On Becoming the Paschal Mystery...Part I
March 07, 2007
JOHAN VAN PARYS
Once again we are engaged in celebrating the Paschal Cycle of Lent – Easter – Pentecost. It seems only days ago that we carried the baby Jesus in procession and laid him in the manger or that we brought the statues of the magi to the crèche and celebrated Epiphany. And here we are, celebrating the greatest mystery of all: the Paschal Mystery.
We do this every year and we have been doing this for about 2000 years. Yet, who ever stops to ask the question: what exactly is the Paschal Mystery? The term seems to be freely used by theologians and lay people alike. Theology students, in particular have a fondness for using this term, especially as a blanket response when they do not know the answer to a certain theological question. However, there is much more to the concept than a cover-all answer for theological problems.
Linguistically speaking, the concept is a contraction of two words: mystery and paschal. The first word, mystery is obviously the English translation of the Greek word μγστεριον. The Septuagint, the Greek version of the so-called Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible uses the word μγστεριον (mystery) in reference to the essential incomprehensibility of God. μγστεριον points to the fact that God is not just unknown, but essentially unknowable. Even at the Beatific Vision when we will see God face to face, God will remain ‘mystery.’ The New Testament, on the other hand uses the word when referring to God’s plan for salvation as it was realized in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Col. 1:1-2:6; Eph. 1-3). It is indeed in the person of Jesus Christ that the Unknowable Divine Mystery of the Septuagint becomes knowable.
The theologians of the early church, in turn use the word μγστεριον in reference to the liturgy of the Easter Vigil because through these Easter rites (Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist), the neophytes or newly initiated members of the Christian community are incorporated into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, i.e. into God’s plan of salvation. At the same time the Divine plan for salvation is revealed and continues to be realized through the same celebration of the Easter Mysteries.
The second word, Paschal is derived from the Greek word Πάσχα (Pascha) or Passover. The Christian use of the term is borrowed from the Jewish Passover which celebrates the liberation from Egypt and the entry into the Promised Land after a forty year long journey through the desert. For Christians Pascha refers to the Resurrection of Christ and the Christian’s share in this resurrection.
The Paschal Mystery then refers to the mystery of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and our incorporation into it through the grace of the sacraments. Thus the Paschal Mystery both anchors and comprises the essence of Christianity. The celebration of this mystery is therefore the most important, the most impressive and most intricate of all celebrations.
Although we enter into the Paschal Mystery every time we gather for the liturgy, it is celebrated most extensively during the Paschal Triduum, the three days during which we remember the self-giving life of Jesus on Holy Thursday; his death as the consequence of his life and his ultimate gift on Good Friday; and his resurrection and victory over death on Easter. The Paschal Triduum is preceded by 40 days of preparation, called Lent and is followed by a 50 days of celebration, called Eastertide. Eastertide ends on Pentecost, the fiftieth day.
Johan van Parys is Director of Liturgy and the Sacred Arts at the Basilica of St. Mary, Minneapolis, MN.
READ OTHER ARTICLES BY JOHAN VAN PARYS:
Advent: The Spirituality of and Environment for the Season (Part I and Part II)
Christmas: The Spirituality of and Environment for the Season (Part I and Part II)
Epiphany: The Spirituality of and Environment for the Solemnity (Part I and Part II)
Lectio Divina - Visio Divina
On Becoming the Paschal Mystery (Part II and Part III)
The Fundamental Virtues of Liturgical Architecture
Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus...Stations of the Cross
We Are the Body of Christ