of our discussion, the integration of liturgy, Scripture, and mystery in this little passage from Ambrose’s mystagogy. We see references to the Old and New Testaments. We hear how Ambrose applies them to the liturgy through typology. We even notice that he uses the word mystery to indicate that the deepest realities of the sacrament are visible not to our senses but only to our eyes of faith. We could draw many more examples from Ambrose, but let us move on to look at one other Church Father who provides us with further illustrations of early mystagogical teaching, namely, Cyril of Jerusalem.
Cyril was a contemporary of Ambrose who preached his mystagogy in the diocese of Jerusalem. He focuses especially on explaining the “mystical realism” of the sacraments to his listeners and readers. In other words, he wants to show how “spiritual realities pervad[e] earthly matter and material things [are] radically transformed by the touch of heaven.” (72) To properly expound this idea, Cyril, like Ambrose, refers constantly to the Scriptures, demonstrating how the Old Testament foretells the New and how both of the Testaments together prefigure the sacramental rites, which, although encased in mystery, point to realities just as genuine as the visible signs perceptible to the senses. Let us look for a moment at a selection from Cyril’s fourth mystagogical lecture. (73) Cyril begins by explaining that Jesus’ words of consecration really transform the elements of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. He acknowledges that this is a mystery, but he firmly maintains its realism. How can this be so? Cyril tells us by enumerating several prefigurations of the Eucharist from both the Old and New Testaments. He first refers to the wedding at Cana where Jesus turned water into wine. “Is it incredible, then, that He should have turned wine into blood?” Cyril asks. He worked a wonder at an earthly marriage. “Shall He not rather be acknowledged to have given the fruit of His Body and Blood to the children of the bridal chamber?” Cyril implies here that the Eucharistic liturgy may be perceived as the consummation of a marriage between Christ and the Church in which Christ gives His Bride His very Body. Cana, then, becomes a type of the Eucharistic communion. He goes on to point out several excerpts from the Old Testament that, he believes, refer to the Eucharist. He perceives the “bread of the presence” in Exodus as a prefiguration of the Eucharistic bread of the New Covenant. He quotes several “Eucharistic” Psalms, including Psalm 23. “When man says to God, ‘You have prepared before me a table,’” Cyril observes, “what else does he mean but the mystical and spiritual table that God has prepared for us…,” that is, the table of the Eucharist. He notices also that Ecclesiastes 9:7-8 instructs people to “Go, eat your bread with enjoyment” and “drink your wine with a merry heart,” and interprets this passage as foreshadowing the spiritual bread and wine we receive in the Eucharist with great joy. Cyril concludes by emphasizing the mystery of the Eucharist. “You have learned these things, so be fully assured. What seems to be bread is not bread, though it tastes like bread, but the body of Christ. And what seems to be wine is not wine, though it tastes like wine, but the blood of Christ….Strengthen your heart, then, by partaking of this bread as spiritual.” In other words, accept the mystery that was hinted at in the Old Testament, revealed in the New Testament, and celebrated with great joy in the liturgy. (74)
We have come a long way in our study of mystagogy. We have seen how the early Church, following Jesus on the road to Emmaus, loved the liturgy, with its Eucharistic highpoint, identified the depths and riches of the Scriptures, recognized and treasured the mysteries of the faith, and integrated all of these elements through mystagogical teaching. Unfortunately, this integration, this mystagogy, did not last. The Church, at least portions of it, did not remain with Jesus on the road to Emmaus. It began to stray.
61. Mazza, 9; Hahn, Letter, 147.
62. Hahn, Letter, 45.
64. Hebrews 5:10 NAB (New American Bible).
65. Aquilina, Mass, 59; Hebrews 12:22-24 NAB (New American Bible).
66. Hahn, Lamb’s Supper, 118-120.
67. Hahn, Letter, 46.
68. Hahn, Lamb’s Supper, 95, 75-76, 68-69.
69. Ambrose and Cyril were by no means the only Church Fathers to offer mystagogical teachings. John Chrysostom, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, and many others were intent upon teaching the Christians entrusted them to explore the riches and mysteries of their Christian faith.
70. For a discussion of the attribution of these documents to Ambrose, see Daniélou, 11-12.
71. Ambrose [emphasis original].
72. Aquilina, Mass, 222.
73. Once again, questions of authorship are not relevant to this study, but interested readers may consult Mazza, 150, for discussion of this matter.
74. Aquilina, Mass, 223-226. For original texts of the Fathers’ mystagogy, see Ambrose; Aquilina, Mass; Aquilina, Fathers; Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, trans. Edwin Hamilton Gifford, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 7, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1894) New Advent, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3101.htm (accessed March 16, 2009). For more on the Fathers’ mystagogy, see the detailed discussions in Mazza and Daniélou.