Jan 15, 2016

Lent and the Paschal Mystery

Ash Wednesday in 2016 falls on February 10. During Mass for Ash Wednesday, at the Blessing of the Ashes, the priest prays to God that Father that as we, the faithful, “follow the Lenten observances, they may be worthy to come with minds made pure to celebrate the Paschal Mystery of your Son.”

Near Lent’s end, on Palm Sunday, prior to the procession with psalms, the priest offers a brief introduction and admonition to celebrate prayerfully. He says, in part: “Today we gather together to herald with the whole Church the beginning of the celebration of our Lord’s Paschal Mystery, that is to say, of his Passion and Resurrection.”

On Good Friday’s celebration of the Lord’s Passion, the priest asks God at the beginning of liturgy to “Remember your mercies, O Lord, and with your eternal protection sanctify your servants, for who Christ your Son, by the shedding of his Blood, established the Paschal Mystery.”

It appears—according to prayers (and therefore the mind) of the Church—that the “Paschal Mystery” is of central importance. But what, precisely, is this mystery?

There are a number of reliable sources to look at, including the documents of the Second Vatican Council and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The pages of Adoremus will continue to be filled with such references in the future. For the moment, let’s look to Pope Benedict’s 2001 lecture on “The Theology of the Liturgy,” here reprinted with permission from Joseph Ratzinger’s Collected Works: The Theology of the Liturgy from Ignatius Press.

May the Paschal Mystery of Christ, which is made present to us in the liturgies of the Triduum, lead us to the merciful face of God the Father.

The Theology of the Liturgy (excerpts)
Joseph Ratzinger 2001

The Second Vatican Council defined the liturgy as “an action of Christ the Priest and of his Body, which is the Church.”1 The work of Jesus Christ is referred to in the same text as the work of the redemption that Christ accomplished especially by the Paschal Mystery of his Passion, of his Resurrection from the dead, and his glorious Ascension. By this Paschal Mystery, by “dying he destroyed our death, and rising, restored our life.”2

At first sight, in these two sentences, the phrase “the action/work of Christ” seems to have been used in two different senses. “The work of Christ” refers first of all to the historical, redemptive actions of Jesus, his death and his Resurrection; on the other hand, the celebration of the liturgy is called “the work of Christ.”

In reality, the two meanings are inseparably linked: the death and Resurrection of Christ, the Paschal Mystery, are not just exterior, historical events. In the case of the Resurrection, this is quite obvious. It extends into history yet transcends it in two ways: it is not the action of a man but an action of God, and hence it carries the risen Jesus beyond history, to that place where he sits at the right hand of the Father. But the Cross is not a merely human action, either. The purely human aspect is present in the people who led Jesus to the Cross. For Jesus himself, the Cross is not primarily an action, but a passion, and a passion that signifies his oneness with the divine will – a union, the dramatic character of which is shown to us in the Garden of Gethsemane.3 Thus the passive dimension of being put to death is transformed into the active dimension of love; death becomes the abandonment of himself to the Father for men. In this way, the horizon again extends, as it does in the Resurrection, far beyond the purely human aspect and far beyond the one time fact of being nailed to a cross and dying. This surplus with respect to the mere historical event is what the language of faith calls a “mystery,” and in the term “Paschal Mystery” it has summarized the real core of the redemptive event. If we can say accordingly that the “Paschal Mystery” constitutes the core of “the work of Jesus,” then the connection with the liturgy is immediately evident: precisely this “work of Jesus” is the real content of the liturgy. In it, the “work of Jesus,” through the faith and the prayer of the Church, continually penetrates history. Thus, in the liturgy, the present historical moment is transcended, leading into the permanent divine-human act of redemption. In it, Christ is really the responsible subject: it is the work of Christ; but in it he draws history to himself, into this permanent act which is the locus of our salvation.

If we go back to Vatican II, we find these connections described as follows: “In the liturgy, through which, especially in the divine Sacrifice of the Eucharist, ‘the work of our Redemption is carried on,’ the faithful are most fully led to express and show to others the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church.”4 […]

[T]he expression “Paschal Mystery” unambiguously refers to what happened in the days from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday: the Last Supper as an anticipation of the Cross, the event on Golgotha, and the Lord’s Resurrection. In the expression “Paschal Mystery,” these happenings are seen synthetically as a single, coherent event, as “the action of Christ,” as we heard the Council say in the introduction to this lecture – an action that takes place historically and at the same time transcends the moment. Because this event is interiorly an act of worship rendered to God, it could become divine worship and so be present to all times. The paschal theology of the New Testament… means precisely this: that the seemingly profane event of Christ’s crucifixion is an atoning sacrifice, a healing act of reconciling love by the incarnate God. Paschal theology is theology of redemption, liturgy of the atoning sacrifice. The Shepherd has become Lamb. The vision of the lamb that appears in the story of Luke – the lamb that gets entangled in the undergrowth and ransoms the son – has come true: the Lord becomes Lamb; he allows himself to be bound and sacrificed in order to set us free.

  1. SC 7, cf. CCC 1070.
  2. SC 5; cf. CCC 1067.
  3. Cf. Francois-Marie Léthel, Théologie de l’agonie du Christ (Paris, 1979).
  4. SC 2; XXX 1068.

The Editors