Monday, November 13, 2006

What is "the mystery of faith"?

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Someone accustomed to the English liturgy of the Catholic, Episcopal, and Lutheran churches (among others) might instantly chime back, "Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again." But there is more to it than that. In Eucharistic Prayer A of Rite Two in the Episcopal Church, this is the "mystery of faith" which the congregation is called to proclaim. In the New Roman Missal, it is a little more ambiguous. In the Roman Canon of the classical Western liturgy, it is something else.

A "mystery of faith" is a profound truth which is difficult to grasp. It is better appreciated than understood, yet neither appreciation nor understanding of a mystery of faith can be exausted. St Paul often described salvation and the gospel as a mystery (see Romans 16:25 and Ephesians 1:9). "Mystery" is the origin of the term "sacrament" (see Ephesians 5:32). Also, in 1 Timothy 3:9, the deacons of the Church are required to "hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience."

Until the new Missal of Paul VI was issued in 1969, the Eucharistic Prayer of the Roman Rite read at the consecration of the cup, "Take and drink of this, all of you. This is the Chalice of my Blood, of the new and eternal covenant--the mystery of faith-- which will be shed for you and for many for the remission of sins. As often as you shall do these actions, you will do them in memory of me." The "mystery of faith" was intimately connected with the consecration of the precious Blood, though it could also be an adjectival phrase describing the New Covenant.

In his 1965 encyclical Mysterium Fidei, Pope Paul VI wrote: "First of all, we wish to recall something which is well known to you . . . that the Eucharist is a very great mystery. In fact, properly speaking, and to use the words of the sacred liturgy, it is the Mystery of Faith. 'Indeed, in it alone,' as Leo XIII, our predecessor of happy memory very wisely remarked, 'are contained, in a remarkable richness and variety of miracles, all supernatural realities.' We must therefore approach especially this mystery with humble respect, not following human arguments, which ought to be silent, but adhering firmly to divine revelation."

The mysterium fidei did not continue into the Book of Common Prayer tradition (until the recent Prayer A reintroduced it, following the new Roman Missal) probably because it was not a part of the biblical text. A pious tradition claims that St Peter is the author of the whole Roman Canon including the insertion of this phrase within the words of consecration. Some have advanced the hypothesis that the phrase was originally a notification by the deacon to the people that the consecration was completed, but there is no historical data to support this conclusion. So why is it there? And what does it mean?

Liturgical scholar Josef Jungmann, SJ had this to say about the Mysterium Fidei in Volume II of his work The Mass of the Roman Rite:

The most striking phenomenon in the Roman text is the augmentation of the words of consecration said over the chalice. The mention of the New Testament is turned into an acknowledgment of its everlasting duration: novi et ceterni testamenti. And then, in the middle of the sacred text, stand the enigmatic words so frequently discussed: mystertum fidei. Unfortunately the popular explanation (that the words were originally spoken by the deacon to reveal to the congregation what had been per­formed at the altar, which was screened from view by curtains) is poetry, not history. (Note: The explanation advanced by K. J. Merk, according to which the words are intended to exclude the epiklesis and accentuate the fact that the consecration was already completed by the preceding words, is without foundation. The explanation given by T. Schermann is no better; according to this the mysterium fidei originally belonged only to the Mass of Baptism, inserted to call the attention of the newly baptized to an action that was entirely strange to them.)

The phrase is found inserted in the earliest texts of the sacramentaries, and mentioned even in the seventh century. (Note: As the Expositio of the Gallican Mass shows, it was already contained in the 7th century chalice for­mula, which was taken over from the Ro­man into the Gallican liturgy. Such a gen­eral diffusion can be explained only by postulating a Roman origin.) It is missing only in some later sources. (E.g., in the Milanese Sacramentary of Biasca (9-10th century.)

Regarding the meaning of the words mysterium fidei, there is absolutely no agreement. A distant parallel is to be found in the Apostolic Constitu­tions, where our Lord is made to say at the consecration of the bread: "This is the mystery of the New Testament, take of it, eat, it is My Body." Just as here the mysterium is referred to the bread in the form of a predicate, so in the canon of our Mass it is referred to the chalice in the form of an apposition.

It has been proposed K that the words be taken as relating more closely to what precedes, so that in our text we should read: novi (et aeterni) testamenti mysterium (fidei). But such a rendering can hardly be upheld, particularly because of the word fidei that follows, but also because the whole phrase dependent on the word mysterium would then become a man-made insertion into the consecrating words of our Lord. (Note: Despite all studies of philological possibilities, it still remains difficult to con­ceive the genitive novi et aterni testamenti as dependent upon the mysterium immedi­ately following, which is already associ­ated with a genitive [fidei]; whereas Paul-Luke combine the words sanguis [meus novi] testamenti into a unit, at least as to sense, and Matthew-Mark do so even in form. Nevertheless the idea gains some support from the curious fact that it is precisely this group of words that is miss­ing in the Sacramentarium Rossianum.)

Mysterium fidei is an independent expansion, superadded to the whole self-sufficient complex that precedes. (Note: The intrusion of such an addition into the very core of the words of consecration could be more easily explained, if, like the aeterni [testamenti] they were of Scriptural origin. The expression is in fact found in I Tim. 3: 9, where the deacons are admonished to preserve the mystery of faith in a pure conscience: habentes mysterium fidei in conscientia pura. Of course, some­thing quite different is here meant, namely, the Christian teaching, and thus it becomes quite difficult to understand how the phrase was seized upon in this connection. Brinktrine tries to establish points of contact; the passage at times was under­stood in a Eucharistic sense, and the nam­ing of the deacons, to whom the chalice pertained, could have led to this chalice for­mula. Florus Diaconus had already drawn I Tim. 3:9 into the exposition of this passage.)

What is meant by the words mysterium fidei? Christian antiquity would not have referred them so much to the obscurity of what is here hidden from the senses, but accessible (in part) only to (subjective) faith. Rather it would have taken them as a reference to the grace-laden sacramentum in which the entire (objective) faith, the whole divine order of salvation is comprised. (Note: That the identification of mysterium and sacramentum is justified for the time that comes under consideration is clear from the fact that the series of catechetical instructions handling this matter is called in one case by Ambrose De mysteriis and then again De sacramentis. Opinions will differ, however, with regard to a narrower limitation of the idea mysterium. O. Casel, who in agrees with Hamm, prefers in to take the "mystery of the faith" as the new mysterium in opposition to the mysterium of the Gnosis. But it is still questionable whether the Gnosis is to be taken into account for this interpolation.) The chalice of the New Testament is the life-giving symbol of truth, the sanctuary of our belief. (Note: The natural Englishing, "mystery of [the' faith," unfortunately suggests only the intellectual side and so seems to interrupt the train of thought.)

How or when or why this insertion was made, or what external event occasioned it, cannot readily be ascertained. (Note: Th. Michels refers to Leo the Great; the pope points out that at that time the Manicheans here and there partook of the body of Our Lord, but shunned "to drink the blood of our Redemption." He supposes that in opposition to them Leo wanted to accentuate the chalice by adding the words mysterium fidei.)

The sacred account concludes with the command to repeat what Christ had done. The text is taken basically from St. Paul; however, the entire Roman tradition, from Hippolytus on, has substituted for the Pauline phrase "whenever you drink it," the phrase "whenever you do this." In some form or other our Lord's injunction is mentioned in almost all the liturgical formularies." Where it is missing, it is presupposed. It is in the very nature of the Christian liturgy of the Mass that the account of the institution of the Blessed Sacrament should not be recited as a merely historical record, as are other portions of the Gospels. Indeed, the words of the account are spoken over the bread and a chalice, and, in accord with our Lord's word, are uttered precisely in order to repeat Christ's action. This repetition, is, in fact, accomplished in all its essentials by rehearsing the words of the account of the institution.

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