Health, Life, and Resurrection
Today we continue our uninterrupted celebration of the Pasch in the Resurrection of the Lord. A number of motifs begin to emerge. On Maundy Thursday evening at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, we recalled the promises of the Father that, since the First Sunday of Lent, we have carried in our hearts, promises that came into sharper focus for us as we sang that night in the Introit, of the health, life, resurrection, and deliverance that are ours in the glorious Cross of Jesus Christ.
The Cross and the Supper of the Lamb
Friday passed: the Word of the Cross reducing us to silence; the mystery of the Cross compelling us to place our faces in the dust from which we came. Saturday too passed: the great and solemn Sabbath of a silence holding fast the secret of our hope. It was in that silence that we began to hear, faintly at first, the call ad mensam, the call ad coenam, the call to the wedding feast of the Lamb in which every promise of the Father is fulfilled.
Instruction in Prayer
In the great and solemn Vigil, we sat in the dark like the catechumens of old assembled around their bishop awaiting full initiation into the holy mysteries. A God faithful to His promises revealed Himself in the long series of readings, psalms, and collects. This too was the Church’s own instruction of those about to be baptized, her final and urgent teaching in the way of Christian prayer. Again and again, with a patient pedagogy, the rhythm repeated itself — lectio, meditatio, oratio — until at length, it was time to go to the font, time to descend into the womb, time to come forth from the tomb.
The Most Holy Eucharist
The newborn came up, dripping with a holy wetness, shining with the brightness of new life. Clothed in white garments, and with lighted candles in their hands they were led to the bishop to be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit, the last station on the way to the sacrificial banquet to taste for the first time of the sweetness of the Lord. Here, ad mensam, in the adorable, awesome, and life-giving mystery of the Eucharist was the fulfillment of every promise made by the Father!
The Paschal Sacraments
The full sequence of the Paschal sacraments of initiation is really, if ever, experienced in a monastery. It is nonetheless, the very essence of the monastic life to remember, to dwell on, to plumb, to deepen, and to probe the paschal sacraments. There is no other pattern of holiness, no higher experience of all the promises of the Father fulfilled.
The ancient and ever-living practice of the Church is to begin the mystagogical catecheses almost immediately after the experience of the paschal sacraments. The neophytes have barely enough time to catch their breath when the mystagogical catecheses begin in earnest.
The mystagogical catecheses are the completion of the pre-baptismal catecheses that led up to the great Paschal Vigil. Everything was not explained before, and for good reason. The Church, in her wisdom, knows that, all too easily, rational knowledge about something is mistaken for experiential knowledge of it. When it comes to the mysteries of the faith, the distinction is crucial. The mysteries of the faith must be experienced in the power of Word and Sacrament before they can be proposed to the intelligence. For the Christian, salvation comes, not through gnosis (i.e. knowledge) but through experience. Again and again, the verb to taste is used in reference to gift of salvation. Once the sweetness of the Lord has been tasted, all the gifts of human intelligence and creativity are called into play to describe it, to reflect upon it, to bring into greater light.
This then is the purpose of the mystagogical catechesis: to go back over the saving events of the Paschal Triduum, and especially the holy mysteries of the great Vigil, and to unfold their hidden meaning to the neophytes. This mystagogical teaching will shape and colour our prayer throughout the coming week.
Yesterday morning, with entrance chant Resurrexi, the neophytes, and we with them, were reminded that, for the Church, the psalter is indeed a sacrament of holy communion with the prayer of Christ to the Father. Through the liturgical and solitary prayer of the psalter, the Christian enters, by this communion under the species of human words, into the ineffable and eternal dialogue of the Son with the Father in the Holy Spirit. It is as if, in the day Mass of Pascha, the Church is saying: “Last night, beloved newborns, you were brought into the circle of Trinitarian life and love. Grow ever more deeply into that life and into that love by speaking to the Father in the very words prepared by the Holy Ghost in Israel for the Word made flesh.” When the psalter or breviary is given to a monastic neophyte, a newly professed monk, on the day of his profession, it has the same significance. “Here, my son, is the very form and pattern of your prayer to the Father, with Christ, in the Holy Ghost.”
The Holy Altar
Although a monastery church has no font and no chapel of chrismation, it has the mensa sancta, the holy altar. The “Glorious Vespers” of Easter Day, with the procession from the font to the altar, serve to remind us that we have come, all of us, ad mensam — to the holy altar table of the sacrificial banquet — by way of the regenerating water of the font, and the sealing with the gift of the Holy Ghost in chrismation.
And so, we, sharing in the whole experience of the neophytes and reliving our own, come to today’s Holy Sacrifice. The Introit, appropriately drawn from the book of Exodus, is addressed first of all to the neophytes, without however excluding the older and more seasoned faithful. It is, in a fact, a discrete invitation on the part of the liturgy, to become, all of us, neophytes again. “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:2).
Just as it is salutary for the seasoned veterans of the monastic struggle, the venerable fathers and mothers of thirty, forty, and fifty or more years of profession, to return in spirit to the day and hour of their profession, so too, does the Church want all of us to return, in spirit, to the day and the hour of our baptism, chrismation, and first taste of the precious, holy, and life-giving Body and Blood of Christ. And so, today’s Introit speaks to neophytes and “oldophytes” as well: “The Lord has led you forth into a land flowing with milk and honey, alleluia: so that the law of the Lord might be ever in your mouth, alleluia, alleluia” (Ex 13:5, 9).
Our New Moses Speaks
In the book of Exodus these words are spoken by Moses to the people; in the liturgy, they are spoken by our new Moses, our leader and true liberator, Christ. They hearken back to the events of the great Vigil. The passover, the cross-over, the transitus, the liberation has indeed taken place. The promised land flows with milk and honey! The milk is the Word of God by which the neophytes are to grow strong and solid in the faith. In the honey, they recognize an allusion to the psalm that, in the ancient Church, always accompanied the Communion procession, “O taste and see that the Lord is sweet” (Ps 33:8). Thus do we find, in today’s Introit, just as in the Gospel of Emmaus, the fundamental pattern of Christian worship: word (milk) and sacrament (honey).
Always in Your Mouth
But there is still more. Et ut lex Domini semper sit in ore vestro — “That the law of the Lord may be always in your mouth” (Ex 13:9). Something held in the mouth for a long time leaves its fragrance and its taste. On this second day of Pascha, the neophytes are told to hold the Word of God in their mouths, to savour it with the palate of the soul. The emphasis is clearly on using the spiritual sense of taste. The lex Domini, the law of the Lord, is fulfilled and perfected in Christ. Lest we forget too quickly the taste of his milk and honey, we are instructed in this mystagogical catechesis of the liturgy to hold them in our mouth, not just for a few moments or a few hours but, semper. Always. Is this not the essential work of the monastic life? But it is time to go ad mensam! “I eat my honeycomb with my honey, I drink my wine with my milk. Eat, O friends, and drink: drink deeply, O lovers” (Ct 5:1). “Your lips distil nectar, my bride; honey and milk are under your tongue” (Ct 4:11).