Mystagogy for a Spiritually Hungry Generation

Almost a century ago, the future Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, wrote his influential The Gospel and the Catholic Church.  He aimed to reconcile the evangelical and catholic impulses in the Church by arguing that the apostolic structures of the Church, and in particular orders, existed to express the Gospel itself and to invite us to respond to Christ’s saving death with lives of self-surrender.  This intention to think these two impulses together goes to the heart of what it means to be an Anglican, and it has a special importance to those who walk the ‘Canterbury Trail’ from the evangelical world to our tradition.
I believe that a similar effort is required today. One form of it might be liturgical.  We live in the era of the triumph of the Eucharist in parish practice.  Historically there has been a debate about the nature of the event, and in particular the nature of the presence of Christ in it.  Like all such debates we do well to revive them and  engage them, since this enables us to better understand what we are doing. But in this entry I want to explicate the Communion or Eucharist or Mass in a different way, one that  may be friendly to an evangelical sensibility.  It will also make central the doctrine whose renewal is crucial to our Church’s life, namely the Atonement  of Jesus.  Finally it may have value in making this sacrament comprehensible to a generation for whom spirituality has been a catchword.
What is it we want as human beings? We want to get home. We want to find our way to the Father. We want what St Paul in Romans 6:1 calls ‘access.’  We want to have a share in the mystery, what it is all about.  We want to overcome the barriers which evil, tragedy, and death pose, both around us and in us. And that is exactly what  Communion acts out, in symbol and ritual form.  It is a journey into the sanctum sanctorum, the secret heart of the inner castle, the cosmic temple, the center of all things. To get from the door, to the altar, the throne- that is what Eucharist is about, because that is what life is about.
Remember the Temple, how it had a court of the Gentiles, and then inner ground where only Israel could enter, and then only priests, and finally only the high priest could enter.  Hebrews tells us there is only one sacrifice, already accomplished, through whose veil we are invited. I Peter tells us that we are by its power now made a new people of God and a nation of priests.   Our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, in the words of our prayer book, is now to be offered there by us through Him. 
At the offertory we sing the Sanctus, because we are invited into the heavenly realm, that of angels, though Isaiah ‘s words remind us that we have no right of our own accord to be there, nor power to intrude ourselves there. We are invited, called from the four winds, in the wake of His resurrection.  So the very pinnacle of the sacrament is our saying His prayer to His Father, borrowing that intimacy, escorted into the Presence, allowed to say ‘Abba,' ‘Father’ (Romans 8).
Once we see this, the rest falls into place. The readings and sermon describe the road, and the temple old and new, and the longing, and the roadblocks.  The bread and wine are fused with the promise of the invitation itself.   The dismissal reminds us that the sanctum is in us, corporately, individually, though he suffused to cosmos, as our Lutheran colleagues would remind us.
Invitation into the  sanctum of the Father through the death of Jesus that breaks down the dividing wall (Ephesians 2): that is a description catholic and evangelical, and maybe even searcher, can own.   And that means that every Eucharist you attend is a mystical journey home, hidden under ordinary things, as Christ’s incarnate presence was itself.  There is no end to how deeply we can plunge into this reality.
Nowadays one hears lots of comparisons between the situation of the Church now and in the first centuries AD. The comparison has a real but limited usefulness. But we can profit by thinking about how new Christians were formed, by God’s grace, in that era.  The moral demands of the faith were conveyed, as were the basics of the Creed. But instruction did not end with baptism. Afterwards, the instruction, called ‘mystagogy,’ ‘being led into the mysterious things,’ i.e. the sacraments, commenced. Christians were enabled to connect the down-to-earth facts of this new life of theirs with its inner representation in the Eucharist. What I am suggesting is a form of mystagogy for a spiritually hungry generation. This Sunday what will really happen is that you will be led home and greeted by your Father, the same thing you are doing Monday through Saturday, the same thing that will occur on the day that our life ends.

Symbolic Action in a Postmodern World

I have been thinking about the Christian world, and the larger world, thinking about Francis. At the very least he has an expert sense of symbolic action and its effect in the postmodern world, rivaled only by his predecessor John Paul II. I recall being in Toronto when World Youth Day was held there in the early 2000’s -- the news media called upon the Pope to retire, said that his incapacitated state was an embarrassment. Then he arrived, with great labor kissed Canadian soil, and declared that he was dragging his dying body around the world in solidarity with Catholic youth. Clearly the press was up against a more than worthy counterpart -- by the end of the week they were entranced.  To ‘leverage’ weakness in such a way has not a little to do with the Gospel ministry. Something similar could be said about Francis and his conspicuously Franciscan style.

At the same time, it is disconcerting to hear the news media trying to figure out to what extent Francis is or isn’t ‘progressive.’  The secular political realm not surprisingly thinks in secular political terms.  But such terms will not, nor should they, catch what he is about. Some Catholics worry that misunderstandings can have their own consequences -- this too is fair enough. But the heart of what he is about would seem to lie precisely in the logic of a traditional Roman Catholic reaching out into the culture he finds. It is as a missionary that he is to be understood.

Francis is, after all, a Jesuit.  The order has had a complicated and varied history, and it certainly has had its more radical representatives. But they have their own way of thinking about things.  Consider for example their greatest missionaries, at the dawn of the modern age. They seemed the most accommodated of missionaries, the most adapted to their culture. De Nobili in the saffron robes of a Hindu scholar ascetic, Ricci in his Mandarin silk, Rhodes the Vietnamese elder, not to mention the priests to the Guarani, popularly presented in the movie The Mission.  They were at the same time the most traditional and obedient of theologians, doctrinally hardened like steel within.  They squared the circle with patience and a sense that the Gospel must be presented in stages according to what the hearer can receive.  This doctrine of reserve may be wrong, but it does have a logic to it.  My suspicion is that there is something of this within-and-without, of patience and reserve, in the deep DNA of a figure like our present Pope.  And if this is so, he raises interesting question for us about how we imagine that the Gospel should be presented by us, in our time and place.  The Gospel is always at home and yet a scandal, needing to be heard and yet a whole not reducible to parts.  Francis challenges easy dichotomies we may have, and advances a useful debate about evangelization in our own context.




Complete the Race (II Timothy 4:17)

At the end of our vacation we find ourselves in Chicago for its Marathon weekend (the fastest, I have read this morning, perhaps because it is cool and relatively level). Marathons offer many good things. You can see world-class athletes from places like Ethiopia and Kenya. There is a feel of fiesta with signs by family members, getups by some for-fun runners, and food for sale.

But as I looked out my hotel window at 7:30 a.m., I watched the race of competitors who have lost legs or their use. Wheeling vehicles by arm for 26 miles means serious fitness and determination.

Those competitors were to me, this morning, a symbol of the Church too. For each is wounded. The larger family cheers them on. Each by grace has risen up to run the race. Ahead is the goal, the prize, the welcome home. We find the companionship of Jesus the Lord, there, and along the route too.