By Father Edward McNamara, LC
ROME, 07 October 2014 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: What is the meaning of the words "The mystery of faith" at the end of the consecration? Do they refer to the totality of the Eucharistic rites or, as some suggest by making an indicative gesture toward the Eucharistic species, to the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist? — F.M., Turin, Italy
A: In order to explain this we shall have to place this text in context.
In the pre-conciliar liturgy, and hence also in the extraordinary form, these words are found within the rite of consecration of the chalice. To wit:
"For this is the Chalice of My Blood, of the new and eternal Covenant: the Mystery of faith: which shall be shed for you and for many unto the remission of sins. As often as ye shall do these things, ye shall do them in remembrance of me."
Everybody admits that the expression "The mystery of faith" is non-biblical and was added to the consecration formula before the sixth century. Some authors plausibly suggest that it was added by Pope St. Leo the Great (440-461) in order to combat the Manicheans who denied the goodness of material things. In this way the Pope underlined the gift of salvation itself comes through the shedding of Christ’s material blood as well as through partaking in the material elements used in the Eucharistic sacrifice that makes this sacrifice present in the here and now.
The expression was removed from the consecration rite after a series of long debates by the experts preparing the new rites. At first there had been no intention of introducing new Eucharistic Prayers but simply to make some minor adaptations to the Roman Canon. The experts, however, as they are wont to do, were quickly gridlocked into opposing proposals. Pope Paul VI then decided to leave the canon as it was and approved the suggestion that alternative prayers be prepared.
None of the new prayers proposed retained the non-biblical expression "mystery of faith," and the forms of consecration were slightly different in each one. Paul VI again intervened and mandated that the form of consecration must be the same in all of the Eucharistic Prayers and that the expression "Mysterium fidei," whose presence in the canon had been hallowed by centuries of use, should be conserved, not in the formula of the consecration, but as an introduction to an acclamation by the people.
This acclamation by the people was a novelty for the Roman rite although quite common in some other ancient rites such as the Alexandrian.
With respect to its meaning we can say the following. The possible historical context of Manichaeism mentioned above has little relevance for today. I believe that the best key to interpreting the present liturgical meaning of the expression comes from the texts of the people's acclamations:
"We proclaim your Death, O Lord, and profess your Resurrection until you come again."
"When we eat this Bread and drink this Cup, we proclaim your Death, O Lord, until you come again."
"Save us, Savior of the world, for by your Cross and Resurrection you have set us free."
All three expressions show that the expression "The mystery of faith" is not limited to the Real Presence but rather to the entire mystery of salvation through Christ's death, resurrection and ascension which is made present in the celebration of the Eucharist.
In Ireland the bishops received approval for a fourth option, "My Lord and my God." It is a curiosity that in one of his memos Paul VI had suggested that this particular expression was not suitable for the acclamation for, while it expresses a truth of the faith, it appears to center the attention primarily on the Real Presence rather than on the Eucharistic sacrifice in its entirety.
Perhaps if one takes into account the biblical context of St. Thomas the Apostle's proclamation of the divinity of Christ, at once wounded and risen, then this expression also embraces the entire mystery.
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Follow-up: "The Mystery of Faith" [10-21-2014]
Pursuant to our Oct. 7 piece on the "mystery of faith," a New Jersey reader made an interesting query.
"Before your most recent column, I thought that I had correctly perceived a parallel between 'The mystery of faith' and 'The Gospel of the Lord,' both being cases of the minister stating, without syntax, a mode of the Lord's presence at Mass which has just been realized, and thereby offering the congregation an opportunity to address Jesus with their acclamation. Are these moments meant to be thought of as parallel?"
From the history of the text expounded in the original article, I do not think there was a deliberate intention to create such a parallel.
Likewise, as I mentioned, the expression refers not just to the Eucharistic real presence but to the presence of the entire paschal mystery.
Part of the difficulty arises from the use of the word "mystery." In theology "mystery" has several shades of meaning. One common meaning is that of a reality of faith that goes beyond the possibilities of a full human comprehension, and so we speak of the mystery of the Trinity, of the Incarnation and the like. In some cases, this is also applied to the Eucharist, such as before the mystery of transubstantiation.
Another, earlier meaning is one in which mystery is practically synonymous with sacrament, and this is very likely the meaning in the expression "The mystery of faith." Indeed, in Spanish one official translation is "This is the sacrament of our faith." Here the expression takes in the whole of salvation history, since for St. Paul a mystery was not something hidden but rather something hidden insofar as it is revealed. The mystery of Christ is the revelation of the Father's secret plan to save us through the incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of his Son and at the same time the carrying out of this saving plan.
The Eucharist, as mystery of faith, is the making present of this entire saving plan through the celebration which makes this eternal sacrifice present in the here and now. In a way, each Mass is the most recent moment in salvation history.
Therefore, although some readers have insisted that the expression refers primarily to the Real Presence, I must beg to differ. The Real Presence is a truth of faith, but it does not exist for itself. Christ becomes present — body, blood, soul and divinity — as a necessary condition for the realization of the whole salvific mystery which is the center of our faith and which is made present in each Eucharistic sacrifice.
Although the Real Presence remains in any hosts left over after the sacrifice has been completed, the Mass is celebrated for its own infinite value and not just to obtain the Real Presence.
In no way do I wish to suggest that devotion to the Real Presence should be weakened. I simply propose that this great and wonderful reality be always seen in its proper perspective and inseparable relationship with the true center, that is, the celebration of Christ's eternal sacrifice. Indeed, when this is done, true devotion to Christ in the tabernacle or the monstrance is greatly enriched and enhanced.