“Paschal mystery” is the expression we use for the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ, and for our participation in Christ through baptism and death.
On the road one day with his disciples, Jesus took the Twelve aside to explain something to them in private (Mark 10:33-34). “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and hand him over to the Gentiles who will mock him, spit upon him, scourge him, and put him to death, but after three days he will rise.”
The gospels say Jesus predicted his passion on numerous occasions, but the significance eluded even his closest followers. Once he suffered his horrible death and stunned the world with his resurrection, people understood his prediction.
The resurrection of Jesus became the centerpiece of early Christian preaching. In Acts of the Apostles 13:28-30, for example, Paul announced, “Even though [the inhabitants of Jerusalem] found no grounds for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have [Jesus] put to death, and . . . they took him down from the tree and placed him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead.”
The paschal mystery also promises believers a share in the resurrection. Paul explains the benefit of faith (2 Thessalonians 2:14): “To this end [God] has also called you through our Gospel to possess the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” “Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). To the Romans (6:5), he says, “If we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection.” Paul’s words recall those of Jesus himself (John 14:3): “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.”
Both words, “paschal” and “mystery”, are important. “Paschal” refers to Passover. The annual Passover recalls the day that the angel of death passed over Israel in exile, sparing the firstborn of God’s chosen people, but visiting terror upon their enemies (Exodus 12). It was at Passover when Jesus mounted the cross at Calvary, freeing his own chosen people from sin and vanquishing death forever (John 19:14).
“Mystery” refers to our faith. We do not understand how God will save us, or even why God loves us so. We do not appreciate the joy that awaits us in eternal life. “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him, this God has revealed to us through the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
Christians face the paschal mystery with every baptism and every death. Baptism ushers us into the paschal mystery, and death transports us to the threshold of its completion. “In the sacraments of Christian initiation we are freed from the power of darkness and joined to Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. . . . Baptism recalls and makes present the paschal mystery itself, because in baptism we pass from the death of sin into life” (Christian Initiation, General Introduction 1, 6).
“In the face of death, the Church confidently proclaims that God has created each person for eternal life and that Jesus, the Son of God, by his death and resurrection, has broken the chains of sin and death that bound humanity” (Order of Christian Funerals, General Introduction 1).
The paschal mystery of Christ is the promise of life for Christians. This glory gives us hope and helps us face our fears.
One day long ago Jesus foretold his death, unveiling the paschal mystery to the Twelve. Mark describes the experience this way: “The disciples were on the way, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus went ahead of them. They were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.”
This still describes the experience of every Christian. We are disciples, on the way – the way of the commands of Christ, the way toward our own death, our own Jerusalem. Jesus is not exactly with us. He is ahead of us. This belief makes us amazed, but we followers remain afraid. We know not what lies ahead. It is all mystery. But we believe it is paschal, and therein lies our hope.
This article first appeared in the Institute Resource Packet of the North American Forum on the Catechumenate (2004), pp. 14-15.
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