Foundations of Faith|
A mystery that has meaning for each one of us
The Paschal Mystery unearths clues for new life
By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor
Why do we call it Easter? Actually, when Christians started
celebrating Christ's resurrection, we called it the Pasch. The
Greek word was Pascha, developed from the Hebrew Pesach for
Passover - as in Israel's Passover from slavery. At Easter,
Christ passed over from death to new life.
From the word Pascha, we get Paschal, as in Paschal Mystery. The
Paschal Mystery, while one event that we can only begin to
understand, can be better grasped by seeing it as three parts of
that one whole event. The Creed we say at Mass lists these three
parts: "For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he
suffered, died and was buried. On the third day, he rose again in
fulfillment of the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is
seated at the right hand of the Father."
So we can see three distinct parts here in the one mystery of our
salvation: Jesus' passion and death; the Resurrection; the
Ascension. We can begin to understand that mystery by first
looking at what it means in terms of universal salvation, and
then what it means for our individual salvation.
First, the Paschal Mystery teaches us about God's salvation for
The Passion, death and burial: Through his death, Jesus frees us
from sin. His suffering and death were the climax - in his human
condition - of God's redeeming love united with our own weak,
fallen humanity. By accepting death, Jesus completely tied
humanity into God's act of redemption.
"Jesus did not experience reprobation as if he himself had
sinned," the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us. "But in
the redeeming love that always united him to the Father, he
assumed us in the state of our waywardness of sin, to the point
that he could say in our name from the cross: 'My God, my God,
why have you forsaken me?' Having thus established him in
solidarity with us sinners, God 'did not spare his own Son but
gave him up for us all' so that we might be 'reconciled to God by
the death of his Son.'" (n. 603).
The Resurrection: Christians have always viewed the passion and
death of Jesus in the light of the resurrection. Without the
resurrection, Jesus' suffering and death would have no meaning.
It is from the perspective of the resurrection that the church
has always understood what God did through Jesus. The
resurrection was God's triumph over death and all separations
and, through Jesus, is our source and promise of new life.
"The new life is above all justification that reinstates us in
God's grace, 'so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the
glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.'
Justification consists in both victory over the death caused by
sin and a new participation in grace" (CCC, 654). The catechism
adds that justification brings about our adoption by God, making
us brothers and sisters of Christ and "gains us a real share in
the life of the only Son, which was fully revealed in his
The Ascension: Through the Ascension, Jesus received the glory
and honor that was his as God's Son and through that glory and
power, he sent the Spirit. Through the ascension, resurrection
power flowed out upon all creation.
"The ascended Christ, far from being absent, fills the cosmos in
a new way," explains theologian Sr. Brid Long. "The ascension
implies that the Church now begins to function as the visible
embodiment of Jesus."
This is what the Paschal Mystery means for the entire Church, all
who call themselves Christian. But what do the events of the
Paschal Mystery mean for each individual? For you and me in our
own everyday flesh?
The Passion, death and burial: We all experience suffering and
death. Jesus' suffering and death speak to our own. Jesus is
united to us in our weakness, through his own weakness. One way
to illustrate that, according to theologian Sr. Elizabeth
Johnson, CSJ, is to look the words we say in the Apostles Creed
about Jesus' "descent into hell."
"What this symbolic way of speaking signifies," says Sr. Johnson,
"is that even those who die victimized, those who disappear,
those who are no longer part of the living history of the earth,
those no longer remembered - all these people are not beyond the
reach of the living God. The Crucified Jesus has joined them,
identifying with them, and bringing the power of the reign of God
The Resurrection: Jesus' humanity and resurrection foreshadow
what will happen to each of us.
"Bodily resurrection is a way of saying that Jesus, in the
wholeness of his being, is with God," says Fr. Zachary Hayes,
OFM. ".In this destiny of Jesus is anticipated the destiny of
humanity and of the world."
What happened to Jesus in his humanity, will happen to each one
of us in our humanity. We, too, will rise.
The Ascension. Because of the glory that came to Jesus at the
Ascension, we, ourselves, know we are called to a destiny greater
than anything we can imagine.
"Only the one who 'came from the Father' can return to the
Father." the Catechism tells us. "Left to its own natural powers,
humanity does not have access to the 'Father's house,' to God's
life and happiness. Only Christ can open to man such access that
we, his members, might have confidence that we too shall go where
he, our Head and our Source, has preceded us" (n. 661).
Our mystery, too
All of this happens in the one glorious event we call the Paschal
Mystery. And even though we have talked about that mystery in
three parts, none of those parts can be viewed separately. We
must always remember that the Crucified One is also the Risen and
Exalted One. Jesus - human and divine, Lord, Savior and our
brother - is one person. And His Paschal Mystery is our mystery
too. We have all been promised that what happened to Jesus will
happen to each of us who share in Christ's humanity and who
conformed ourselves to his image in baptism.
Fr. Gerald Sloyan is a visiting professor of religion at Catholic
University. He says that people today most need to remember what
the first Christians heard, how the Gospel was first preached: "A
man who died a cruel tortured death was uniquely the Son of God
and that God raised him up from the dead and exalted him to God's
right hand. Specifically, the earliest believers, Jews and
non-Jews alike, were invited to consider what their own hard
lives of suffering and their seemingly meaningless death might
mean, once God's plan for a life to come in the body was revealed
Easter celebrates that plan unfolding in creation - and in our
Oh, and the word Easter comes from the name of a pagan goddess of
springtime and dawn - Estre. Using her name is just an example of
how early missionaries used what was already in place to make
Christian feasts attractive to those they hoped to convert.
(Sources: Consider Jesus, Waves of Renewal in Christology; Catechism of the Catholic Church; Visions of a Future, A Study of Christian Eschatology; The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia)