We are about to celebrate the greatest event in human history.
Well, actually, it’s an event that occurred almost 2,000 years ago. And yet we are going to personally experience it in a couple of weeks. In fact, we celebrate it each Sunday, and many people throughout the world participate in it every day of the week.
Handing on the Faith
The event to which I am referring is at the very core of our life as Christians. However, its name may not be all that familiar. The term “Paschal mystery” is used to describe the saving actions of the Son of God. It is through Jesus Christ’s passion, death, resurrection, and ascension that we are restored into communion with our heavenly Father. The Paschal mystery makes it possible for us to share in God’s own divine life, which is the purpose for which we were made. The saving event of the Paschal mystery is what we celebrate at Easter and what is made present to us at every Eucharistic celebration.
The term “Paschal mystery” is not a common expression in our contemporary vocabulary. The term finds its roots in the Jewish Passover.
The Israelites, who had been bound in slavery in Egypt, were instructed by God to sacrifice a lamb so that the angel of death would “pass over” their homes. By the blood of the lamb, they were saved from death and given new life. The Passover freed the Israelites from their bondage of slavery and led them to their exodus from Egypt.
Thus, the “paschal lamb” became the symbol of Israel’s redemption.
The paschal lamb was also a prefigurement of Jesus Christ, who, in the New Testament, is referred to as “the lamb of God” (John 1:29). Through the shedding of his own blood and the offering of his body, Jesus Christ brings about our own redemption. “For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7).
Within the church’s liturgy, the events of Christ’s “Passover” to the Father become present and real to us. This finds similarity in the Jewish understanding of the Passover celebration. It does not consist of simply “remembering” something that happened in the past, but actually making these events present so that those who believe “may conform their lives to them” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1363).
Whenever the Eucharist is celebrated, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is truly made present to us. The sacrifice that occurred one time in history is made present outside of time in “mystery.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes this beautifully: “[Christ’s] Paschal mystery is a real event that occurred in our history, but it is unique: all other historical events happen once, and then they pass away, swallowed up in the past. The Paschal mystery of Christ, by contrast, cannot remain only in the past, because by his death he destroyed death, and all that Christ is — all that he did and suffered for all men — participates in the divine eternity, and so transcends all times while being made present in them all” (CCC 1085).
Every Mass makes present Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. However, it is not a “re-sacrifice.” It is a re-presentation of the one sacrifice of Christ. Jesus’ one sacrifice was sufficient for all (cf. Hebrews 10:10,12) It is this one sacrifice that is made present at the Eucharistic celebration and from which all of the sacraments derive their effectiveness.
When we participate at Mass, we are with Jesus at the Last Supper, we accompany him to Calvary, we experience the empty tomb, and we witness his ascension to the Father.
This is made possible because the Holy Spirit has been given to the church. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, “Christ manifests, makes present, and communicates his work of salvation through the liturgy of his Church” (CCC 1076).
Offering an analogy, especially an analogy to something as profound as the Paschal mystery, will always fall short. But to help explain how the Eucharistic celebration communicates Christ’s saving work to us, I will make such an attempt.
Assume that a powerful medicine was discovered 2,000 years ago. This medicine is capable of curing a deadly disease. But as with any medicine, a person actually has to receive the medicine within his or her own body for it to be effective. The medicine offers each person the opportunity to be cured, but its mere creation doesn’t save anyone from the disease. It must be received to be effective.
Similarly, Jesus Christ has accomplished what is needed for our salvation. It is something no human being is capable of doing on his own. However, each person needs to decide whether or not to accept Christ’s saving work. A bottle of penicillin sitting on my counter won’t cure my infection. I must have faith that the medicine will work, which leads me to actually take it.
Likewise, Jesus’ saving work must be accepted by each person in faith. We must believe that Jesus accomplished this for us and that it brings us new life. It is this belief that leads us to receive its benefits through our participation in the Paschal mystery. Receiving these graces through the re-presentation of Christ’s Paschal mystery at the Eucharistic celebration, thus, becomes for us our “medicine of immortality” (CCC 1405).
As Easter approaches, we will have the opportunity to recount the wonderful works of God’s saving actions for mankind. May this lead us to a greater understanding of the Paschal mystery and fill us with a deeper desire to receive its life-giving grace.
Liz Hoefferle is director of religious education for the Diocese of Duluth.