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Home / LITURGICAL ARTICLES & THEOLOGY / A Pertinent Reflection: The Need to Rediscover and Learn of Christianity’s Mystagogical Character

A Pertinent Reflection: The Need to Rediscover and Learn of Christianity’s Mystagogical Character

Prologue

Not too long ago at Mode Of Life we received a comment on one of our published articles from one of the weblog’s visitors which expressed the following:

Salvation by grace; sanctification by aesthetic practices of Orthodox traditions. Really!!! Gal. 3:3 Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? For did you suffer so many things in vain – if indeed it was in vain?

Personally we were pleased to see that people were willing to take the time to read some of the articles posted upon our weblog, and to even make the effort to comment. This is because it allows us the opportunity for personal reflection, and to observe other opinions that people may hold. Because Christianity is not a Faith which seeks to force people into submission to its beliefs, nor does it like its adherents to be ignorant or fanatical; but to have a sense of proportion and equilibrium that is built on true stable faith that is free, informed and based on loving humility.

Subsequently, when initially reading the comment, it could be understood as an arrogant and disparaging remark seeking to elicit an angry response. But at Mode of Life we observed the comment very carefully and discerned that the person who sent us their thoughts, was quite sincere in their faith in Christ, or at the least, was someone who dedicated their attention to the study and meditation of Scripture. And this we should cite is a good and blessed thing that all of us need to cultivate in all loving humility, devoid of any pride.

Therefore in examining the comment we can see that it is a statement which is both right and wrong, because it is correct in saying that salvation is by grace, but it is wrong because it disparages and ignores the Mystagogical (sacramental) character of 2000 years of Christian witness, right all the way to Christ Himself. Hence it caused us to question that if salvation is by grace, then can we define what are the modes by which grace can be manifest? Can we restrict grace by placing parameters and defining the ways it can be made manifest? Can we know grace in all its’ entirety? Is grace a logical proposition? This and many more questions came to our thoughts.

Protestant Reformation Legacy of Question

Yet before we start entering into theological discourses and thoughts, let us first consider the historical foundations which give rise to the abovementioned comment. Without doubt the disparaging remark that characterises the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments) as “aesthetic practices”, stems from a historical legacy and misunderstanding of the Protestant Reformation. And as history attests to, that Reformation “protested” against the excesses, corruption, tyranny and theological perversions that the Papal Church of Rome had fallen into by that time.

In an effort to “cleanse” and “purge” themselves of “Roman Papal pollution”, the Protestant reformers began unilaterally cutting out what they thought were “new innovations”, “man-made traditions” or “unsalvific embellishments”. The problem for the Reformers, was that they could not agree amongst themselves as to what should be purged or reformed, nor the criterion by which they could carry this task out. Nonetheless, one of the first things they did focus upon, attacked, purged or altered was the liturgical and Mystagogical life of their Christian fellowships. Much of what existed was reduced to only one form of Sacred Tradition, which was the Holy Scriptures, or as those Reformers would claim “Only Scripture” (Sola Scriptura). The problem was, was that the Reformers could not agree amongst themselves as to what was authentic, and what adhered to their proclaimed principle of Sola Scriptura; a principle that neither they, nor any Protestant denomination or “free non-denominational Christian” successor till our present have been able to authentically attain or adhere to. And if the truth be told, it will never be attainable no matter how hard people may try, because Christ Himself taught by many means apart from drawing upon Scripture.

In any case, many within the Protestant tradition whether Evangelicals, Charismatics and so forth, despite their differences, seem to be unanimous in employing a condescending and sardonic tone when referring to the Mystagogical nature and character of Christianity and Christian worship. They deride this element as merely “smells and bells” or as “human embellishments” that have no intrinsic value or the grace of God.

Such a view reveals two key assertions being made. The first point asserts that God’s grace chiefly works through direct divine action/intervention or through Sacred Scripture. Thus we are placing boundaries around God, Who is eternal and infinite, by limiting Him by the very means in which He could choose to extend His salvific grace. So, should we ask the question as to whether God’s grace only works through Scripture and direct action alone.

This invariably brings us to the second point, which asserts that Christians whose liturgical life embraces the Mystagogical element, believes that BY the Holy Mystagogies like Eucharist or baptism are saved. Regretfully this is a GROSS MISCONCEPTION, because the precise reality is that it is not by, but THROUGH the Holy Mysteries that the Christian can be saved by grace. Just as an aspiring athlete must adhere to a strict training regime in order to attain their full athletic potentiality and strive towards becoming an Olympic contender.

Historical Roots

Therefore let us make no mistake when we read Scriptural passages like John 6:51, 53-56, which give a clear and direct reference to the Holy Mystagogy of Eucharist, more commonly known as Holy Communion: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world…Most assuredly, I say to you unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in Him”. Whether Christians of differing denominations wish to accept this quote as symbolic or literal, one thing remains the same, and it is that all Christians must have the sacrament of Holy Eucharist which consists of Bread and Wine. As to how they perceive or interpret the meaning of Holy Eucharist is another point, but the institution of this sacrament was made by Christ Himself at the Mystical (Last) Supper, and is often referred to by Christ in many of His teachings and passing comments.

The point we seek to emphasise here, is that the Mystagogies of Christianity have their origins from the One True Trinitarian God; who in the person of the Incarnate Christ, instituted these tools of grace to assist and give strength to those engaged in the spiritual struggle towards the salvation of sanctification/theosis (1Thess. 4:3). The Holy Scriptures to which many Christians hold so dear, attest to this fact. And yet many are ignorant of how the New Testament canon of Scripture developed and was affirmed within the liturgical and Mystagogical context of the early Church, which was then authenticated by figures like St Athanasios the Great as well as various local Church councils of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries.

If one reads the works of Hippolytus, who was a priest serving the Christian communities of pre-Papal 3rd century Rome, or examines the archaeological studies on the house church of Dura-Europa, or travel to the Aramaic speaking towns of Maa’loula and Sedna’ya, or study the writings of Irenaeus of Lyon and so forth, one is confronted again and again with the liturgical and Mystagogical nature of Christianity. Within this effort we would also witness the presence of iconography, calligraphy, the commemoration of the dead, the honouring of saints, the baptism of infants and so forth. Rest assured these things did not appear out of the blue, nor were they made up on the spot. The services of Matins and Vespers have their origins within the Old Testament and in synagogue worship, by which in the book of Acts and in the Pauline epistles we see references being made about the faithful attending them.

Many Christian writers of the first 300 years of Christianity, during that very epoch of persecution and the obstacles in building a place of worship, speak of matins and vespers as preparatory services for the faithful before they attended the service of the Holy Eucharist (Divine Liturgy) and receive the “mystery/sacrament” of Eucharist. From personal experience, I would cite that the many of the prayers that I use in worship, are the very same prayers written 2000 years ago, and that the language in which they are written in, is one of the original languages of the Scriptures. Because of this fact, I am immersed within the language of ancient Greek every week, and in every church service, praying, reading and chanting it. This of course is a useful aid for me to be able to read the Scripture and other ancient manuscripts like those of Irenaeus of Lyon, Ignatius of Antioch or Hippolytus, and to read them in their original language and to comprehend them.

And within such ancient Christian documents, in Greek, Latin or Aramaic, I witness terms like “Mysterion” or “Sacramentum” appear on quite a frequent basis, or make an indirect reference to them assuming that the reader already knows of the liturgical and sacramental life of Christianity. Furthermore the very land of my forefathers which is now Turkey, have church parishes (in which my own grandparents and their forebears attended and worshipped in), trace their very origins back to the Apostles themselves, like John the Evangelist, Paul of Tarsus, Andrew the brother of Peter, Barnabas and Luke the Evangelist. These were the very figures who were the founders and teachers of these church parishes, which were the places where my grandparents prayed in, and it was through this direct continuity that they were able to trace their own genealogy right back into those early Christian. And that fact is not confined to my own family but was a commonplace fact for many Christians of the region. Nonetheless, we should also note that these same churches which was the focus of communal life, culture and heritage, are even mentioned in Scripture within the book of Acts, the Pauline epistles and Revelations.

Furthermore, Turkish archaeologists have done excellent work in examining carefully the ruins, structures, manuscripts, iconography and historical accounts about these same churches where my grandparents and cousins prayed in. The conclusions of these same archaeologists, who we should point out, are not Christians, but are MUSLIMS, who verify and affirm the liturgical and Mystagogical character of Apostolic era and later Christianity. And we should further mention that as Muslims, they have nothing to gain by proving or disproving whether historically, Christianity is a Mystagogical (sacramental) religion. In either case (sacramental evidence or not), the Turkish authorities and tourist operators will still make their money from people visiting these same sites. Yet this mystagogical and liturgical expression that is historically proven and manifest even today, often shocks many Protestant Christians who journey to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, travel around the sacred sites of the Holy Land or make the pilgrimage to Mount Sinai. Thus the “aesthetic practices” as the comment refers to the Holy Mysteries, were there from the very beginning of Christianity and had their roots in Judaism, for as Christ said, He did not come to destroy but to fulfill.

A Theological and Spiritual Perspective

Yet from a theological point of view, the “Mystagogical” character of Christianity is an expression of the theological reality of the Incarnation. Any form of Christianity that does not have a Mystagogical expression or theology of liturgics of sorts, does not have a theology of the Incarnation or of Christ, but are merely Neo Arians or as one sheikh put it, “uncircumcised Muslims”!

Therefore, such a Christianity cannot be called Christian because it is not authentic to the Incarnational origins of the Gospel of Christ, nor to the descent of the Holy Spirit. Consider, are not the Scriptures themselves a physical manifestation of God’s word which is a gift of grace? Did not the Prophets speak of the Anointed One of God (Messiah) becoming physically manifest as a man, the Son of David, the Emmanuel, the One Who Saves? Who is the one that appears on behalf of the Trinity on Sinai, or before Abraham, or before Adam and Eve, and then ask why? Is it not written that he who sees God will die, so did not God mercifully accommodate humanity’s “frailty” and inability to perceive Him, by condescending to our level and becoming flesh at the Incarnation? Did not the three disciples fall to the ground and take cover from the luminous vision of the Transfiguration?

The point is, is that the reason we call the ecclesial rites as “Holy Mysteries” or “Mystagogies” is multifaceted. Firstly, because these rites are initiations into an eternal and infinite reality that is a life in God. These rites are a spiritual passage into this reality, and are spiritual, infinite and unknowable in their entirety. But at the same time, they also have a visible and physical element that is manifest to our senses. It is just like the human person who is an organic synthesis of body, mind and soul. We see people in their physical form, but can never truly know exactly what is it that transpires within them. We can only discern these things if; (A.) A person tells us truthfully what their genuine thoughts or feelings are, and that’s provided they are certain of themselves or are not deluded. Of course, the truth is that no one actually knows themselves 100% because they do not know how they will react or cope under differing circumstances, or whether they live in denial and so forth. (B.) Manifest by action and deed, which is not a certain way to discern what truly lurks within a person’s mind or heart. Do not people weave deceitful deceptions upon one another, or seek to present themselves in a particular light?

Then we should ask an additional question related to the abovementioned, when a person dies can we literally see the departure of the soul or the ebbing of their life-force? Nonetheless, on the second point, we call the liturgical rites “Mysteries”, because we cannot see how God uses these “tools” or “channels” to bestow His grace, nor can we see how grace “works in action”. There are only a few examples which are exceptions, mentioned in Scripture where the pouring out of grace upon flesh was physically manifest such as Christ’s baptism. Thirdly, we call them “Mysteries” because we do not know fully as to why God bestowed these rites as gifts of grace or “passages of sanctifying grace”. Just as a chef combines differing ingredients to produce a savoury dish for people to consume, but to the diner only some of the ingredients are perceptible to the eye, while others can be distinguished by taste, while other ingredients are present, but are neither perceptible nor can be tasted.

Fourthly, we do not know entirely why God inspired humankind to give shape to the physical forms and expressions of those liturgical rites; because a true Mystagogical rite must worship God, express devotion and reveal a reality beyond our limited human context. Thus they cannot be “man-made” but must be of the inspiration of God and manifest something of the eternity and beauty of God. We call these rites “Mystagogies” (μυστηρια + αγω), because they are a painful life-long struggle against the limitations of our finite created reality and the obstacles of life and of ourselves, to which we strive to overcome so as to enter, into the eternal mystery of the sanctified grace of immortality in living close to God.

We call the rites “Sacraments”, because the word means “the one who offers” or “the one who makes an oath or sacrifices“, and thus refers to God’s offering of the means for us to beseech and receive His sanctifying grace. All this and much more, is what a theology of the Incarnation means, because God did not come to only save our souls, but our entire holistic being. Christ physically joined within His being our human nature (including our somatic element) with God’s divinity, thus making us children of God by grace. To not acknowledge any of the above-mentioned, brings us to the same question to which the ancient philosophers and religions often argued and debated. That is, is material/physical matter inherently evil? To many of them, material matter was evil, and that the immaterial soul was immortal and good.

Thus the only true means to attain salvation and divinity according to many of those ancient philosophers and religions, was by setting the soul free from the shackles and confines of evil material matter, whether by death or suicide. This was a view held by many early Christian heretics with Gnostic or Platonic influences and connections. In contrast, Christianity asserted that material matter was not inherently evil in of itself, but was dependent upon the manner in which it was employed. Furthermore, the attainment of the manifestation of grace can occur, and does begin, within our own lifetime and its material context, for grace does not require us to die in order to experience it. Subsequently, it is not coincidental that Scripture speaks of Christ’s Second Coming, or the general resurrection of the dead, which both refer to the unity of body and soul, that is material and immaterial matter being raised. This again explains the theology and the nature of the Holy Mysteries which are liturgical incarnations of God’s grace.

Therefore when we speak of grace, salvation and sanctification, we must not be disparaging of the Holy Mysteries, since they are integral to the three aforementioned points of discussion. To that effect we must recognise that we are not saved by the sacraments, but through them. This must bring us to contemplate and explain what is the context, meaning and theology of the sacraments. Invariably, as part of this effort we would consider once again questions such as:

  • How do we define grace? (If we could possibly do such a thing.)
  • How does grace work? (Again another audacious consideration.)
  • By what means or manner does grace work?
  • Is grace constricted by the means in which it can work within the world?

St Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians

Finally, a few words need to be said with regards the quotation drawn from Gal. 3:3. It is a dangerous thing to quote chapter and verse of Scripture in a verbatim manner, especially when the quote has been taken out of its precise context of meaning. Such a methodology leads to distortions and abuse of the Holy Scriptures, so as to verify “personal” opinions or convictions, that are then used in the arrogant discourses of what might be called “Bible shootouts”. Interestingly, out of all the writings of Scripture, St Paul’s letter to the Galatians is in the top 5 of most abused Scriptural texts that has its meaning distorted because it speaks of the justification of faith, or that faith alone is what saves and other related thoughts. This epistle is particularly popular with Christians who either belong to a denomination devoid of sacraments, or to those who belong to no Christian ecclesial community and are accountable to no one for their spiritual health (whether a pastor, minister, priest etc.); And so, such figures use this epistle as a smokescreen to hide behind and justify their own actions and beliefs.

Rather, the epistle deals with the emergence of an early pastoral problem and later heresy of the Ebionites, that is Jewish followers of Christ or Gentile advocates, for the strict imposition of the Mosaic Law in all its interpretations upon the entire body of the Church. In association with this undertaking, was the undermining of the belief in Jesus as the Messiah, and the overturning of the Christian understanding, interpretation and application of the Jewish liturgical services within Christian communal life. What is more, the Galatians were allowing these “Judaizers” to corrupt many of the correspondences that the Galatians had with other Christian communities, as well as alter Scriptural texts to “lessen” the proofs that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah.

But the gravest attack upon the Christian identity and integrity of the Galatians, was upon their celebration of the Holy Sacraments, which were virtually removed and replaced by obscure practices of the Jewish Law. In actual fact Gal 3:3 is a direct response and reference to the question of circumcision, because the Galatians had forsaken the proper practices of their faith which had witnessed them to perform miracles, to regress to adhering to the practice of circumcision. A practice as St Paul highlights, was alien to the identity and Gentile heritage of the Galatians. This of course echoes the heated debate that took place in Jerusalem as mentioned in Acts 15:6-29, as to whether the Gentile coverts have to first become Jews before they could become Christians. And Gal 3:3 echoes this very point, whereby the Judaizing heresies of the Galatians was forcing the Galatian Christians to become Jews who adhered to all the ordinances of the Law, especially circumcision, before they could be accepted and recognised as Christians.

The Council of Jerusalem spoke against such a practice and decreed that “you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality” (Acts 15: 29). Naturally this council was to also preserve the universality of Christ’s message of salvation which is for all peoples and nations without distinction of culture, race or language. If anything, the council sought to preserve the unique cultural identities of all the peoples to whom the message of the Gospel was preached to and found ground.  Yet the Galatians flouted the binding authority of the Holy Synod where representatives of the Christian communities were present and spoke. Instead the Galatians rejected the sacraments, perverted Christian teaching and chose the Mosaic Law over the fulfilment of Christ, even though the Law was merely a moral compass to guide spiritual life (khalakh) not be an end in of itself, that is what the Pharisees fell into.

Therefore to quote Gal 3:3 as an assertion against the Holy Mystagogies of Christianity is an ironic paradox which requires revision and reflection. Thus we humbly submit that one should not only take our word for it, but to examine both the context of the Epistle to the Galatians and the historical-archaeological evidence of Christianity’s Mystagogical character.

We thus dedicate this work to all Christians who are seeking to learn the truth and origins of their faith. We also dedicate this work to His Grace Bishop Seraphim of Apollonias, Lecturer in Liturgical Theology.

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