It was the middle of Lent when the general public of the United States realized, in a dramatic and sudden fashion, that we were facing a global pandemic. As businesses closed, jobs were lost, physical contact was cut off, and schedules and calendars dramatically altered, the human race found itself in a seemingly unprecedented, universal experience of Lent. It was a Lent underscored, highlighted, and punctuated with not just abstinence, but absence: absence of normality, participation, physical presence, and a sense of the future. Like a well-written screenplay heightened by a carefully crafted dramatic score, the experience of Lent was amplified through the novel coronavirus. The coronavirus and Lent taken together had a consonant sound and meaning.
But, now, the Exsultet has been pronounced. The paschal candle has been lit. We now find ourselves in the season of Easter, yet the pandemic continues its course and absence still is felt. How are we, as Christians, just a few days ago present with Peter, the Beloved Disciple, and Mary Magdalene at the tomb of Christ, finding ourselves in such a state of cognitive dissonance? How are we to move forward with Easter joy, ourselves following the command to “go and tell,” when people continue to die, loved ones lose their jobs, and we still face an uncertain future? To shelter ourselves from cognitive dissonance, it may be easier to remain in Lent, to feel as if the Resurrection didn’t happen, to assume that Christ remains in the tomb.
How are we to move forward? The Church shows us. Every year, whether with or without a global pandemic, after Easter, the Church herself continues forward. With Christ’s Resurrection, Lent concludes. Mother Church accompanies us, inviting us to live each day more deeply in the Resurrection of Christ. She also asks us, the baptized, to accompany her newest children, neophytes who have received the sacraments of initiation at Easter. The Church moves forward together, past the boundaries of sacred and profane. During the Easter season, the Church’s focus is to help neophytes “grow in deepening their grasp of the paschal mystery and in making it part of their lives through meditation on the Gospel, sharing in the Eucharist, and doing the works of charity” (RCIA, #244). In other words, in the Easter season, the Church seeks to mature and extend what the neophytes have experienced in their journey of the catechumenate and in receiving the sacraments for the first time. The Church moves forward together towards integration, an elimination of the boundaries that separate our “faith life” from “the rest” of our life. The Church invites us to consider in community how we are being saved through all of our life, not just the parts that we or our culture name sacred or religious. In other words, the Church invites us to recognize the effects, emotions, and experiences of what the Paschal Mystery has worked over on us. After the trauma of the passion, death, and Resurrection, the Church herself moves forward through a practice called mystagogy.
Mystagogy is the “introduc[tion] into a fuller and more effective understanding of mysteries through the Gospel…and experience of the sacraments” (RCIA, #245). It unfolds in an encounter with beauty in the liturgy that leaves us craving more, seeking connections between our life and the Church’s sacramental life. The ancient mystagogues such as Augustine and Cyril invited the faithful to this process through sermons, expounding upon liturgical and sacramental signs by connecting these outward signs to meanings and uses in scripture and culture. We continue the example of Augustine and Cyril when we open ourselves up to the inbreaking of meaning of the liturgy and sacraments for our entire lives through mystagogy. In mystagogy, the Church elucidates how the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus spills over into every area of the neophytes’ lives through sacramental and liturgical signs. Mystagogy is neither teaching nor learning; it is neither simply reflection nor contemplation. Rather,
“[mystagogy] is less an explanation and more an exploration; it is less an explication and more an evocation. It works like sonar: it plumbs the depths not to deny the depths, but rather to point out how deep they actually are. It works like diving gear: it allows one to breathe in depths otherwise inaccessible and to swim down and surface buried treasures otherwise overlooked.” (Augustine and the Catechumenate, 424).
Mystagogy is not an intellectual treatise on theology that holds a particular set of canons or tenets. It is the viewing of something from different angles, a method of beholding mystery from different vantage points. In mystagogy, we are invited to let go of our narrow view of what the sacraments, liturgy, and the nature of Christ are about. Mystagogy seeks not simply to form us intellectually in our faith experiences of the liturgy and sacraments, but rather incites our curiosity to discover what sacramental and liturgical meanings lie at the heart of our cultural, societal, and personal experience. It breaks down what we hide from God, opens us up to be freely overtaken by the waters that washed us in Baptism.
How does the novel coronavirus invite us to be mystagogues ourselves, seeking meaning in our sacramental experiences in this season of Easter? What is the subject of our mystagogy when we cannot receive the sacraments? Mystagogy’s points of departure are liturgical elements, such as what meaning for our Christian lives sacred chrism holds, or how the sacredness of water at baptism spills over to our use of water in our culture and society. However, in a moment where many of us have not experienced the sacraments in months, coronavirus invites us to a reverse mystagogy, to see our very lives as the liturgical and sacramental signs themselves. In this reverse mystagogy, we see that at the heart of our sacramental life as Christians is the mystery of the Incarnation broken through in our human experience:
“Sacraments are not exceptional and extraordinary events; they are standard and ordinary- like baths and dinners, kisses and loving touches, hugs and perfume, prayers and celebrations.” (Aidan Kavanagh)
In a time of this pandemic, we are invited by our painful situation to start with the premise that our lives, in every situation, are sacramental and liturgical. What meaning does our morning ritual of drinking coffee and reading the newspaper hold? Where is God in my choice to be patient with my partner in the midst of conflict and tension? Like the sacramental and liturgical signs explored in traditional mystagogy, this reverse mystagogy invites us to consider how the stuff of our lives leads us to behold the Mystery of God from several vantage points, from the cultural, liturgical, and spiritual, but also from the living room, the home office, and the neighborhood streets. Our relationships, hobbies, and concerns all speak loudly about what we love, hold dear, and would give our lives for. Have we considered that their words speak a spiritual meaning over the whole of our lives?
In being invited to mystagogy during this pandemic, we are invited to consider that the absences and voids we are experiencing are leading us somewhere, past the boundary between our spiritual lives and “regular” lives. We are being invited to see with a new vision, that it is all spiritual and sacramental. The absence of daily routines, the separation of loved ones, and the lack of comforting and friendly physical touch are themselves visible signs of invisible reality. The act of preparing a meal or calling a dear friend from a distance or the time spent with those already in our homes calls to us deeper meanings that speak to our human existence and our need for God. For all of us, there is a lack of something that we previously had before this time, a hunger for something we have tasted before. As Alexander Schmemann says, “Man is a hungry being. But he is hungry for God. Behind all the hunger of our life is God.” We are hungry for something we have tasted before the stay at home orders, the empty grocery store shelves, the lay-offs, and the feelings of perpetual anxiety. But this thing, whatever or whomever it is for each of us, points us beyond to a feeling of hunger that will not be satisfied in this life.
This is the process of mystagogy: to move us forward. What we know about our faith and how we relate to God is deepened through its discipline. The longing, sadness, confusion, and anomie we feel without the presence of one another and the safety of our routines before this point back to our participation in the liturgy itself. That we, in the life we are living now, without ready access to the liturgy and sacraments as celebrated before, are called to recognize our original posture, which Schmemann calls homo adorans: “The first basic definition of [the human being] is that [they] are the the priest. [They] stan[d] in the center of the world and unif[y] it in [their] act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God.” In this situation in which we find ourselves, we are being called to unify what we name as sacred and secular and consider that all is an invitation to worship and bless. The pandemic invites us to this process of mystagogy, of recalling that our everyday lives are instruments of grace, that when contemplated, they reveal the meaning at the heart of our human lives: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17).
Colleen Campbell holds a BA in Pastoral Ministry from the University of Dallas, an MA in Theology from the University of Notre Dame, and is currently a PhD candidate studying Catechetics at the Catholic University of America.