At weddings, funerals, first Communions and Confirmations, many priests will try to give some guidance on who may present themselves for Holy Communion. A while back, I made a passing remark that I found to be surprisingly effective. After explaining that it is practising Catholics, living in accord with the teaching of the Church and attending Sunday Mass every week who go to Communion, I added that there are always plenty of people who, for various reasons, cannot receive Communion and so there is no need to be embarrassed about remaining in the bench. My hunch was correct: at those public occasions, if you do not explain that there are required dispositions for Holy Communion, people will come up simply to be polite, in case it might be rude not to. Such is the result of our failing to educate the faithful on the proper dispositions for Holy Communion.
I return now to my series on “mysticism.” You can find the introduction here. I have said that, whether broadly, strictly or narrowly defined, any mysticism that deserves the name Catholic must be 1) Eucharistic, 2) Marian and 3) Ecclesial. In my last post I explained what Eucharistic mysticism is. In this one I will cover Marian mysticism.
In the last post I explained how the Eucharist in a particular way shows forth the power of God to transform the soul. What God does to the gifts on the altar by transforming them into the Body and Blood of Christ, he does in an analogous by our participation in the sacred mysteries, especially in the reception of Holy Communion. In a similar way, the Blessed Virgin is the icon of such a transformation.
A mere creature, She is wholly divinized by grace from the first moment of Her conception, so that when the angel Gabriel appears to Her at the Annunciation he calls Her Full of Grace. This means that She is the one who, already at that moment, possesses the plentitude of God’s supernatural gifts. As a mere creature, in Her Immaculate Conception, She already is the unique temple of a holiness beyond which one cannot even conceive. It is because Our Lady is full of grace that God chooses to take from Her substance the flesh of the Son of God, conceived by Her virginally through the power of the Holy Spirit. Continue reading
Having provided a definition of “mysticism” in my first post, I now continue with a description of the characteristics of true mysticism. We can identify three primary qualities of any authentic Catholic mysticism, broadly, strictly or narrowly defined. Any mysticism that deserves the name Catholic must be 1) Eucharistic, 2) Marian and 3) Ecclesial.
This does not simply mean that true mysticism is everywhere in the Catholic Church where people who go to Mass, spend time in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and pray the Rosary. These are all foundational aspects of Catholic mysticism, but by themselves they do not guarantee its authenticity. These external acts must be real signs of full communion with the Church, an active effort to conform oneself to the life of Christ, and to do so by allowing the Immaculate Virgin to form Jesus within us. True mysticism does not support fundamental and willful inconsistencies in these matters.
It is necessary here to see the analogous relationship between the different definitions of mysticism so that we can accurately discern between the true and the false. In this post we will focus on the Eucharistic aspect. (Again, here is the link to the page with the various definitions of mysticism.) Continue reading
I am diverting slightly—just slightly—from my “mysticism” series in the interests of swatting away some unhelpful mist (the kind that ends in schism). I am moving from the bench of speculative reflection to my soapbox, just for this one post.
The early Church protected the sacred mystery of the Eucharist from the misunderstanding and profanation of pagans by the disciplina arcani, “discipline of the secret.” This meant that the newly baptized were not introduced the mystery of the Real Presence in the Eucharist until just before they received Holy Communion for the first time. In the context of the Church’s persecution, the pagan misunderstanding of Holy Communion as an act of cannibalism could have dire consequences for both believing Christians and those who needed to be evangelized.
So the motives for this discipline were that of reverence and humility. The practice was eventually abandoned. Even so, since the time of Our Lord’s discourse on the Bread of Life in John 6, there has been this tension between the frank and unapologetic proclamation of the full truth about the Eucharist and the need not to throw our pearls to the swine. Continue reading
Homily For Corpus Christi
Jen sent me the following quote of J.R.R. Tolkien to his son Christopher:
Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth…by…which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, and take on that complexion of reality of eternal endurance, which every man’s heart desires.
I have read it before, but am stuck now on the way he expresses the relationship between the Eucharist and the chivalric ideals of “romance, glory, honour, fidelity.” Indeed the Jesus in the Eucharist is “eternal endurance” itself.
Tolken expresses The Mystery of Faith well: “out of the darkness,” “the one great thing to love,” “which every man’s heart desires.
Some time ago, I wrote that the Holy Grail of True Knighthood is constituted by the inversion of worldly values and the assimilation of the foolishness of God, which is wiser than the wisdom of men. There is a real sense in which true knighthood is itself the Holy Grail. The ideals of Marian Chivalry are so high because it is the knighthood of Jesus Christ Himself, and so paradoxical because in practice a fighting spirit is hard to synthesize with courtesy.
Within and Without
The Holy Grail is both within and without. In The Mystery of Faith, which is first of all the Eucharist itself and then our own participation in it, we must profess our faith in the most sublime reality of God (the Eucharist) and then conform ourselves to it interiorly (worthy and fruitful communion). The Mystery of Faith is both the stupendous reality of transubstantiation and our own transformation in Christ. So for true Knight the Holy Grail is first of all the attainment of the Vessel of the Eucharist and the Eucharist itself and then it is that enclosed space within one’s soul where the virtues of chivalry live and thrive unthreatened by the warfare of this world.
For good reason, then, even if within the tradition there are so many pagan elements, the legends surrounding the Holy Grail go right to the heart of the Easter Mystery. In the most Christian version of the story, The Quest del Saint Graal, there are three manifestations of the Holy Grail.
The first is to Lancelot, the sinner, when from the Grail a priest elevates the Sacred Host and he is granted a vision of three men, two of whom place the youngest into the hands of the priest. When Lancelot tries to approach the Sacred Vessel in order to assist the priest, who seems so weighed down by the figure of Christ that He is bearing, Lancelot is stopped in his tracks and left paralyzed and senseless.
The second manifestation is to Perceval, Bors and Galahad, the three companions, who during the reenactment of the Last Supper at the Castle of Corbenic, witness Our Lord and Savior appear out from the Holy Grail, bleeding from His hands and feet. Jesus tells them that since they have sought Him so diligently that He could no longer hide Himself from them, and that for this reason He deigned to let them see some of His secrets and mysteries. He also tells them that while many had been filled with the “grace of the Holy Vessel,” only they were allowed to experience the Holy Grail in such a face-to-face manner. Then Our Lord Himself communicates the three companions from the Holy Grail itself. Later Galahad tells his two companions that when he “was looking on the hidden mysteries that are not disclosed to common view, but only to them that wait on Jesus Christ,” that he had achieved such joy that had he died at that moment he would have been the happiest man that ever lived.
The third manifestation of the Holy Grail is given to Galahad alone, because as King Mordrain tells him:
You are the lily of purity, you are the true rose, the flower of strength and healing with the tint of fire: for the fire of the Holy Ghost burns in you so brightly that my flesh which was withered and dead is now made young and strong again.
This last manifestation takes place a year after Galahad had been crowned King of Serras. During that year, the Holy Grail dwells within the city walls on its silver table over which Galahad has built an ark of gold and precious stones. On the anniversary of his crowning a bishop, kneeling before the table, recites the Confiteor and intones “the mass of the glorious Mother of God. Then during the “solemn part of the mass,” the bishop calls Galahad over: “Come forward, servant of Jesus Christ, and look on that which you have so ardently desired to see.” He steps forward and gazes down into the Sacred Vessel, which contains The Mystery of Faith and is seized with a violent trembling at the contemplation of it. “Then lifting up his hands to heaven, he said:
Lord, I worship Thee and give Thee thanks that Thou hast granted my desire, for now I see revealed what tongue could not relate nor heart conceive. Here is the source of valour undismayed, the spring-head of endeavor; here I see the wonder that passes every other! And since, sweet Lord, Thou has fulfilled my wish to let me see what I have ever craved, I pray Thee now that in this state Thou suffer me to pass from earthly life to life eternal.
Galahad is then once again communicated from the Holy Grail and shortly after prostrates himself before the Holy Grail on the silver table and then breathes his last.
Each of the manifestations is an experience of The Mystery of Faith and a relaxing of the Discipline of the Secret, a progressive mystagogia. The manifestations are progressive, proceeding from a kind of outer court to an inner sanctum.
In the first manifestation to Lancelot, the repentant sinner, he is allowed to see the mystery of the Holy Grail from a distance, but, like Uzzah who was struck dead because he touched the Ark, is punished when he attempts to approach the Holy Grail. From the outside Lancelot, beholds a special revelation of the mystery of the Blessed Trinity and of Transubstantiation, as a kind of encouragement for him to do greater penance, but he is not permitted to enter in, nor is his presumption left unpunished.
In the second manifestation to the three companions, Our Lord rewards their perseverance in the quest for the inner life of the grail. He tells them that He cannot withhold his secrets and mysteries from those who ardently seek them. In it the holy knight, Galahad finds joy with which nothing in this world can compare.
But only to Galahad, the pure, is the third and highest manifestation granted. It is a reward for his purity of heart and body. In it he finds the source of fearless courage and the motive for all endeavor. The paradox hear is that the end of the Quest can only be reached by means of fearlessness and the highest motives, yet the it is only in the Grail that such treasures may be found. Again the Holy Grail is both within and without, but when it is fully achieved within our entrance into heaven is assured. The goal of life is achieved and all that is left to do is to die.
Thee Three manifestations correspond roughly to the three ways of the spiritual life: purgation, illumination and union. Lancelot is given a revelation in order to bring him closer to the source, by inspiring in him hope, and this leads to greater repentance. The three companions are illumined with what is hidden and secret because they persevere through the darkness. Galahad is brought into the union of the Holy of Holies, into the very sanctuary of heaven, because his purification and illumination is perfected.
In sacred scripture the chalice has a threefold meaning as well. There is first of all the cup of wrath:
For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup of strong wine full of mixture. And he hath poured it out from this to that: but the dregs thereof are not emptied: all the sinners of the earth shall drink (Ps 75:9).
But while our godlessness draws down upon us the wrath of God, Our Lord Himself has imbibed the cup of our iniquities. From this chalice he prayed to be delivered because the corruption of our sins with which was filled was poison to His immaculate flesh and His Sacred Heart. Nevertheless His last word on the matter was:
The chalice which my father hath given me, shall I not drink it? (Jn 18:11).
We may indeed, drink “judgment” to ourselves, by partaking of the Eucharist unworthily, or we may honor the Body and Blood of Christ, by doing penance and seeking perseveringly the Holy Gail.
The second is the cup of salvation, which is, we might say, the very same cup of wrath transformed by mercy. Wrath becomes mercy in the Heart of Christ, when he drinks the cup of the wrath set up against us, and allows us to drink from the cup of His salvation: This chalice is the new testament in my blood.
This do ye, as often as you shall drink, for the commemoration of me (1 Cor 11:25).
This memory of Christ makes the past present and transforms it, conforms it to the victorious Christ. It is the dawn of a new light toward which the whole of history is led in procession.
The third is the cup of fellowship that, like Galahad, we are invited to share because we have persevered. Holy Communion is the summit of the Mass because the Penitential Rite and the Liturgy of the Word (prayers at the foot of the altar and Mass of the Catechumen) are preparations of the heart and mind for union. If penance is made perfect by the enlightenment of the Cross then the way is open for the third manifestation of the Grail, which is not only the reception of the Eucharist, but a vision into the Holy Vessel, by which we may contemplate The Mystery of Faith contained therein. Our call is not only to receive the Eucharist bodily but to experience what that bodily union represents. Surely, the grace of the Blessed Sacrament does not depend on how we experience it, but nevertheless we are called to taste, and see that the Lord is sweet (Ps 34:8).
Thou hast prepared a table before me against them that afflict me. Thou hast anointed my head with oil; and my chalice which inebreateth me, how goodly is it! (Ps 23:5).
The Only Way
Unfortunately, the myth of the Holy Grail is suffused, in most its renditions, with the old Gnostic heresy of secret knowledge given apart from the public revelation of Jesus Christ. Dan Brown has given us a useful, if not revolting, synthesis the Gnostic nonsense in his wretched novel. But he is not altogether wrong either. The Grail is an enclosed space and a feminine symbol, but it does not for that reason point to the erotic, to goddess worship and the Gnostic Mary Magdelan.
As a Christian myth, the Holy Grail is a symbol of the Blessed Virgin, within whose solemn Mass its mysteries are revealed to Galahad (third manifestation, union). She is the Enclosed Garden, within whom the secret of God’s divine presence is contained and through whom, He who was hidden from all eternity is made manifest. And it is through the attainment of Her as the goal of our Quest that we will find within ourselves the same hidden mysteries realized.
In the Quest del Saint Graal, Galahad receives the fullness of his knighthood from the Perceval’s sister, a virgin of consummate beauty and virtue. Galahad, as the only one who may safely unsheathe it, wields the Sword of the Strange Belt, found on the Miraculous Ship. It is both prophesied that only the best of knights will be able to wield the sword without harm, and that eventually a pure maiden will come who will replace the cheap hemp belt from which it hangs for a more worthy one. Perceval’s Sister replaces the belt with one made from her hair, which was her most precious possession. Taking the sword in its sheath and attaching it to the belt made with her hair she girds Galahad with it and says:
Truly, Sir, it matters no more to me when death shall take me; for now I hold myself blessed above all maidens, having made a knight of the nobles man in the world. For I assure you, you were not by rights a knight until you were girded with the sword which was brought to this land for you alone.
Then Galahad answers:
Damsel, you part in this makes me you knight forever.
Shortly thereafter Perceval’s sister does die, offering a cup of her own blood to a sickly queen in need of healing.
By Her precious virginity, the Blessed Virgin girds the Son of God with His sacred humanity and bestows upon Him the Knighthood by which He will save the world. He becomes Her Knight, and through Her we will become the children of God. Christ offers His blood, taken from the Virgin, as a sacrifice for all, and She offers Her life’s blood, Her very own Son in an act of consummate feminine chivalry. All true knights that come afterwards will have to penetrate The Mystery of Faith by taking this path, this way and must persevere in this quest.
This is the secret of Marian Chivalry and its mystagogia is the science of the great Marian saints like St. Louis de Montfort and St. Maximilian Kolbe. These are Easter mysteries that we contemplate: mysteries of light and of victory.
Having concentrated in this post on the Holy Grail, I will look more closely in the next Easter catechesis at the Holy Sepulcher.
In my last post I promised more on the Holy Sepulcher and the Holy Grail and their relation to an Easter catechesis and the tradition of chivalry. There is much there to reflect on, much to be researched and assimilated, so it will take at bit more time.
Meanwhile, however, I thought I would point out that in the Office of Readings this week we have been reading from the the Jerusalem Catechesis, or otherwise known as the Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem (+386). The Catechesis consists in twenty-three lectures, the first eighteen of which were delivered to the candidates for baptism during Lent and the last five to the newly baptized during Easter, and is an excellent example of the mystogogia. In fact, at the end of the prologue for Lectures St. Cyril makes sure his readers understand that his instructions are only for those whose Baptism is imminent, and is to be seen neither by the other catechumens nor heathens.
St. Cyril admonishes the candidates for Baptism to shun all “secret hypocrisy,” in order to be fit for the Lord’s true service. He compares the penetration of our souls by the judgment of God to a military review of recruits by one who levies for war. He bestows his seal only upon those in whom He discerns a good conscience, in view of which the devils tremble and the holy angels recognize. St. Cyril says: “You are receiving not a perishable but a spiritual shield. Henceforth you are planted in the invisible Paradise . . . it is God’s to grant grace, but yours to receive and guard it. Despise not the grace because it is freely given, but receive and treasure it devoutly” (Lecture 1, 3-4). This is even before Baptism, hence prior to the mystagogia, but the saint is already admonishing the new recruits to be prepared for war and especially to to protect the paradise of their own souls.
During the mystogogia proper, when St. Cyril discusses the doctrine of the Eucharist:
Consider therefore the Bread and the Wine not as bare elements, for they are, according to the Lord’s declaration, the Body and Blood of Christ; for even though sense suggests this to you, yet let faith establish you. Judge not the matter from the taste, but from faith be fully assured without misgiving, that the Body and Blood of Christ have been vouchsafed to you (Lecture 22, 6).
But he goes beyond the content of the doctrine and emphasizes to the newly baptized that the Eucharist has been prepared for those who have been anointed by the Lord, and thus they have been sealed against the afflictions of the evil spirits. The Lord has set a “mystical and spiritual Table,” in opposition to table of corruption set against us by the enemy. Our hearts have been strengthened, he say,s and the “face of our souls” made to shine.
And your cup intoxicates me, as very strong. You see that cup here spoken of, which Jesus took in His hands, and gave thanks, and said, This is My blood, which is shed for many for the remission of sins (Lecture 22, 6-7, 9).
This is the Holy Grail that we seek. At the beginning of the mystogogia proper, St. Cyril speaks of the relation between the catechesis prior to baptism and that that is about to take place:
And these things were done in the outer chamber. But if God will, when in the succeeding lectures on the Mysteries we have entered into the Holy of Holies , we shall there know the symbolic meaning of the things which are there performed. Now to God the Father, with the Son and the Holy Ghost, be glory, and power, and majesty, forever and ever. Amen (Lecture 19, 11).
We are not only searching, but we have already arrived. We are in an in-between time, indeed.
The Easter octave is about to come to a close with the celebration of Divine Mercy Sunday. At that Mass we will pray:
O Lord our God, may we be healed now and forever by these sacred rites which You instituted to protect us in our new life of grace.
We have entered into the Holy of Holies, and that sanctuary is the Heart of Christ, whose mercy and grace is poured out as blood and water from His side. We are healed and protected in Him, and in the Heart of His Holy Mother. The true knighthood of Christ is the protection of these mysteries, first of all within our own Hearts. That ultimately is the meaning of the crusade for the Holy Sepulcher and the Quest for the Holy Grail. More on this next time.
In my post for Holy Thursday, I mentioned the mystogia, the Easter catechesis in the early Church that was given to the newly baptized in order to deepen their understanding of the faith, especially regarding those central mysteries celebrated in the liturgical events of the Paschal Triduum. In this post, I am offering my own little Easter mystogia in relation to the values of Marian Chivalry. At the center of this paschal enlightenment are the two principle Christian relics that became the focus of chivalrous ideals, the Holy Grail and the Holy Sepulcher.
The mystogia was particularly necessary because of a custom practiced from the earliest times of the Church called the disciplina arcani, “the discipline of the secret,” whereby the most profound mysteries of the faith were kept hidden from heathens and from even the catechumens preparing for baptism. The special—but not only—object of this discipline was the Eucharistic Sacrifice and Sacrament.
Hence, one of the minor orders of the Church—in fact, the lowest—in preparation for diaconate and the priesthood was Ostiarius or “Porter.” In the Roman rite, the Porter was the gatekeeper who locked and unlocked the church, and who made sure that no unbaptized person was present for the “Mass for the Faithful,” or what is referred to in the Novus Ordo as the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Catechumens were permitted to be present for the “Mass of the Catechumens” (Liturgy of the Word), but then were escorted out of the Church by the Porter at the beginning of the offertory. The catechumens’ first experience of “The Mystery of Faith,” celebrated at the altar, was immediately after their baptism, when they were escorted into the Church in their white garments. The first time the newly baptized received the Eucharist, they had just moments before become aware of the full truth of the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist.
Reverence Inside and Out
St. Basil compared the discipline of the secret to the way in which Moses, by God’s command, reserved certain parts of the tabernacle by putting in place “sacred barriers.” He wrote that “the awful dignity of the mysteries is best preserved by silence.” And “Moses was wise enough to know that contempt stretches to the trite and to the obvious, while a keen interest is naturally associated with the unusual and the unfamiliar” (On the Holy Spirit, 27).
Imagine the joy of the newly baptized who were privileged to know the sacred mysteries and their exultation at being able to participate in so awesome a mystery while being introduced more fully by the post-baptismal catechesis into the truths of our faith. Think also of how fearful the mysterious must have seemed, in terms of inspiring awe, reverence and gratitude. What a tremendous grace was contained in the revelation of the mysteries and how beautifully was both the superabundance of God’s grace communicated while the dignity of the mysteries preserved and augmented.
As more and more it became necessary to defend the faith against heretics, apologetical tracts of the Fathers protected less and less of the secret, until the discipline was entirely abandoned. One might also understand that in the face of Gnosticism and many other Christian heresies that secret keeping could lend itself to the privileging of a few to the detriment of the universality of the Church. After all, the lure of secret keeping has been to form exclusive societies in which the initiated can pride themselves on being enlightened and being in control of the unenlightened.
Even so, we may regret, at least theoretically, the complete loss of the discipline of the secret, especially today when the introduction of the mundane and even the profane into the precincts of our sanctuaries have stripped the faithful of a sense of the sacred and mysterious. The tragic consequence of this has been the systematic cultivation of irreverence.
Revealing What Is Hidden
But the discipline of the secret is built into the sacred mysteries we celebrate during Easter. Our Lord celebrated the first Mass in the upper room into which he ensconced the apostles for the preservation of the mysteries of Holy Thursday. Into that enclosed space they would return, as a huddled and fearful band, after the events of Good Friday, and into that enclosed and locked space Our Lord would reenter in order to reveal to them that which he did not reveal to all. As St. Peter said of himself and his companions, the Lord manifested Himself not to all the people, but to witnesses preordained by God, even to us, who did eat and drink with him, after he arose again from the dead (Acts 10:41).
Our Lord also initially hid Himself from His inner circle, as He did to St. Mary Magdalen at the Holy Sepulcher, to the disciples on the road to Emmaus and to Peter and his companions at the Lake of Galilee. Certainly this deprivation of their ability to recognize Him was symbolic of their own lack of faith and of the power of the Resurrection to break down that barrier against faith. They knew him in the breaking of bread (Lk 24:35). But may we not also reflect that the revelation of what was hidden underscores the mysterious content of the faith and the mystical or dark way in which the activity of God touches our soul?
St. Bonaventure says that we must enter the tomb with Jesus—into another enclosed space—and there we must die and experience the suspension of our senses. He is not necessarily referring to ecstasy, but what belongs more fundamentally to the mystical life, namely, a new way of thinking that is not dependent on what we see, but on what the Lord tells us. Of course, first of all that means what the Church teaches, but it also must mean the manner in which we assimilate it through our own efforts to surrender in faith in the silence of prayer.
Making the Hidden Grow
The Easter proclamation is the so-called kerygma, that kernal of truth at the heart of evangelization, and it must be broadcast to the four corners of the globe. That which I tell you in the dark, speak ye in the light: and that which you hear in the ear, preach ye upon the housetops (Mt 10:27). That proclamation is this: “The night will be as clear as day: it will become my light, my joy” (Easter Praeconium). But each person it touches by way of the hidden workings of God: So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed into the earth, and should sleep, and rise, night and day, and the seed should spring, and grow up whilst he knoweth not (MK 4:26-27).
In inner revelation of the Holy Sepulcher and the Holy Grail, has nothing to do with esoteric knowledge entrusted to a secret society or any other species of Gnostic, though these heretics have gotten lost along the way of a real quest for a real treasure. Indeed, all along, it was quite literally under their noses: For lo, the kingdom of God is within (Lk 17:21).
Today we sell our secrets for a bowl of porridge and repackage old and used rags and peddle them as lost and hidden treasures. Just call the most meager and pathetic truism a secret, such as the power of positive thinking, and then absolutize it with false promises and you can make millions of dollars on the same old stale snake oil. Or take a real secret, such as the secret of our personhood, that leads us to veil our sexual values, and call it prudery and the snake oil business is booming once again.
Modesty, reverence and the guarding of the heart, are perhaps the most precious jewels to be cultivated by the truly honorable and courteous heart. It is for these values that true prowess is willing to suffer and die. The enclosed spaces of the Tomb and Chalice, like the Womb and Heart of Our Lady, are the places where Thy Mystery of Faith is celebrated and where the revelation takes place.
I will have more to say about the Holy Sepulcher and Holy Grail in my next Easter post.
The following reflection was written on Holy Thursday, but concerns the whole Easter Triduum and Easter Itself.
This evening we have begun the Sacred Paschal Triduum with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, which commemorates the institution of the Sacraments of Holy Orders and of the Eucharist. From here we will pass to the historical enactment of Our Lord’s great sacrfice and then on to His glorious victory over death. This will be my one Easter reflection for this blog and I will not return here until after the Easter Peace has concluded.
In actuality, the different moments of the Easter Triduum are most properly conflated under the title of Easter, since each of them is rightly qualified by the word paschal. Easter is our pasch, our passover, by which we pass from death to life in the crucified and victorious Savior. For Christ our pasch is sacrificed (1 Cor 5:7). In fact, it is almost a truism to say that the death of the Lord makes no sense without the resurrection and vice-versa. But it is also true to say that from the Lord’s own institution, we were never called to consider either His death or resurrection apart from the Eucharist.
The Hour of Christ
It was for these moments, or for this hour that He came (Jn 12:27). Everything, aside from the sin of his betrayers and murderers (among whom we are included), was executed according to his will and predetermined plan. His saving deeds have become the culminating moments of salvation history, but we do not merely remember them as belonging to the past, nor do we simply comprehend them in view of the transformation we all anticipate. As Cardinal Ratzinger has written, our liturgical participation belongs to a kind of middle moment, a “between-time” in which the institutional past is brought into the liturgical present and beyond by our carrying out the command he gave to His apostles at the last supper: This do for the commemoration of me (1 Cor. 11:24). The middle moment consists in the fact that our commemoration (a remembrance that is more than a memory) of the Lord’s saving mysteries looks forward to and effects our own transformation in grace, which is to be perfected in our own resurrection for which we are being prepared now by His Sacrifice and Sacrament of the Eucharist.
The three moments of the Triduum then—Eucharist, Passion and Death, Resurrection—are ordered to one another in such a way, that it is only in this liturgical life that Christ’s design for our salvation is fully realized. That the Paschal Triduum is the zenith of liturgical life only serves to underscore this truth.
A True Sacrifice
The Council of Trent taught that the Mass is “a true sacrifice and proper sacrifice,” and not a “bare commemoration of the sacrifice consummated on the cross,” but rather “a propitiatory sacrifice” (Session 22, cc. 1, 3). The difference between the sacrifice as it is offered on Holy Thursday and on Good Friday is the mode. On Holy Thursday at the Last Supper, Christ is immolated mystically in an “unbloody” manner, and on Good Friday, he is immolated historically and physically in a “bloody” manner upon the Cross. Our Lord institutes the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Sacrament of the Eucharist, as well as the Sacrament of Holy Orders the night before He died, because His explicit intention was to make all of us real and immediate participants in this One Sacrifice. Cardinal Ratzinger writes that in this way Our Lord made the semel (once for all) of His sacrifice semper (always) of liturgical life.
The difference between the first Mass celebrated by Our Lord Himself on the night before He died and those that take place after His resurrection through the ministry of His priests is the state of His humanity in respect to its glorification. On the night before He died, Our Lord’s Body in the consecrated host was not yet crucified and glorified, whereas after, and until the end of time, our Victim on the altar is not only the Savior on the Cross, but also the Victor who has come forth from the tomb and sits at the right hand of His Father, glorified in heaven.
The Mystery of Faith
The Church teaches that the Eucharist is The Mystery of Faith. This notion comes from the institutional narrative itself into which these words are inserted, specifically from the consecration of the chalice:
HIC EST ENIM CALIX SANGUINIS MEI, NOVI ET AETERNI TESTAMENTI:
QUI PRO VOBIS ET PRO MULTIS EFFUNDETUR IN REMISSIONEM PECCATORUM.
THIS IS THE CHALICE OF MY BLOOD OF THE NEW AND ETERNAL COVENANT:
THE MYSTERY OF FAITH:
WHICH IS BEING SHED FOR YOU AND FOR MANY FOR THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS.
This is the text as it is taken from the ancient liturgical usage. I will refrain from comment on the change introduced into the new liturgy, especially in the English translation, as it does not pertain to my purpose here.
The words The Mystery of Faith have been introduced by the liturgical tradition into the scriptural texts as an appositive attached to the reference concerning chalice of the blood of the new and eternal covenant. There are a number of theories as to why the words were inserted without strict adherence to the biblical text and without explantion, and as to what exactly they were intended to mean. One of the great liturgists of the modern age, Joseph A. Jungmann, S.J., has written that no certain answer can be ascertained on either score. However, the magisterium has commented on the text, and has told us that it refers to the ineffable mystery of the Eucharist itself. Thus the narrative might be punctuated as follows: This is the chalice of My Blood of the new and eternal covenant—The Mystery of Faith—which is being shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.
All this being said, for the sake of my little Easter reflection, and without intending to do anything more than to offer a meditation, I would like to explore more deeply the meaning of this unexplained insertion of mysterium fidei into the biblical narrative.
We know that the one sacrifice of Christ is made present in the Mass, that Jesus suffering and victorious is both the Priest and Victim. We know that we are present at Calvary and that the heavens have opened so that not only is the past made present, but that we are entering into the hour of Christ’s glorification, so that we are also present at the heavenly liturgy, singing with the Seraphim: Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth. We know that the double consecration during the canon of the Mass symbolizes the separation of Christ’s Blood from His Body in such a way that the one Sacrifice is made present once again:
For by the “transubstantiation” of bread into the body of Christ and of wine into His blood, His body and blood are both really present: now the eucharistic species under which He is present symbolize the actual separation of His body and blood. Thus the commemorative representation of His death, which actually took place on Calvary, is repeated in every sacrifice of the altar, seeing that Jesus Christ is symbolically shown by separate symbols to be in a state of victimhood (Mediator Dei, 70).
But it is only at the moment at the consecration of the chalice that the liturgical tradition has left us with this deliberate insertion of the words, The Mystery of Faith, and without explanation either in the liturgical texts themselves nor any of the written and oral tradition of the Church from the early times in which this liturgical formulary came to be. Our Lord has already been made present on the altar by means of the consecration of the Host, but in the consecration of the Chalice the symbolism of the separation of His Blood from His Body has been made perfect. Perhaps the inexplicable insertion of these words can be construed as providentially indicating the mysticism of the Sacrifice and the Sacrament, the fact that past, present and future have, in a sense, coalesced and we are somehow participants in each moment, facing the East from whence the Orient on High has come and toward which we are processing, led by our High Priest and King, Jesus Christ.
The priest, in a sense, pauses or interrupts the institutional narrative, in a rubrical sense of awe, and comments on the stupendous reality before us. We have achieved the Holy Grail. We have arrived at the throne of God. How terrible is this place? this is no other but the house of God, and the gate of heaven (Genesis 28:17). Mysterium fidei!
The Eternal Word has undergone a transformation much like the one by which He became Incarnate. Every Mass is a little Christmas. But also the Lamb has been sacrificed and we are once again at the foot of the Cross. The bread and wine have become the Body and Blood of Christ, and we, by some awesome privilege, are now called to enter the mystery and consume the sacrifice so that we might also be transformed into that which we consume. We are no longer fixed in our place in history but are incorporated into the hour of Christ, and thus all time has a different significance and a greater power.
The Holy Grail
No wonder the Chalice of the Last Supper has become both the object of veneration and the inspiration for myths. It is a mystical object because it contains a secret—not the gnosis of the heretics or the ancient, arcane and occult mysteries of the Freemasons, but the secret of our own transformation in grace.
In the most Christian version of the Arthurian legend of the Holy Grail, Quest del Saint Graal, probably written by a Cistercian monk at the beginning of the thirteenth century, the Holy Chalice is symbol of grace, or such at least is the interpretation of Etienne Gilson. Medievalist Pauline Matarasso, on the other hand, asserts that the Grail of the Quest doubly manifests the mystery of the Eucharist in the Last Supper and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
However the myth is to be interpreted, the historical Grail is a vessel in which a mystery is contained, a secret, and in the first case that mystery is the Blood of Christ that has been shed for us. But it is also our participation in the mystery as well. The chalice of benediction which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? (1 Cor 10:16). The period immediately after the Easter Triduum in which the newly baptized are still reeling from their full initiation into the Sacred Mysteries is called the mystagogia, in which they are called to more deeply penetrate and assimilate the mysteries they have newly experienced. There is a need for this precisely because the Eucharist and our participation in it is the fundamental and universal mysticism of the Church. Only those who can learn silence, adoration and most of all, who can enter in to the gift of salvific suffering are able to enter into the mystery of the Holy Grail.
If it is true then, in some sense that The Mystery of Faith is the Eucharist and our participation in the Sacred Mysteries, and if it is also true that the Chalice of Benediction, the Holy Grail, over which myserium fidei is spoken, is the mystery of grace and redemption, then might we not look to the most sublime vessel of grace in order to penetrate the mystery and enter into the secret? Indeed, the mystics who have experienced the events of the Triduum in an extraordinary way, albeit in a way that in no sense constitutes part of the deposit of faith, place a special emphasis on the Eucharistic communion of Our Lady at the Last Supper on Holy Thursday. She is often said to have been communicated by angels, as for example, Ven. Mother Maria of Agreda writes that St. Gabriel was sent to Her from the cenacle to give Her Holy Communion immediately after Our Lord Himself had consumed the sacred species. In fact, the venerable mother says that the Sacred Host remained unconsumed in the body of the Blessed Virgin until the first Mass of St. Peter after the Resurrection.
Womb and Tomb
There is a remarkable passage of the great English Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins from his retreat notes apropos of this extraordinary grace of the Blessed Virgin. In his notes he comments on the passage of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius concerning the apparition of Our Lord to His Blessed Mother at the resurrection. There we read the following:
‘In corpore et anima’—On the pregnant principle expressed in the Mysteries and in this very one we cannot doubt at the Last Supper Christ invisibly but sacramentally communicated the Blessed Mother (as many estatics and others have been communicated) by the hands of angels or otherwise. After this she would have fasted till the Resurrection and the Sacred Host have lain in her breast unconsumed. In her then as well as on the cross Christ died and was at once buried, her body his temple becoming his sepulcher. At his rising the soul entered the body in her as in the sepulcher and, issuing from her breast, the two presences passed into one. And at the same time the windingsheet left empty fell upon itself in the sepulcher and the empty accidents were consumed in the Blessed Virgin.
“Warm laid grave of a womb life grey;/ Manger, maiden’s knee” is how Hopkins refers to the trajectory of Christ’s Body and Blood existence from birth to death (“The Wreck of the Deutchland,” st. 7, ll. 3, 4). And in the context of his contention concerning Mary’s Holy Thursday communion, we should more clearly see the enclosed space of Our Lady’s Virginal womb, where the Eternal Word is enfleshed, as the foreshadowing of the sealed tomb and another manifestation of that inviolate Garden of Paradise which is Her Immaculate and Sorrowful Heart.
Elsewhere in his retreat notes, Hopkins suggests that the defense of this mystery or secret is, in fact, the great cosmic battle in which all souls are perpetually engaged. As he reflects on chapter 12 of the Apocalypse where St. Michael attacks the fallen angels he writes: “. . . It was a sort of crusade undertaken in defense of the woman in whom the sacrificial victim had lain and from whom he had risen, a sort of Holy Sepulchre and a heavenly Jerusalem. . .”
I certainly would not blame anyone who says that all this is just pious poetry from a Marian enthusiast. Yet poetry says something true, even if not literally or historically, though many aspects of sacred history are also poetic. St. Anthony Mary Claret was well known to carry the Blessed Sacrament continually in his body as in a tabernacle. And it is a patristic teaching that the miracle of the Virgin Birth (“womb life grey”) is exactly parallel to the escape of Our Lord from the sealed tomb (“warm laid grave”).
The Secret of Mary
Indeed, the New Garden of Paradise is the Heart of Mary and it is like the enclosed space of the Cenacle where the first Mass was celebrated. It is like Garden of the Agony of Jesus where He resigned Himself to the Chalice of Suffering. And it is like the Garden of the Passion and Resurrection, where the New Tree of Life grows and bears fruit. Her virginal womb is truly the Virgin Earth from which grows forth the Tree of Life, and, one way or another, it is the exemplar for the enclosed space in which the Victim and Victor is laid and from which He rises. It is the true Grail of the Blood of Christ where we enter into The Mystery of Faith. St. Louis de Montfort writes that devotion to Mary is the secret that the Holy Spirit unseals for us (The Secret of Mary, 20). We are invited to enter this Enclosed Garden and Fountain Sealed, if we are willing to be humble in the face of the mysterium fidei.
The Easter mystery is all about sacrificial love, Christ’s, first of all, then ours in the Heart of the Immaculate Coredemptrix, the one in whom the mysteries we celebrate are fully realized. The Great Sacrifice makes Jesus present as our food, and in Him, in our participation in that Sacrifice through Holy Communion, we are incorporated into the mystery, mysticism and transformation in preparation for our own resurrection. This is what we celebrate as we witness the Bride of Christ decked out in all Her liturgical glory. This is the real secret of liturgical reform and its only real object.
May the Peace of Easter be yours.