Mystagogy, Sacramental Theology and the Poker Playing Dog

This is the eleventh in a sporadic series on the Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem.  The previous post was The End Times Without Revelation.

The last five of Cyril’s lectures are referred to as the “mystagogic” lectures. They were given after the catechumens were baptised and received their First Communion. They have given as much delight to supporters of sacramental theology as they have heartburn to those who oppose the whole concept of a grace-imparting sacrament. But what is this business of “mystagogy” anyway?

First, it’s noteworthy that the exact sequence of events in the Baptism, Chrismation and First Communion were not covered in the pre-baptismal lectures. He lays out the theology of these sacraments, other matters of belief, and what the candidate needed to do to prepare him or herself for them, but the exact sequence was saved for the actual ceremony (which took place in the evening, the weight of which is something Pentecostals understand well.) But he saves the detail of the ceremony for after it’s over.

Second, the ceremony, unlike baptisms today of any kind, was not exactly a public event, although doubtless those who were elsewhere in the church knew what was going on. One way we can be sure of that is the following:

As soon, then, as you entered (the baptismal pool,) you put off your tunic; and this was an image of putting off the old man with his deeds. (Colossians 3:9) Having stripped yourselves, you were naked; in this also imitating Christ, who was stripped naked on the Cross, and by His nakedness put off from Himself the principalities and powers, and openly triumphed over them on the tree. For since the adverse powers made their lair in your members, you may no longer wear that old garment; I do not at all mean this visible one, but the old man, which waxes corrupt in the lusts of deceit. (Ephesians 4:22) May the soul which has once put him off, never again put him on, but say with the Spouse of Christ in the Song of Songs, I have put off my garment, how shall I put it on? (Song of Songs 5:3) O wondrous thing! You were naked in the sight of all, and were not ashamed ; for truly ye bore the likeness of the first-formed Adam, who was naked in the garden, and was not ashamed. Then, when you were stripped, you were anointed with exorcised oil , from the very hairs of your head to your feet, and were made partakers of the good olive-tree, Jesus Christ…After these things, you were led to the holy pool of Divine Baptism, as Christ was carried from the Cross to the Sepulchre which is before our eyes. And each of you was asked, whether he believed in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, and you made that saving confession, and descended three times into the water, and ascended again; here also hinting by a symbol at the three days burial of Christ. (XX, 2-4)

After the baptismal ceremony, the First Communion came. But even here Cyril saves the description for the lectures to after the fact. Why is this?

The usual explanation for this is that a) Cyril is trying to save the thrill of the ceremonies and b) Christianity was trying to compete with the mystery religions for converts. The mystery religions also had secret ceremonies, so Christianity had to keep up with them. These explain the symptoms without adding to our understanding of the underlying causes.

Let’s begin by observing that the mystery element in what Cyril is doing and sacramental theology are not the same, nor are they by necessity tied together. Roman Catholicism especially teaches that the efficacy of a sacrament is not related to the nature of its administration so long as the liturgy of the church is followed. This has led to things such as the thirty-five minute Mass I experienced the first time I stepped into St. Edwards Catholic Church in Palm Beach.

Beyond that, as I observed towards the start of this series, Cyril is very insistent that his catechumens experience an inner transformation as they undergo an outward ceremony. So I think concerns over Cyril’s sacramental theology should be laid to rest.

But that still leave the question: why are Cyril and his contemporaries so insistent upon preserving the mystery of baptism (and the Eucharist as well) in the style of administration? To answer that question we must retrace the course of history to the point where Cyril stood.

In the early years (and the mystery religions were operative then also) Christian writers were not as reticent about discussing the core sacraments of the faith as they were later. One example of this is the Anaphora of Hippolytus, the central part of the Eucharistic liturgy. Christians of this era were eager to disprove pagan charges that the Eucharist was, in reality, a cannibalistic ceremony.

The change in openness was, in my opinion, occasioned by the crisis of the third century. It’s no secret that Christianity was illegal in the Roman Empire, but the persecutions of the first two centuries were sporadic and localised. It wasn’t until the chaos the third century, and especially starting with the reign of Decius, that the Roman Empire saw Christianity as an existential threat. The worst persecutions—including but not limited to that of Diocletian—were in the period from Decius until Constantine legalised Christianity. Even with that, the Arian controversy occasioned imperial intervention—and persecution—in the affairs of the church, a process that was ongoing in Cyril’s day.

In the increasing centralisation and despotism of Rome, civic life—part of that troika of civilisation that includes public (political) and private life—was squeezed out by the growth of the state. Under these circumstances many things went “behind closed doors” as it were. Christianity and the mystery religions retreated into their secret gatherings and ceremonies. Contrary to the way we’re conditioned today (for the moment at least,) people felt that what was really important in life was hidden from view. To have the central mysteries of Christianity expressed in a secret ceremony actually became a part of the appeal.

Today, of course, Evangelical Christianity is an “open” process. Baptisms are considered one’s public profession of faith, although if churches were serious about this (and some are) they would hold them somewhere else than the church. People are exhorted to come forward in front of God and everyone and get saved. Even Roman Catholicism and Anglican/Episcopal churches are reticent about private baptisms these days.

The open process extends to the life of the church. We like as much publicity as we can get. We try (sometimes) to make our services attractive to outsiders. “Seeker friendly” churches take this both to its logical conclusion and to its extreme. We do this because Evangelicals believe that this is necessary to bring people in for a presentation of the Gospel (well, that should be the idea) and that, since the Gospel is for everyone, the methodology should be, too.

But the results of any endeavour depend upon the methodology used in its execution. Putting it plainly, what kind of fish you catch depends upon what kind of bait you use. Evangelicals like to think that they are experts at being “all things to all men” (1 Corinthians 9:22) but the people they attract are clearly influenced by the existing appeal. If you have an open church with an open process, you will attract “open” people, i.e., people with an unexclusivistic view of life who are basically transparent. As desirable as that combination is for church leaders (it makes it easy for them to run the church,) it encourages people who have the same fault as Willie Nelson’s poker playing dogs: they don’t win very often because they always wag their tails when they have a good hand.

In a traditionally egalitarian country like the US, obsessed as we are by proper socialisation, this has worked, and worked well. But, as I have chronicled elsewhere, that is changing, and changing rapidly. Also changing rapidly is the legal status of the religion. At my church’s last General Assembly, a prominent leader in the denomination pointed out that, in ten years, it will be effectively illegal to preach against homosexuality and abortion, and in any case churches can’t make the payments on the facilities they have. The solution? House churches! We’re back to the first century with a vengeance.

Beyond that, if you’re interested in attracting leaders to the church, the system we’re using now is just about a guarantee that we won’t get the results we’re looking for. People who lead know that things are different “behind the curtain” and need to be both savvy enough to navigate the system and strong enough not to be corrupted by it. To avoid dissonance, people like the people and institutions they associate with to reflect their state of life and their view of it. In the recent past people who wanted this reflection in their spiritual and social life joined the Lodge, and when they jettisoned the spiritual aspect the country club. But is it Christianity’s purpose to discourage these people from eternal life just because they don’t fit the mould of the church we’ve put together?

I don’t think so, and Cyril’s church—the product of a society where mystery and, dare I say it, exclusivity was driven not only by the human desire to be superior but by the society having squeezed out its civic life through totalitarianism—is a sure sign that you can attract converts, impress upon them the importance of living a holy life, and do so in a system with some mystery—a part of life whether we like it or not—associated with it.

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