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Monday, April 8, 2013

Mystagogia for Dummies (like me) - 1 (A2E)

Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." (Jn. 19:21)
Mystagogy, the last “period” of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, corresponds technically to both the 50 days following Easter, ending with the celebration of Pentecost, and in a broader sense, the first year as an initiate. "Mystagogy" is a Greek word construction, from the words meaning “mysteries” (i.e., sacred rites and their multivalent meanings) and “teaching”. So the meaning of mystagogia or mystagogy is a time of teaching (and learning) about the sacred rites we’ve celebrated at Easter, the actions and symbols, the readings, everything that has happened to us as we’ve celebrated the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and eucharist. For the neophytes, or newly baptized, this has a
particular meaning, since they have for the first time experienced these events first hand. For the rest of us, however, just as Lent prepared us to renew our baptismal promises in order to participate more authentically in the paschal mystery, the Easter season allows us to reflect on the meaning of Easter, the meaning of the resurrection, and the meaning of Christian life as we have experienced it in the rites of the Triduum and as it unfolds in the eight Sundays of the season.

In a less technical sense, all of life is mystagogy. The paschal mystery is just that: mystery. It is a glimpse into the very nature of God, and therefore it can never be exhausted even in the sum total of all human reflection upon it. So it might be better to think of mystagogy as starting during the 50 days of Easter and first year of life as an initiated Christian, but continuing through all of the Christian’s life in the community of believers, reflecting on those sacramental signs and scriptural words, and coming to a new level of awareness about the nature of God as it is revealed in the paschal mystery.

So I thought that, as long as I can do it this year, I’d spend a blog entry after every Sunday through Pentecost trying to look at that question: how did Sunday’s liturgy speak to me about the meaning of life in the light of the paschal mystery? What did the readings teach me about what it means to “rise from the dead”? I don’t think that scripture means just one thing. It’s pretty clear that meaning itself is very hard to define. Meaning is so dependent upon the receiver that communication of meaning is a difficult process, and may better be done by metaphor rather than by definition. (Even words are metaphors, since meaning is inexact. See what I mean?) But I can try to express what the stories I heard this Sunday meant to me, in the context of my own faith life, and hope that somehow that means something to you as well, and if you share your insights with me, we’re both the richer.

So, even though Thomas dominated the readings yesterday, it wasn’t Thomas that really jumped out at me. But there were two things that did stand out for me. I was thinking about initiation into Christ, that is, participation in the Way and immersion into the paschal mystery, as an event with the twin dynamic of identity and mission, and how the readings yesterday bore this out. First, Acts described the reaction of the disciples in forming a new counter-community within the empire, living in peace and sharing resources. The impulse of those who belong to Christ is to be in peace and unity. This suggests that our perspective is transformed by Christ from one of possession, covetousness, and competitiveness to agape and its qualities: generosity, dialogue, and cooperation. The first aspect of initiation is belonging, being a part of something greater than ourselves, but native to that belonging is the gift and responsibility of hospitality, that is, being sure that others also feel that they belong. “Forgiving and retaining” spoken of in the gospel must surely be about this: that our actions in the community are meaningful, and should be undertaken with completely generous hearts.

As though to underline this aspect of belonging, the first letter of John says that

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is begotten by God,
and everyone who loves the Father
loves also the one begotten by him.
Getting past the archaism of the word “begotten,” we understand that John is speaking of becoming children. God is the one “begetting” us, so that in Christ Jesus, we become the children of God. The Acts community is aware of who they are, see themselves as brothers and sisters of Christ and therefore belonging to one another. So the paschal mystery is about belonging to God, being God’s children, and therefore belonging to one another. Little wonder that, as we recall the commandments of the Savior, we remember greatest commandments of the law: to love God completely, and, like it, to love one’s neighbor as the self. Belonging is not vertical, me and God. The paschal mystery makes us aware that there is no vertical: God is among us, and therefore the vertical and horizontal are one. To act with love toward the neighbor is to love God, because love is one. Surely this paschal insight bubbles under the joy we feel hearing Valjean's dying words in Les Misèrables: "To love another person is to touch the face of God." We need to pay attention to what Valjean (and Jesus) mean by love: it is love for the stranger, love with forgiveness and self-emptying. There is little romance in the Valjean's agape.

In a scene that prepares for that reality and empowers it, Jesus in the gospel appears to the twelve speaking the word "Shalom! (Peace!)” The one who was betrayed and abandoned and killed returns not with retribution and guilt on his lips, but empowerment and mercy. As he did from the cross, he again “hands over his spirit” to the community of disciples, breathing upon them with the words “receive the holy spirit. As the Father sent me, so I send you.” Filling them (and by extension, the whole Christian community) with the same Spirit that had made him messiah/Christ, he sends the community to do what he had done: to proclaim the good news of the empire of God, and to begin living in it now by healing and forgiving, by re-imagining “outsiders” as children of God, and eating and drinking with others. Baptism, confirmation, and eucharist, initiation into Christ, shows us somehow that the paschal mystery means mission, that it is outwardly directed. It is being sent for a purpose, while also identifying us as members of the community of God’s children.

So it’s not just being nice to other people that makes community. It seems to be actually loving the other person as we love ourselves, which means sharing resources, being in solidarity with those in economic or political jeopardy. This is how our communities need to be evaluated. The prospect of standing against the wind of a culture of greed, violence, and narcissism is a fearsome thing, just taking the first step is an invitation to ridicule and being dismissed as irrelevant. The only way out of hell is community solidarity, built around the gospel, and resisting assimilation into culture while peacefully, intentionally, and strategically moving in another direction. Corporate, ongoing metanoia for the sake of the kingdom. That is what it means "to rise from the dead."

It can be done. I’m sure there are other historical examples, but take for instance that of the little Huguenot enclave of Le Chambon in southern France, which during the Nazi occupation of Vichy France hid and assimilated thousands of Jews, sheltering them until liberation or helping them cross into Switzerland. The story is told in the book Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, by Philip Hallie, and in the DVD “Weapons of the Spirit,” which I recently bought from the Chambon Foundation. In spite of the presence of the SS right in their village, the locals managed this miraculous act out of a sense of religious outrage and duty. The remembrance of most of those who were still alive to be interviewed was that there was simply no other option to them: to try and save whomever they could was natural and necessary. To the credit of the villagers, there were no attempts to proselytize or convert the Jews, either.

OK, that’s enough. I hope this hasn’t been too boring. I’m thinking that framing the question each week as I mentioned above will be a good starting point. Maybe if I can’t think of anything, you can help me see it from your own reflection. Here, again, are the questions, if you’d like to make a comment of your own:

How did Sunday’s liturgy speak to me about the meaning of life in the light of the paschal mystery? What did the readings teach me about what it means to “rise from the dead”?


  1. I am just a “seeker”, with only my experience and personal journey to go on, so these thoughts are just a reflection of where I am right now. It was truly Thomas who jumped out at me, but not in the traditional sense of needing to see and touch, but the idea of his absence or presence. Where was he when he missed out? One of the biggies in my journey, in my lifelong initiation, is the idea of “constant conscious communion”. I can’t remember where I heard it, but it was a HUGE awakening, the idea that God is ALWAYS with me, so how can I not constantly be aware of that presence? I mean, if you and I were working in the same space, no matter how intently I might lose myself in my work I would probably not completely forget you were there. How often do I miss out on what God has to say to me because I am not present and listening? Thomas missed out because he wasn’t present. And even the others required wind and flames before they heard what God had to say to them. So it IS a matter of faith, but even before that, a matter of awareness. I need to be present so that I don’t miss out, and then to trust and have faith when I DO hear what God has to say to me.

    1. Thanks for that. It was interesting when the visitor (Wayne Watts) last night pointed out that a week intervened (in the John story) between the appearance on the night of Easter in the upper room (Jesus appeared, though the doors were locked, and spoke to them), and the appearance to Thomas, and yet they were all still locked in the upper room. It does make you wonder about the nature of risen life, or exactly what John was trying to say. If it's such a big deal to see someone come back from the dead, why were they still locked in the upper room? And why do we blame Thomas? :-)

      I suspect there's something about God's presence and absence, and whether there's any difference, other than in us. God, to be God, has to be so utterly other. How would we even know?

  2. I love this post... you had me at mystagogia!

    On a more serious note, I think that what hit me this Sunday was that for me, the light of the paschal mystery is much more about taking a "leap of doubt," than a leap of faith. My doubt is my own, faith is a gift, that I come into. Then, and only then do we rise.

    1. Hi Fran, when I read your comment, it made me think all the way into work on my drive, What's the difference between a leap of faith and a leap of doubt? It's still a leap! Something must drive the doubt besides doubt itself. Maybe hope?

  3. It seems to me that this past Sunday unfolded the fourfold experience of God who comes in God's own time and initiative (Jesus appears without any preparation to everyone except Thomas), the God who leads us to peace (Jesus' greeting), the God who freely and abundantly lives among us (Jesus comes and stands before and among them in full personhood) and the God who hides and asks us to believe without seeing (Thomas waits a week before Jesus returns to them). For me, this captures the essence of baptismal progression into the mystery of faith as the body of Christ and as individual members of that body on a daily basis as we try to access that mystery through each human experience. Just my two cents.

  4. Denise, I really like that. I guess the "God who hides" thing is a little alien to me. There may be something about our expectations that allows God to "hide" in plain sight, but the idea of God trying _not_ to be seen goes against my instinct about agape and revelation. I think God wants to be found - but our expectations are such that we're looking for (my metaphor) Charlemagne, and it's actually the beggar outside the palace. But the progress is really cool, and I love that you took the time to share it. What do you think about the "hiding God" thing?