Question: In my reading I often come across the term “paschal mystery.” I know it refers to Christ’s death, but I am not clear why the term “mystery” is used. Can you help me understand this better?
— Nan Lane, Worcester, Mass.
Answer: The expression “paschal mystery,” which has its roots in the homilies and writings of the Church Fathers, is a central concept of Christian faith and of liturgical theology, and it achieved a new prominence in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (CSL) of the Second Vatican Council.
“Paschal” refers to the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ — the saving events of Christianity and the heart of Jesus’ ministry. Before Christ, humanity was enslaved in a cycle of sin and death. But with Christ’s death on the cross and his glorious resurrection and ascension, humanity was liberated and set free. “Paschal” refers to Christ’s passover — his journey through death to resurrection, a fulfillment of the passover of the people of Israel from slavery to freedom.
The saving events of Christ’s passover through death to resurrection are not locked in the past. They are constantly made new and re-presented in the life of the Church through its sacraments, especially the Mass. This is where the word “mystery” comes in. The word in this context does not have the meaning it does in everyday speech, but means virtually the same thing as the word “sacrament.”
A sacrament is a ritual event in which the saving work of God in Christ is made new, real and tangible. Thus in the Mass and the sacraments, Christ’s saving death, resurrection and glorification are made present, and we are enabled to participate in them in a truly saving way. The sacraments do not simply confer grace as an abstract reality. Rather they make possible our participation in Christ’s saving passover into glory. It is by our immersion into Easter life — made new in every sacrament — that we are brought to salvation.
The paschal mystery is the unifying theme of the whole liturgical year. The CSL states: “Holy Mother Church believes that it is for her to celebrate the saving work of her divine Spouse in a sacred commemoration on certain days throughout the course of the year. Once each week, on the day which she has called the Lord’s Day, she keeps the memory of the Lord’s resurrection. She also celebrates it once every year, together with his blessed passion, at Easter, that most solemn of all feasts” (No. 102).
Over the whole course of the year, the Church “unfolds the whole mystery of Christ from the incarnation and nativity, to Pentecost and the expectation of the blessed hope of the coming of the Lord” (ibid.).
Thus, “recalling the mysteries of the redemption, she opens up to the faithful the riches of her Lord’s powers and merits, so that these are in some way made present for all time; the faithful lay hold of them and are filled with saving grace” (ibid.)
The paschal mystery is at the core even of the commemoration of the saints. The CSL states: “The Church has also included in the annual cycle memorial days of the martyrs and other saints. Raised up to the perfection of the manifold grace of God and already in possession of eternal salvation, they sing God’s perfect praise in heaven and pray for us. By celebrating their anniversaries the Church proclaims [the] achievement of the paschal mystery in the saints who have suffered and have been glorified with Christ” (No. 104).
Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to email@example.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.