Through the Paschal mystery, dear friends, we are buried with Christ by Baptism into his death, and raised with him to newness of life.
So declaims the celebrant to the liturgical assembly, according to the use of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, at the Great Vigil of Easter and on other occasions when baptismal vows are publicly renewed.
It is beyond obvious that there is a wide variety of narratives about what constitutes the essential core of the Christian endeavor. Let me attempt to adduce three prototypes, though I make no claim that this is an exhaustive list: Ethical Theism, Sinner’s Prayer, and Social Gospel.
Among those who are more or less unreflectively post-Christian, and also among many (too many?) who are indeed practicing Christians of one stripe or another, the regnant model is what I call Ethical Theism. It’s essentially congruent with the notion of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism that has enjoyed some degree of traction since it was introduced a decade ago by Christian Smith and Melissa Lundquist Denton in their book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.
The vocation of an ethical theist is twofold, and quite simple: Believe in God and try your best to be a good person. And it’s not so much “believe in God,” actually, as “believe that God exists.” The role of Jesus in this schema is restricted to serving vaguely as an example and a dispenser of wisdom — again, not so much by careful intention as by mere default, by a lack of awareness of any alternative.
I was recently speaking with a colleague bishop who told me about one of his priests, who, in his presence, voiced something along the lines of, “I believe in the Trinity and the creeds and all that, but isn’t the really important thing that we just get our people to love each other?” To one whose daily stock-in-trade is the vocabulary and praxis of Christian theology and liturgy, this may all seem vapid. But it is undeniably pervasive.
The Sinner’s Prayer model testifies to the dominance of free-church evangelical thought categories in general Christian discourse, at least among Americans. It’s thought that what is required of an individual “to get right with God” is to have some identifiable moment of decision accompanied by intentional action in which (1) one acknowledges one’s sinful state, and (2) places unreserved trust in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross to atone for that sinful state.
In that act and moment, one “becomes a Christian” and is “saved.” Should a person be felled by sudden death prior to such a moment of commitment, his or her eternal destiny would be one of separation from God — hell. Should death occur after that moment, one’s immediate state after death is eternal joy in the nearer presence of God — heaven.
What I have just described may be a caricature, but, as this is the tradition in which I was formed in the first two decades of my life, I would suggest that it’s not so far off from what a lot of people believe. Of course, one could do some theological reverse engineering, and find strands of revivalism, Wesleyan “strangely warmed” experientialism, and, eventually, Anselmian penal substitutionary atonement thought as refined and amplified by the Reformation notion of “imputed righteousness.” In this paradigm, good works contribute in no way to a person’s salvation, but they are an important evidentiary by-product, a token of authenticity that one is truly “saved.”
As I mentioned, I was raised in such a milieu, and what eventually motivated me to move on (or move back, perhaps) to a more holistic —which, etymologically, is to say a more Catholic — soteriology was the realization that having my sins forgiven takes care of what I have done, but it doesn’t address what I am, which is someone who is devastatingly likely to go right back out and re-commit the sins of which I have just been forgiven. This realization was a source of profound spiritual unrest.
Then there’s the Social Gospel in its various iterations. As it emerged in the mid to late nineteenth century, the idea was that the Church’s mission — indeed, the whole point of the Christian endeavor — is to usher in the Kingdom of God, to gradually and doggedly construct a social order that is completely just, peaceful, and loving. Born out of the manifest social evil of the Industrial Revolution, William Blake’s beloved poem Jerusalem typifies this attitude most succinctly. The devastation of World War I should have put the lie to the Social Gospel, and the rise of the Third Reich (with an assist from Stalinist communism) should have buried it. But, like the Terminator, the Social Gospel keeps coming back, revealing itself in myriad ways, from the platitudes of beauty contestants about “making the world a better place” to more recent exhortations from church leaders that Christians participate in the realization of “God’s dream.”
Why is the Social Gospel still alive when it has been so thoroughly discredited? I suspect this is because it strokes our human ego with the tantalizing prospect that we can be the agents of our own salvation, even while we dutifully include God in our language about doing so. We are stirred by the call never to cease from “mental fight” (per Blake) until we have “built Jerusalem” in whatever land we have been placed in, green and pleasant or otherwise.
But what’s missing from each of these narratives? One thing, at least: the Paschal mystery. Let me break this phrase down a bit.
The Greek word mysterion occurs several times in the New Testament. I’m not a Greek scholar, but I find it more than a little bit interesting that, while the word is easily enough Latinized into mysterium, the Vulgate sometimes renders it as sacramentum. It is rendered as mysterium in Colossians 1:26-27 (“the mystery of Christ in you”) and Ephesians 1:9-10 (“he made known to us the mystery of his will … to sum up all things in Christ”). But it is sacramentum in Ephesians 5:32, the infamous passage on marriage — i.e. marriage is a “great sacrament.”
This would suggest that mysterion or “mystery” has a semantic range that is fairly wide — wide enough, at any rate, to resist being saddled with one singular definite meaning. And when a word is semantically ambiguous around the margins, its capacity to be deployed (theologically, spiritually, and pastorally) in some very rich and compelling ways is greatly amplified.
The term “Paschal,” of course, evokes the context of Passover, as well as the whole Old Testament system of atonement — reconciliation between God and humankind — of which animal sacrifice was the effective sign and seal. It was a complicated set of regulated practices, but, in the end, innocent blood invariably ended up being shed on behalf of the guilty.
So the combined expression “Paschal mystery” can quite arguably be taken to denote a complex of signs, symbols, metaphors, and simple prosaic assertions that form both the foundation and the interpretive lens of Christianity. Christ is our Paschal lamb, the one who sheds his innocent blood and is thereby shown to be the agent of salvation — not just of any individual or group of individuals, but of the cosmos. This is the mysterium fidei — Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Even the Baptist congregation of my youth, where I was schooled in the Sinner’s Prayer model of salvation, got this much right: The sign at the busy suburban intersection where the church was located bore the slogan, “Preaching Christ crucified, risen, and coming again.”
The Paschal mystery, through the common life of those who have been incorporated into it, calls me not merely to the acceptance of forgiveness, but to transformation, sanctification, theosis (“divinization”). The Paschal mystery will not allow me to think for a moment that I can claim a share of credit in any coming of the Kingdom of God, that anything I do can either advance or delay that coming for even a nanosecond.
I am all for believing in God and trying to be good. Those are worthwhile aspirations. And I regularly exhort people to acknowledge and confess their sins, and to “turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as [their] Savior.” I even encourage them to “put [their] whole trust in his grace and love” (BCP, 303).
And while I am dubious about any program to usher in the Kingdom through human effort, or in any way share in the realization of “God’s dream,” I attend on a daily basis to matters of justice, love, and peace in human relationships.
But any account of what Christianity is and what the Church’s mission is that doesn’t put the Paschal mystery in the position of the hub from which all the spokes of the wheel emanate is not the real thing. It is at best incomplete, and in most cases deceptive, because it doesn’t attend to the reality of creation’s bondage to sin and death and the costly but glorious redemptive remedy that is ours to celebrate in these Great Fifty Days.