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Paschal Mystery

In worship, especially in the sacraments, we make Christ's paschal mystery present in the here and now; we do the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and we are transformed into being more perfect members of Christ's body.

Recently the police called my brother's home. It seems his third-grade daughter had told his five-year-old son that if he ever were in trouble, all he needed to do is call 911. Apparently he had been calling regularly, and the police called to ask the parents to have it stopped. When questioned why he was calling 911 when he wasn't in trouble, he guilelessly replied, "I just wanted to make sure someone is there if I ever get into trouble."

How wonderful it would be if we could have such innocence, that life's troubles could be handled so easily! Alas, all of us who have lived into adulthood and carried forward with the trials and tribulations which beset all of us, have struggled to make sense out of why trouble happens, both to us individually and to the world at large.

How do we make sense out of the terrible suffering which the hurricane Katrina brought to so many people? Or how do we help a youth understand that his father's terminal cancer isn't anyone's fault or that he isn't being punished? Or how do we cope with the loss of a job due to downsizing or a home due to fire? Often our first response to these and so many other times of suffering in life is to fall back on our faith. By turning to God in prayer, we receive the strength to cope and the hope that tragedy is not all there is to life. Only in God can we approach something of the innocence of the child, hoping against hope that God is there for us.

These difficulties of life actually do more than bring us to God (as important and wonderful as that is). They also help us to understand the very heart of liturgy and, further, the very pulse of our everyday life. In this brief reflection, I first make a distinction between worship and liturgy; second, I consider why and how the paschal mystery is enacted at every liturgical celebration; third, I explore how the dying and rising of the paschal mystery is the very pulse and rhythm, of our daily Christian living.

Worship and Liturgy

Worship is much broader and includes many more possibilities than does liturgy. Worship is our attitude and stance toward the Divine. We can worship God together or individually; we can use set prayers (such as the Lord's Prayer) or we can be spontaneous and use our own words; we can be formal or informal. Worship happens in church, at home, in the car on the way to work, anywhere at all that our hearts are turned toward God. At worship we express attitudes of praise, adoration, thanksgiving, and beg God to "be there" when we pour our hearts out in need. When worshiping God we stand before our God as those who are redeemed, holy, gifted, and in need. Worship enables us to express our basic stance toward God: we are creatures dependent upon the Almighty for even the very breath of our life.

Liturgy is much more narrow and generally refers to the formal, structured worship services most of us are used to on Sunday mornings. Even more specifically, liturgy refers to the celebration of the sacraments. Liturgy is surely worship, but it is a more specific kind of worship and has a more definite purpose. At liturgy-especially the celebration of baptism and the Lord's Supper-we make present in the here and nowChrist's paschal mystery. At liturgy we do the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and by these actions we ourselves are transformed into being more perfect members of Christ's Body. Perhaps the greatest praise we can give God and the best way to show our gratitude for all God's blessings is that we surrender ourselves to be transformed by God so that we can be the risen presence of the risen Christ in our world. Let us consider more closely this paschal mystery of Jesus Christ as the very heart of liturgy.

Heart of Liturgy

When we think of the term "paschal mystery," we usually think of Easter time and our celebration of Jesus' death and resurrection. That is correct, but only partially so. Jesus' dying and rising is a nice shorthand way of thinking about the paschal mystery, but there is so much more to the mystery than even what happened on that first Good Friday and Easter Sunday two millennia ago. To understand more fully, we must at least go back to the incarnation, when God "humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross" (Phil 2:8). Then we must also consider Jesus' public ministry and how he had always done "just as the Father has commanded" (John 14:31).

The key to understanding the paschal mystery, then, is to remember that Jesus' whole life and mission was about doing his Father's will; he was the obedient Son from the very first breath of his human life. Armed with this perfect and firmly-established relationship with his Father, Jesus willingly became "obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him" (Phil 2:8-9) by raising him up on the third day. Jesus' life is a model for us of obedience and self-giving. This already helps us understand more clearly what liturgy is really all about-through Word and Sacrament we encounter the obedient and self-giving Christ Jesus.

At the Last Supper, when Jesus commanded his disciples to "do this in memory of me" (Luke 22:19), he was telling us more than that we must simply come together to share the Lord's Supper. He was also telling us that every time we celebrate liturgy we "do this"-that is, we make present Jesus' dying and rising, his obedience and self-giving. The very heart of liturgy is to make present Jesus' self-giving (his dying) so that we might be transformed and become ourselves more perfectly obedient and self-giving and thus, with him, rise to new life.

The tremendous gift of liturgy is that the risen Christ is present to us not as a far-off God but as a Lover who embraced all our humanity (even suffering and death, everything except sin) so that we might share in his divine life. The paschal mystery, then, is not so much a concept to be understood as it is a Person. Yes, the paschal mystery-Jesus in his obedience and self-giving-is the heart of liturgy. When we celebrate liturgy we unite and conform ourselves to Jesus' death and resurrection, offering our own selves to God as an offering which God makes holy and pleasing.

Many Protestant denominations today are struggling with celebrating the Lord's Supper (or Holy Communion, as some call it) more frequently, even weekly. This is no mere whim of some pastor; what is actually at stake here is embracing an opportunity to make present Christ's mystery and allow that mystery to define our own selves (as those who die and rise with Christ) and the way we live. The paschal mystery is, thus, also the very pulse of our own everyday lives, for, in liturgy, we ourselves are transformed ever more perfectly into obedient and self-giving followers of Christ. How and why is this so?

Pulse of Life

Jesus' mystery becomes our own mystery at our baptism. St. Paul asks, "Do you not know that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? . . . so that . . . we too might live in newness of life" (Rom 6:3-4; NRSV). "Do you not know . . . " Unfortunately, Paul's question seems to pass us by at times. We sometimes forget how important baptism is. We sometimes, by the way we live, admit that we do not know the tremendous gift we've been given in our baptism and that our baptismal commitment is not so much a single commitment as it is a life-long journey of faithfulness and obedience, of self-emptying and blessing.

At our baptismal ceremony we were plunged into death-claiming and life-giving water: we died to our old selves and were raised from the water to be anointed in the Spirit. By the power of that Spirit, we came to share in God's life. Further, baptism commits us to enter into the very life which Jesus lived; as disciples, we are members of his Body and continue his saving ministry in our broken and wounded world. When tragedy strikes, we are challenged to embrace the passion of Christ. This is how we make sense of all that happens in our lives: everything is an opportunity to live Jesus' passion and through death to come to new life. When blessings come upon us, we pause to give God thanks and praise for we know that by our share in Christ's risen life we are blessed beyond imagination with a share in God's very own divine life.

The paschal mystery-suffering and joy, dying and rising-is not a matter of "paying our dues" (suffering and dying) so that we might be "rewarded" (share in the blessedness of divine life). What Jesus taught us is that as his disciples we must take up our own cross and lose our own lives for the sake of others (see Matt 16:24). In this very self-giving we conform ourselves more perfectly to Christ in whom we were baptized; in this very self-giving God raises us to new life. Thus, in the very dying is the rising. In the very dying do we affirm our baptismal commitment; in the rising we enjoy the blessings of faithful followers of Jesus the Christ.

The dying and rising we celebrate at liturgy is the same dying and rising we are called to live every day. This is how we make sense out of suffering and tragedy: we know that in the dying is new life. Our daily Christian living is a pulse, a rhythm of dying and rising when we willingly surrender ourselves to conform ourselves to Christ.

Paschal Mystery: Heart of Liturgy, Pulse of Life

In liturgy we make present and celebrate the paschal mystery, the dying and rising of Jesus. This is probably fairly easy for most of us to accept. Perhaps more challenging for us is that the paschal mystery is also how we must live every day-the dying and rising is the very pulse of our Christian living when we are being faithful followers of Jesus. Yes, it is a most amazing gift, this Body and Blood given us in liturgy as heavenly Food for our nourishment and strength. Also, it is an amazing gift, this baptismal life to which we are committed and during which we live our sorrows and joys, our weakness and grace. The paschal mystery calls us to have the same simplicity and guilelessness as my nephew-trusting that God is always there, giving us strength in our self-giving and a share in risen life in our faithfulness. How breathtaking is this heart of liturgy and pulse of life!