What is the „Paschal Mystery“?

The Paschal Mystery in Christian understanding is linked to the salvation history of Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Christians enter into the Paschal mystery through sacramental initiation as well as liturgical celebration and participate in it by living faithfully.

The word paschal etymologically derived from the Aramaic term פַּסְחָא (pashā) or Hebrew פֶּסַח (pesah) which was translated into Greek πασχα (pascha) and means „the passing over“. The second word mystery comes from Greek μυστήρια (mysteria) which means „secret rite or doctrine“.

Actually the Paschal Mystery is rooted in the Jewish Passover Meal, which starts on the fourteenth day of the lunar month Nisan. In Jewish tradition the Passover is also known as the „Pasch“, an annual celebration which commemorates the deliverance of Israel ́s first-born sons from the last plague during their time in Egypt. God commanded the families of Israel to slaughter a year-old male lamb of a sheep or a goat without any blemish (Ex 12,5). The blood they applied on the doorposts of their houses in order to protect themselves from the tenth divine plague. At midnight the Lord killed every first-born in the land of Egypt but passed over the Israelite houses which had been marked with the blood of the Paschal lamb (Ex 12,29f.). After even the Pharaoh had lost the life of his son, he allowed Israel to leave from Egypt (Ex 12,29-32). From this historical event on the Passover became a perpetual institution in Jewish tradition (Ex 12,14).

The historical event of the Passing-over served as a type for considering Jesus as the Paschal Lamb, because He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (Jn 1,29). According to Christian faith the Paschal Lamb prefigured the divine revelation through Jesus Christ, who is the sacrifice of the New Covenant. Christians consider Jesus as their sacrificial lamb. In John ́s Gospel there are literary allusions to the Old Testament. First, there is the hyssop branch which was given to Jesus before he died on the cross (Jn 19,29). In Exodus 12,22 we find a hyssop branch which was used to sprinkle the blood of the passover lamb on the lintel and doorposts. Second, John mentions „when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs“ (Jn 19,33). In Exodus 12,46 it is written that the bones of the Passover lamb were not to be broken too.

Jesus Christ is the sacrificial lamb through vicarious atonement. He freed men from sin as the Paschal lamb of the Passover liberated the Israelites ́ firstborn from death and all the people of Israel from Egypt slavery.

The Passover tradition also symbolically foreshadows the Eucharistic sacrifice which was initiated by Jesus during the Last Supper, originally the same Passover Seder meal. In each synoptic Gospel there are references that the Last Supper is linked to the context of Passover meal (Mt 26,17; Lk 22,15; Mk 14,16). Jesus fulfills the Old Testament Passover at the Last Supper. In Matthew ́s Gospel we read that „Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said, Take and eat, this is my body“ (Mt 26,26). Jesus declared his own body to be the unblemished flesh which takes away the sins of the world. „Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them saying, Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins“ (Mt 26,27-28). Jesus the Messiah transformed the wine into his sacrificial blood, which will serve as the covenant sacrifice. After this Jesus declares „I tell you, from now on I shall not drink this fruit of the wine until the day when I drink it with you new in the kingdom of my Father.“ (Mt 26,29)

In refusing the last cup, the fourth so-called cup of consummation, Jesus shows that the Passover Seder meal is not yet complete. During his crucifixion on Golgotha at the three o ́clock hour, Jesus says „I thirst“. „There was a vessel filled with common wine. So they put a sponge soaked in wine on a sprig of hyssop and put it up to his mouth. When Jesus had taken the wine, he said „It is finished. And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit“ (Jn 19,28-30). Jesus fulfills the Passover as he drinks from the sponge referring to the cup of consummation before giving up his spirit (Mt 26,48.50) to his heavenly Father.

The Paschal Mystery is adressed to the saving work of redemption Jesus Christ accomplished through Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension. Though we distinguish these various aspects, they constitute one complete reality of the Mystery. God redeemed humanity from sin in and through Jesus Christ. In suffering and dying Christ destroyed our death; in rising from the dead, he restored our life. It is the work by which Jesus glorified his heavenly Father and brought salvation to the world. These objective events occured just once in human history. „Once for all he has appeared at the end of the ages to take away sin by his sacrifice“ (Hb 9,26). „For Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God. Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the spirit“ (1 Pet 3,18). „It was also for us, to whom it will be credited, who believe in the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over for our transgressions and was raised for our justification“ (Rom 4,25).

The salvation history of humanity starts with creation (The first Pasch). In the beginning there was friendship, happiness and harmony and the creation was very good (Gen 1,31).
The story of Adam and Eve (which cannot be understood historically) tries to explain the presence of evil, pain and suffering in human existence. Since humans are created in the image and likeness of God there is nothing wrong with being like God. But the talking serpent is a symbol for the human crafty and shrewd mind which leads men into temptation of replacing God, of being disobedient to the will of God. Eating the fruit is an act of disobedience – disobeying the command of God (Gen 2,17). By this symbolical act of sin separateness from God came into the world. The Fall is the starting point of the second Pasch. But God did not forget about humans. To help them finding their way back to Him He chose people who trusted Him like Noah or Abraham. In order to make all people holy God chose Israel as His holy people. But Israel drifted away from God again and again, so God sent His word through prophets to remind Israel of being holy. At last, the Word of God became flesh in the human being of Jesus of Nazareth who walked with us on earth in order to show us the way back to his Father. The fall of mankind and the resulting alienation was the occasion for God to show us the ultimate depth of His Trinitarian Love (perfect communion of Father and Son in the Holy Spirit). Given over to mankind by the Father, His Son has freely taken upon himself the full burden of our alienation. He alone could fully experience this burden, the result of our sins; as the holy Son of God, he alone must have fully understood and suffered, beyond the scope of our imagination the evil of our sins. However, he redeemed us by love. By carrying our alienation to its climax on the cross, he has turned it into the most powerful expression of love that atones, praises and worships the Father in our place and for our sake. The love of the Son, reaching its full human expression on the cross, has become the source of our redemption. By means of this love and self- denial, Christ offered himself as a perfect sacrifice and a perfect satisfaction for our sins. The second pasch culminates in the New Pasch of self-emptying and redemption of Jesus Christ. By this love he has overcome the power of the devil and freed us to begin a New Life, in which we are encouraged by his Spirit to share in his sacrifice, satisfaction, victory, and freedom.

In Rom 5 Paul contrasts Adam and Christ with the issue of obedience. Paul writes that through one man ́s disobedience sin came into the world and through sin death. Asserting one ́s ego, absolutizing the individualized ego over or against an Absolute Reality is an act of replacing God. This alienation from God leads to existential death which is much more serious than physical death. The first Adam represents the corporate personality of the fallen humanity. Christ is the second Adam, who reverses the situation through obedience. Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane „nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done“ (Lk 22,42). Christ unterstands himself as a servant of God and lives accordingly. Jesus Christ represents the corporate personality of the new and authentic humanity. That is why Paul regards Christ as the Saviour and Redeemer.

Since Christ ́s ascension the Church continually celebrates the Paschal Mystery in her liturgy. The word liturgy derives from the Greek term Λειτουργία and means „public service or duty“. Liturgy is the participation of the People of God in the „work of God“. The Paschal Mystery is celebrated by remembrance and presence. During the Eucharist (εὐχαριστέω = I thank) we gratefully remember the events in a subjective-psychological way („Do this in remembrance of me“) and in an objective- effective way through sacramental efficacy. Christians believe that Jesus Christ and the transformative power of the Holy Spirit is really present in the community. Catholics even believe in the active presence of Christ in the transsubstantiated bread and wine. Liturgy is to glorify, to praise and to thank God! According to Thomas Keating the Paschal Mystery is the transition of „Jesus from human to divine subjectivity“. Our participation in this Mystery is like a passing over from the false self of the Ego to the true Self of God. During Holy Mass therefore we pray for sanctification and wholeness in order to become as fully human as Jesus Christ.

Benedikt Winkler

Theological Paper in „Christian Worship“, JDV Pune, September 2012

Veröffentlicht von Benedikt Winkler

Theologe & Journalist - Artworks, Film and Documentary. Benedikt Winkler forscht zu „Theologien im Kontext religiöser Pluralität: Differenzierungen - Herausforderungen - Perspektiven und Chancen“. „Ich schreibe für Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants und Silver Surfer, welche die Geister unterscheiden möchten.“

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