Thursday, February 9, 2012

Letter to Penny Quostal, part 5

Letter to Penny Quostal, continued:

The original word for the Sacraments, oddly enough is not “sacrament.” Sacrament is a Latin word, and as you must know, having the intelligence to peruse this column, the primary language of the early Church was Greek.  Greek culture and language was to the ancient world what America and English is to the modern world. Greek was spoken (as a second language) from Spain to India, from Germany to Ethiopia. It was the language of trade and international communication. 

Latin was more common in the west, outside of Rome where, at times,  more people spoke Greek than Latin and Aramaic, a Semitic language similar to Hebrew, more common in the East, but in most places, there was somebody who spoke a little Greek.  So the Holy Spirit used the Greek word “mysterion” to describe those seven ceremonies that Christians practiced. Baptism, Anointing (called Confirmation in the West, Chrismation in the East) Eucharist, Matrimony, Ordination, Penance and the Anointing of the Sick (formerly called Extreme Unction or the Last Rites).

So what is a mysterion? It is most certainly not what we mean in modern English by the word “mystery.” A mystery is something you watch on TV or read on a dark and stormy night. The imprecise use of the word has caused a lot of trouble in the Church.  Remember when you were seven years old and asked the nun who was trying to cram the catechism into your little heathen head, and you asked her, “Sister, how can there be three persons in one God and not be three gods?” Or “how can bread and wine become Jesus when they still taste like bread and wine? Huh? Huh?” 

She would sigh, say, “It’s a mystery!” and lay her poor habited head on the desk. She was probably about 20 years old, and was trying to wrestle 40 seven-year-olds and their unpredictable bodily functions into some kind of order, all for the greater glory of God.   

When she said, “It’s a mystery!” what she was really saying was “Look, kid, I don’t understand it so there’s no way you’re going to understand it. Now just color in the book and stop pestering me.” I am amazed that more of these idealistic, valiant young  women didn’t go absolutely bonkers. 

So, we grew up thinking that the mystery of faith was just an idea that made no sense but was still true and if we wanted to get to heaven, we just had to swallow the idea and not ask too many questions. And Remember to put your envelope in the basket on Sunday. Amen. One gets the feeling that when the priest chants “the mystery of faith” after the consecration at Mass, he might as well be chanting, “we have no idea what’s actually going on here!” 

This is not what mystery means in the theological sense. The Greek word “mysterion” as in “mystery” comes from the Greek word “myo” meaning to shut (the lips), hence to whisper. A mysterion is a thing whispered, a secret.   When the priest says “Mystery of Faith” he is actually saying “the secret of faith.” Jesus said to His disciples, “To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God.” (Luke 8:10) He was really saying “To you it has been given to know the SECRETS of the kingdom of God.”  That’s different. 

We still use it in this sense when we pray the Rosary. We speak of the mysteries of the Rosary. For instance, the second joyful mystery is titled “Mary visits Elizabeth.” What’s so mysterious about that, at least in the modern sense? If you understand there are the fifteen, oops, the twenty SECRETS of the Rosary, it makes a whole lot more sense. To the world it looks like two pregnant ladies klatsching, perhaps even kvetching

To us, to whom the mysteries of the kingdom have been given, it is the moment when the Old and New Testaments meet, the moment when the old woman Elizabeth, bearing the last prophet of the old covenant greets the Virgin Mother, the young woman, bearing the new covenant.  The messiah, the prophet promised by Moses is hidden in her womb. The old acknowledges the new and rejoices. 

So it is with the seven Sacraments, more properly called the seven Mysteries, that is the seven Secrets. The world may see a priest holding a little round piece of bread. We believers know the secret. It isn’t really bread. It is the perfect sign of God’s love for the world. It is his heart made visible on the altar, His only begotten Son, the whole Christ, His body, blood soul and divinity.  I can see it. Can’t you? I can see it because I have the eyes of faith. After Jesus told the disciples that the secrets of the kingdom had been entrusted to them, that Jesus once said, “seeing they dot not see, and hearing they do not understand.”

At the time of Christ the word mysterion most commonly referred to secret religious rites that initiated people into the secret religious societies. The only comparable groups I can think of in our world today are the Moonies, the Druze and the Masons. The Masons are members of a fraternal organization that initiates members by entrusting certain secret practices and beliefs, the higher the degree that one achieves in Freemasonry, the more secrets are entrusted to him. The initiate swears a solemn oath to abide by the rules of the fraternity and to keep the "secrets of Freemasonry.”   

This is exactly what the ancient Greek cults did. The most famous of the ancient Greek mystery religions was the Eleusinian mystery. Initiates gathered in the market place of Athens on a certain day every year, walked the 14 miles to the shrine of the goddess Demeter and were shown secret objects sacred to the goddess and then sworn into the group with the most solemn oath not to reveal what they had seen. Like the Masons, the Mysteries of Eleusis had degrees of initiation and one could ascend to the highest secrets of the group. To reveal these secrets meant death, and to this day we have very little idea of what actually went on. The mysteries provided a sense of intimacy and belonging and a promise of afterlife that was lacking form the state religion and its mythology.

When Jesus spoke of the Mysteries of the Kingdom, He was clearly dealing in a category that was known to His disciples, but there was something very different about the Christian mystery. “What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the rooftops.” (Matt 10:27) The function of the Church was not to hide the secrets, but to reveal them. Heaven is not like earth. Heaven is like Jesus.  He is the sacrament of heaven. He is the visible image of the invisible God

Next week: You still haven’t explained anything about the relationship of the diaconate to the presbyterate...... I’m getting there.

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