One of the things I love most about being Catholic is our rich tradition of symbols. Symbols dominate our Church art, our music, and the way we think about our faith. Our liturgies are filled with symbolic actions, actions that lead us deeper into the mysteries of what we celebrate. Some of my favorite symbolic actions happened during the Easter Vigil. The procession of the Paschal candle into the darkened Church, the procession of the Catechumens to the baptismal font, and the blessing of the baptismal font with the Paschal candle, to name a few.
For those individuals being fully initiated into the Catholic Church on Easter, these symbols and rituals are especially significant. That is why, from very early on in Church history, the neophytes, newly initiated Catholics, were led through a period of post-baptismal catechesis called mystagogy.
Interpreting the mystery
Mystagogy translates from the Greek as “interpretation of the mystery,” and it is the fourth major period of the RCIA, “Rite of Christian Initiation,” process. The purpose of this period of mystagogy is to help the neophytes come to understand the meaning of these rituals and symbols they experience in the liturgy. What deeper realities do the rituals, symbolic actions, and signs point to in the liturgy? How do we, through our use of these symbols in the liturgy, participate in a deeper way in the mystery of Christ and the Church? These are some of the questions answered for the neophytes as they begin their new life of faith.
The answer to these questions always involves a movement from “the visible to the invisible, from the sign to the thing signified, from the ‘sacraments’ to the ‘mysteries’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1075) and may take the form of a narratio. Narratio comes from the same Latin root as our English word “narration” and implies the telling of a story.
Living the story
This narratio begins with explaining the natural meaning of the matter or actions used in the liturgy. What significance has fire, water, walking, etc. held for humanity from the beginning? For example, if a catechist was trying to “interpret the mystery” of the procession of the catechumens to the baptismal font, they may begin by explaining the meaning of the Paschal candle and the act of processing. Fire has been used to guide the way through the dark since the beginning. A procession evokes a journey, moving intentionally towards a good.
The second part of the narratio continues the explanation by telling how God took these natural elements or actions and gave them deeper meaning in the story of salvation history. For example, the fire of the Paschal candle recalls the pillar of fire that led the Israelites through the desert towards the Red Sea and the promised land (Exodus 13:21). The procession of these catechumens to the water of the baptismal font also recalls the journey of the Israelites out of Egypt towards the Red Sea (Exodus 13:17-18). The Catechumens, like the Israelites, are being led by God in the form of this fire, from slavery to freedom. This is symbolically reenacted through their procession in the Church to the baptismal font.
The narratio culminates with an explanation of how these elements, actions, and words find their full significance and meaning in the life of Christ. So in the example of our procession at the Easter Vigil, the catechist would explain how Jesus himself makes a journey out into the wilderness to John the Baptist to be baptized.
Through this ritual procession during the Easter Vigil, the catechumens are truly mystically participating in both the journey of the Israelites to the Red Sea and Jesus journey to the Jordan river. This liturgical procession is not simply a nice reminder of those events, but is in fact a true participation in those events for the Catechumens.
Mystagogy – a journey for all of us
You get a glimpse into the power of mystagogy! Mystagogy has the power to open our eyes to the deepest spiritual reality we are participating in when we participate in the liturgy. The gift of programs like the Catholic Biblical School and Catechetical School is that we are given the context in which to understand what happens in the liturgy. Without knowing the significance of events like the flight of the Israelites to the Red Sea or the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, we can never fully appreciate the significance of the liturgy.
Mystagogy is an on-going, life-long process of becoming more deeply aware of what is taking place at every Mass and liturgy. It is this awareness of the unseen realities we encounter in the liturgy that helps change the Mass from a weekly obligation into a much longed-for weekly encounter with God. Mystagogy is not only a process for our newly received Catholics, but is a process every Catholic should continue to experience as we all mature in our faith.
“The mature fruit of mystagogy is an awareness that one’s life is being progressively transformed by the holy mysteries being celebrated.”
-Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, 64