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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Sacred Mysteries

Today somone on Twitter raised a question arising from today's Divine Office reading, taken from Origen's homily on Joshua. She thought he was talking about salvation being limited to a certain few, wheras he is actually speaking in the context of the Sacraments, ie "Sacred Mysteries."

I'm going to quote a larger passage, not a "twitterable" one, so as to give better context which will aid in our understanding. (Words in bold were the passage being questioned.)

From Origen's Homily on Joshua:

"You have recently abandoned the darkness of idolatry, and you now desire to come and hear the divine law. This is your departure fro mEgypt. When you became a catechumen and began to obey the laws of the Church, you passed through the Red Sea; now at the various stops in the desert, you give time every day to hear the law of God and to see the face of Moses unveiled by the glory of God. But once you come to the baptismal font and, in the presence of the priests and deacons, are initiated into those sacred and august mysteries which only those know who should, then, through the ministry of the priests, you will cross the Jordan and enter the promised land. There Moses will hand you over to Jesus, and he himself will be your guide on your new journey."

There is actually a great deal of theology in this passage, and a great deal of history being alluded to which was relevant to Origin's audience. Thus I'd like to first point out that the overall context of the homily seems to indicate that those hearing it were converts from Judaism. In it, Origin is referring to their history, familiarity with Moses, the Red Sea, the Ark of the Covenant, etc. (I did not quote the entire reading for today). Had he been speaking to gentile converts, he would have had to explain these things as opposed to bringing them into the present and into the Christian understanding.

Now, as far as the text that the individual questioned, it seems clear to me that Origin is discussing the Sacraments. He refers to "initiation", and we refer to Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Communion as the "sacraments of initiation". At that time, I believe catechumens received all three Sacraments at the same time.

If you read the passage again, it discusses the presence of priests and deacons, and specifically, that they are admitted to these mysteries through the ministry of the priests. This indicates the reception of Sacraments, as well as presence at the Paschal Mystery (e.g. the Mass)

What many do not understand is that Mass was not always so accessable to people. Recall that in the Early Church, Christians were greatly persecuted. All week in the Divine Office we've been reading about St. Ignatius; he was paraded to Rome in captivity to face his martyrdom, and in the process wrote something like 15 letters to those in his care. When he reached Rome, he was fed to the lions, and many other Christians, people like you and I, (from children to the elderly) also stood up and identified themselves publicly as Christians, and were ALSO sent to the lions.

It doesn't surprise me, then, that this reading follows, for the persecution of our ancestors was not the lame and cowardly persecutions we face today (at least, in America). Wheras we risk and suffer ridicule and maybe political "attack" in our countries, for them it was a crime to be Christian, and to publicly admit the affiliation was an automatic death sentence. A very torturous death, done for the entertainment of the pagan masses.

So it was that, in the Early Church, Mass was a secret meeting. The priests consecrated the bread and wine into the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ. They spoke of eating His flesh and drinking His blood, and yes, they did this quite seriously. St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Clement of Rome, St. Irenaeus, St. Justin Martyr, St. Cyril, among others, all spoke of this Mystery (which today we call the Paschal Mystery).

There, deep in history, the rumor mill was just as active as it is today, even without benefit of the internet. The pagans, and others, sincerely believed the Christians were cannibals, and that they were meeting in secret in order to do their grisly and immoral deeds. Christians were hated and feared.

It was for this reason (among others) that St. Justin Martyr wrote Apologia, in an attempt to defend the Church, respond to the attacks, and put the rumors to rest.

At that time in history, strangers were not admitted to Mass. Catechumens (the non-baptized being instructed in the Christian faith, a term still used today) were barred from attendance until, for approximately three years, they had completed their instruction, had truly converted, and were ready to be admitted to the Mysteries. (To be specific, they were admitted to the Liturgy of the Word, ie the penitential rite, collect, Gloria, scripture readings, and the Homily, and were dismissed after this.)

St. Justin Martyr, in his 1st Apology, wrote about this practice:

No one may share the Eucharist with us unless he believes that what we teach is true, unless he is washed in the regenerating waters of baptism for the remission of his sins, and unless he lives in accordance with the principles given us by Christ.

We do not consume the eucharistic bread and wine as if it were ordinary food and drink, for we have been taught that as Jesus Christ our Savior became a man of flesh and blood by the power of the Word of God, so also the food that our flesh and blood assimilates for its nourishment becomes the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus by the power of his own words contained in the prayer of thanksgiving.

He explains here why others were not admitted to these mysteries, raising the demand of a conversion of life, of intent, of proving their ability to live "in accordance with the principles given us by Christ."

Those who became Christians then, through the Sacraments of initiation, knew what they were getting into. They were willing to die for it, and they were everyday witnesses to exactly what kind of death awaited them.

They were not willing to die for a lie, for a "mystery" that turned out to have been written by an early Dan Brown hack. When they were finally, at long last, admitted to the Church and initiated into those Mysteries, they knew what they were receiving, the importance of it, the sacredness, and the reality that this was going to cost them. They had to first die to themselves in order to risk dying for the Faith of Jesus Christ.


Now, there was also the question of salvation, and I won't go into detail on this, but I can focus on some very simple beliefs.

We believe that baptism is NECESSARY for Salvation, and that no one enters heaven but through Jesus Christ. His suffering and death was for the remission of sin, paid the ransom owed, rendering Divine Justice through His perfect act of Mercy. But we must be baptized, the stain of original sin erased, and through this Sacrament, we enter the Church.

As Catholics, we recognize that Confirmation and Holy Communion complete our initiation into the Church, each Sunday we profess our Faith, and continue to live the sacramental life of the Church, even if it means that we receive the Sacrament of Confession daily if necessary! Even we who have been initiated are not admitted freely to the Sacrament of Holy Communion if we are in a state of mortal sin!

So, yes, Origin is ALSO speaking of salvation in this homily, but by no means is giving a discourse on that (no more than I am in this post!). His main point is the necessity and importance of the sacramental life, instruction in the relevence (and revelation!) of these mysteries for those upon whom the chrism oil still drips from their foreheads.


Anyone can attend Mass today, no matter what their faith, and no matter how much they reject our beliefs. All are admitted. Yet, they cannot participate in the sacred mysteries that are the Sacraments; if they have not been instructed or reject those beliefs, they cannot be admitted for they are not in union with the Church.

I would argue that the early preparation given to the catechumens of that age probably better served to reveal the importance of the sacraments and the holiness of the Mass, far more so than the current (and typical) RCIA models do. Do I think we should make a return to what they had to do in the first centuries? Perhaps not; what was proper then might not be proper now, although I suspect that in places like India, the Sudan, and Saudia Arabia, this probably IS a more likely practice than that which we have here in America.

Persecution and suffering tends to impress upon those affected the holiness and grace of God far more than we butter-fed prosperous countries can muster on even our worst of days.

Something for us all to consider as we enter into perhaps the only season of "persecution" many of us have ever known.


I'm not overly familiar with early Church history as it applies to the Mass and Sacraments, so tried to keep my comments general. It's entirely possible that I erred in some of my statements, and so this post should not be taken as gospel fact. I would encourage anyone reading this to read formal documentation of this history, and definitely click on the link to St. Justin Martyr's 1st Apology.

Further, it's not intended to be a complete discourse on St. Justin Martyr or any of the other listed Saints, only a general explanation. I am not an expert in anything.

Another great resource is Rod Bennett's Four Witnesses; the Early Church in Her Own Words , available from Ignatius Press. I've read this book and cannot recommend it highly enough, especially for those who are unfamiliar with the Church Fathers and life in the Early Church.


Hidden One said...

I second Adoro's book recommendation.

Warren said...

[Pedantic hat on]

I think it's Origen with an E.

"Origin" is where something comes from.

[Pedantic hat off]



Adoro said...

Hidden One ~ Great book isn't it?

Warran (and all those who emailed) ~ Why is it that I can have posts FULL of typoes and no one says a word, but I typo "Origen" and suddenly I am BOMBARDED with emails! you all get together and confer on which words you're going to pick out of my posts, and launch an attack at the same time?

And are missing the historical error that looms. I had to GO to another friend to ASK for that to be revealed. And that's a FAR bigger issue....

*sheesh*! You just can't get good commenters these days!



Warren said...

The short answer:

Because a typo is different than a consistent mis-spelling. Typos are less jarring. :-)

Someone who transposes "where" and "we're", or "your" and "you're", or consistently types "alot" instead of "a lot" is asking, nay, BEGGING to be corrected.

As for historical error... Hmm.

You didn't mention Origen's heterodoxy or the odd episode involving Origen's self mutilation.

He's an odd duck, that one.


Adoro said...

Warren ~ Did you notice I typoed your name? lol. Just saw that!

No, I didn't mention his material heresy, didn't seem to be necessary in this case! He humbly advanced his ideas, and some weren't condemned until he was 300 years in the grave! As my prof. said, "He died a loyal son of the Church"

St. Jerome spent a lot of time ripping on him, but at teh same time, utilized MUCH of Origen's work in his commentaries.

I got a lotta tipewys/ typos going on tis moarnin!