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The Mystery of Reality

In this week’s readings, Edward Yarnold examines the initiatory sacramental actions of the church through the lens of the great 4th century theologians Cyril of Jerusalem, Ambrose of Milan, and Theodore of Mopuestia. Though each of these theologians work in the era of the yet undivided catholic Church, they each bring their own personal and regional flavor to the meanings of the initiatory rituals of Christianity. Yarnold collected and translated the works of these great theologians in an effort to give richer background to post Vatican II liturgical reforms and catechetical programs within the Church.

In the church of the 4th century, baptism, confirmation, and Holy Communion were not explained to the participants until after the rituals had already been experienced. Though naturally parts of the ritual were known to the catechumen through conversations with family and friends, the majority was shrouded in a cloud of mystery. New initiates into the Christian Church experienced baptism, confirmation, and Communion unprepared and were allowed to observe and participate in the rituals without prejudice. After each ritual had been experienced, the parish’s priest or bishop would present a series of homilies to the new Christians giving meaning to what had been experienced. This is the context of each of the sermons compiled by Yarnold.1

For Cyril liturgical ritual is important because the actions and signs of the liturgies of the church speak to the truths of God’s grace shared in the sacraments better than any words of instruction could give. Bringing to mind this semester’s focus on the connection between ritual and ethics, Cyril calls his listeners to “turn [their] mind[s] from past” events recalled in the liturgy to the present reality they are experiencing. The symbols and actions have a true connection to reality.2 For Cyril Communion, for example, far surpasses symbol. Though it recalls the great life and work of Jesus Christ on our behalf into thought, Communion is also a moment when Jesus becomes truly present in the bread and wine. The symbol becomes a reality. As Christians partake of the Sacrament they absorb Christ’s nature and are transformed. In baptism and Communion Christians become “bearers of Christ” as his body is assimilated into their own.3 Echoing the theologians read last week, this becomes the symbolic and actual unity of the Church; that of being the figurative and literal body of Jesus Christ.

For Ambrose liturgy is a “messenger of truth” that through its symbols and actions points to and recalls to our minds the greater things of God.4 The mysteriousness of the initiatory liturgies of the Church ensure that, “for the Christian, faith must come first.“5 Though many of the ritualistic actions seem simple, “what is unseen is much greater.“6 Over time the liturgy reveals itself to Christians and has a direct effect on their lives and the physical world. In baptism, for example, the Christian sees a bishop make a simple blessing over water. In reality, the prayer invites the Holy Spirit to descend upon the water making it effectual for the washing away of sins and union with the Body of Christ found in baptism. For Ambrose is it clear that we are not saved by the signs and rituals, but by faith in Jesus Christ. The liturgy, however, with its symbols and actions recalls memories that become actualities. This can become the element in a Christian’s life that holds her or him to the faith when “human weakness seeks to pull [her or him] away.“7

Yarnold from the start makes it clear that Theodore is a little dense and wordy. The sermons Yarnold presents in his work have been edited to remove superfluous content and yet Theodore’s sermons still account for the vast majority of Yarnold’s collection. Though his sermons are a little difficult to follow, Theodore reveals a clear theory of the liturgy. For him the value of the liturgy is in the fact that the symbols and signs of the ritual point to the blessings that are to come.8 The liturgy to Theodore “affords [Christians] a shadowy vision of what took place” in the narrative of God.9 As the liturgy plays out and is experienced, worshipers are “obliged with recollection” which moves them to a Christian ethic of “proclaiming to all a share in [Jesus’] sublime blessings.“10 Theodore’s language holds a strong sense of apocalypse and eschatology and has a clear theology of communal recollection leading to real change. With Cyril, Theodore finds Christ present in the Sacrament of the Table and baptism such that Christian’s become the actual body of Christ. Further, for Theodore the one body made in baptism is “firmly establish[ed]” in Communion preparing and driving Christians to an ethical life of “peace and good works.“11 In Communion the sacrifice of Jesus is recalled in such a way that worshipers participate in it with Christ.12

For Cyril, Ambrose, and Theodore liturgy was a critical tool for Christian education and God’s revelatory action. One element for the 4th century that made liturgy such an important tool was the mystery that surrounded it. In this mystery, liturgy gains a greater ability to take on meanings important to the context that surrounded it, rather than to strive for grand universalisms. In the post Enlightenment West we have attempted to rationalize and explain everything. This tendency has extended to the Church’s worship. How can worship be more opened to mystery and adaption to specific contexts? Does the modern practice of catechism and instruction before sacramental rites of initiation dampen the experience for new Christians? Is a faith that must be believed before it is understood a faith that takes deeper roots and has a greater likelihood of driving ethical action in the world?

For the theologians discussed this week liturgy does much more than anamnesis. Liturgy not only recalls the narrative and actions of God into the present moment, but also drives physical interaction between the divine and the material world. In Communion, for example, the kenotic nature of God in Christ is remembered in such a way that the Holy Spirit makes bread and wine into the actual body of Jesus Christ. For the Christians who consume this body, Jesus is literally bound to their flesh and his divinity is able to affect real change to their nature. How can the work of this week’s theologians best be adapted for use within Christian traditions with memorialist views of the sacraments? Does memorialism increase the mystery of the ritual of liturgy or further rationalize it? What unique challenges might this pose for a liturgical reformer seeking to strengthen the connection between baptism and Communion and ethical Christian life?


Work Cited

Yarnold, Edward. The Awe-Inspiring Rites of Initiation: The Origins of the RCIA. 2nd ed. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 1994.


1# Yarnold, 1-54.

2# Yarnold, 71.

3# Yarnold, 87.

4# Yarnold, 104-110.

5# Yarnold, 100.

6# Yarnold, 104.

7# Yarnold, 115-119.

8# Yarnold, 212.

9# Yarnold, 215.

10# Yarnold, 218.

11# Yarnold, 234.

12# Yarnold, 240.