An October Mystagogy

A Proposal

St. Ambrose, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, the Rite of Christian Initiation, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Augustine.

We count people in October. Each year in the parishes of the dioceses of the province of Atlanta, we count the number of people who are attending Mass each weekend. The reason for the choice of this particular month has been lost to history, as the origin of this practice predates the presbyteral memory. The October Mass Count is simply now a presumed parochial custom.

While the month of October has five Sundays, there are four Sundays of the liturgical year that always fall during this month. These are the 27th, 28th, 29th, and 30th Sundays of Ordinary time. They present the regular cycle of prayers and readings for this period of the year.

My sister teaches fifth grade and she tells me that October is the best month for teaching. The members of the class, including the teacher, have been together for several weeks. The rules of the classroom are clearly established. They are beyond the introductory material in each of the subjects. There are no extended holidays, and this is before any major time of testing and evaluation. The month of October is a time ripe for learning.

The cycles of feasts and seasons govern the principal liturgical celebrations in a parish. In reality, however, the academic year governs many of the parish programs of education and activities. If the October census is conducted because it is a good representative month for regular annual attendance, and most of the people who are attending Mass are already unknowingly conditioned by their years in school to experience this as a particular time for learning, then these four Sundays are a season ripe for teaching. While respecting the nature of the homily as a liturgical event connected to the readings and the liturgical texts, I would like to propose these four Sundays of October as a time for intentional catechesis in the homily. The method of mystagogical catechesis seems most appropriate here. After a description of mystagogical preaching and its characteristics, I will present a brief preaching plan for each of these Sundays as a proposal for an October mystagogy.

Mystagogy
Speaking of mystery, Craig Satterlee writes that it “can be pointed to, hinted at, and even glimpsed, but it cannot be defined or exhausted.”1 The same can be said of mystagogy, which welcomes description but escapes precise definition. Ritually speaking, mystagogy is the stage in the process in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults which follows the reception of the sacraments. It is the period in which the newly initiated are “savoring the experience of the mysteries [and] reflecting back on the experience of the mysteries.”2 From an historical vantage point, mystagogy represents the style and method of preaching that was popular around the 4th century and employed by St. Ambrose, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Augustine, among others, to address the recently initiated, or those preparing for initiation. This was the preaching of the Easter Octave and the Easter season. Homiletically speaking, however, mystagogy has a much broader definition. It is a method of preaching which reflects on the sacraments using their ritual texts, both as envisioned and as celebrated, as a source for preaching. The ritual and liturgical texts are sources for preaching in addition to the readings proclaimed. Mystagogy, as Richard Eslinger writes, begins with a theological presupposition that “it is the same Word that is read and heard in the Scripture that is proclaimed in faithful preaching, and then is celebrated and experienced in the Meal.”3 While the original context of mystagogy is the Easter season and the sacraments of initiation, there does not seem to be any reason to limit it to that time of year. What is effective in April can be equally effective in October.

In addition to the ritual texts, mystagogy has a variety of sources. Richard Fragomeni notes that “the starting point . . . is the actual experience of the liturgy.”4 This is an important homiletical point that this method of preaching actually begins in the world, or the experience of the assembly. It takes seriously the fact that the liturgical experience is a unifying factor in the community. Within this liturgical experience is the proclamation of the scriptures, which is always a source for preaching. Classically, mystagogical preaching used a typological system of interpretation for the events narrated in the scriptures. In this method, we see things like the Flood, and the bathing of Naaman, presented as types of baptism. While certainly not limited to the typological method of interpretation, since the relationship between the First Reading and the Gospel in the lectionary is often tangentially typological, this method is particularly suitable for our purposes.

Having a description of mystagogy, and a brief look at its sources, it is important to examine the goals of mystagogical preaching. Catherine Vincie writes that the purpose of mystagogy “is to explore the mysteries of faith embedded in the liturgy so that the participants come to understand that they are participating in the realities signified.”5 Mystagogical preaching unveils the celebration for the faithful so that they might more deeply enter into it. There is a sense in which mystagogy examines the steps of the dance between God and humanity that takes place in the sacred liturgy so that the assembly is no longer required to look at her feet, but at her dance partner. Vincie also notes that “the ultimate purpose of mystagogy is transformation of life in the light of liturgy, Scripture, and tradition, all aimed at building up the kingdom of God.”6 There is a moral impact from mystagogy. She continues that “Christian belonging as accomplished through the initiation sacraments also leads to Christian behavior inside and outside of liturgical spaces.”7 Rooted in ritual experience and deepened by scriptural and traditional imagination, mystagogical preaching encourages ethical living.

In his work Augustine and the Catechumenate, William Harmless describes the structure of mystagogical preaching. Beginning with a liturgical symbol, the preacher free-associates from this symbol to an abundance of scriptural images. Next the preacher looks for images of this symbol in nature and then in the local context. Finally, these various images drawn from the scriptures, nature, and daily local life are explored through the prism of the sacramental liturgical celebration. He stresses the need for the abundance of images which evoke experience.8 Applied to the moves in a homily, this method begins in the world of the assembly with the liturgical symbol. The next move is into the world of the text with the scriptural images. This is followed by a move back into the world of the assembly with images from nature and even deeper into that world with very local examples. The final move is the unveiling of the liturgical symbol, present in both worlds, now enriched by images from the scriptures, nature, and daily life. The effect of this is that the liturgical symbol and the reality it signifies now occupy a far greater territory in the minds and hearts of the members of the assembly.

In his work Ambrose of Milan’s Method of Mystagogical Preaching, Craig Satterlee discusses the structure employed by St. Ambrose. This method begins with the establishment of the liturgical text upon which the homily will be based. Then the Rites are examined as envisioned in the ritual and as actually celebrated in this particular place. This is followed by an interpretation of the rite through the lens of scriptural images and personal or communal experience. The final step is the description of the ethical implications of participation in these rites.9 The component parts given here are very similar to those given by Harmless, though the ordering and emphasis are slightly different. Elements of both of these methods will form the basis for this mystagogical proposal.

With the conviction that mystagogical preaching is one of the most effective ways to deepen the experience of the mysteries of the faith, and that the month of October is a particularly fertile setting for such preaching, I will briefly propose a strategy for an October mystagogy. Normally, mystagogical preaching begins with the selection of a ritual text. Respecting the lectionary, this strategy begins with the examination of images already present in the readings for these Sundays. Since the scriptural images are an essential part of mystagogy, by taking those images given in the appointed readings, we can easily work back to the selection of a ritual or liturgical text. This ritual or liturgical text will be the primary preaching text, but we will arrive at it through the window of the given scriptural images. Drawing on additional scriptural, natural, and local images, I will suggest a path of exploration through the piece of the ritual text selected. When appropriate, I will propose practical ethical implications which flow from our experience of the realities signified by our celebration of the rites. This will be done briefly for each of the four Sundays mentioned and celebrated in the three year cycle.

27th Sunday
For each of the four Sundays, my strategy for preaching begins with an examination of the three Proper Prayers. The 27th Sunday prayers present themes of abundance, divine invitation and human response, and sacramental reception leading to transformation. Framed by these prayer texts, the lectionary offers different sets of readings in the three-year cycle.

In Year A, the dominant scriptural image is the vineyard. Within this metaphor, there are references to judgment, purification, fidelity, beauty, and the concern of the owner for the vineyard. Naturally speaking, a vineyard is an intentional place, set apart by hedges or fences, carefully planted, cultivated, and nurtured in preparation for the harvest. Focusing on those concepts, I will use the texts of the Introductory Rites to show how this assembly is a people called together by the invitation of God and invited to unity, purification, and praise. This follows the pattern of the Greeting, Penitential Rite, Gloria, and Collect.

In Year B, the marital relationship is the central image. These readings present themes of gift, relationship, fidelity, permanence, and children. References to these texts are present in the first Nuptial Blessing and this ritual text will be the basis for the homily. Through an exploration of the ritual text, I will show how the scriptural concepts are extended into the prayer of the Church and offered in blessing. In doing this, however, the preacher must maintain a homiletical sensitivity to those in the congregation who are single and particularly those who are divorced.

In Year C, Paul offers the image of the laying on of hands. This ritual action is present in the celebration of Baptism, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, and Ordination. While I prefer to focus this homily on the laying on of hands in terms of ministry, I will explore this ritual gesture in its aspects of claiming, blessing, comforting, and commissioning. This approach will keep a homily focused on ordination experientially related to the people of the congregation.

My proposal for the 27th Sunday explores the Introductory Rites, the Nuptial Blessing, and ritual gesture of laying on of hands over the three-year cycle.

28th Sunday
On the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, the prayer texts provide images of protection and devotion in the midst of a journey. There are also references to sacrifice, nourishment and sharing in divine life.

In Year A, the image of an abundant banquet is prominent as seen on a mountain in Isaiah, and a wedding feast in Matthew. Being a little more than a month before Thanksgiving, there is a natural and local tie to a large banquet. I will use the Invitation to Communion, “Behold the Lamb of God,” as the central liturgical text for this homily.

In Year B, the dominant images are riches and possessions. There are striking comparisons between wisdom and riches, and Christ and possessions. There is also the powerful image of the word of God as a separating sword. These images provide an excellent opportunity to explore the renunciation of sin, and the profession of Faith, found in both the Rite of Baptism and the Rite of Confirmation. This is particularly appropriate for those parishes that celebrate Confirmation during this time of year.

Year C offers images of bathing, cleansing, healing, and gratitude. There is a dominant theme regarding those who are outside of the Chosen People being brought into the People of God. These themes and images provide an opportunity to focus on the cleansing and claiming which occurs in baptism. I will explore the signing with the cross at the beginning of the Catechumenate, and the Rite of Baptism of Children, as the liturgical action for this homily. There is also the ethical implication of welcoming the stranger, the foreigner, and the immigrant.

For the 28th Sunday, I propose to explore the Invitation to Communion, the renunciation of sin and profession of Faith, and the signing with the cross before baptism.

29th Sunday
The prayers appointed for the 29th Sunday mention volitional cooperation and participation as well as respect for and reception of divine gifts.

The images in Year A focus on the divine choice and intervention that allows for human freedom. There are images of anointing, calling, naming, and claiming. I will use the ritual of Confirmation, particularly the Prayer of Confirmation, and the Anointing as the primary text and gesture for this homily. Many of the members of the assembly will remember their Confirmation celebration, while the others will be awaiting it. This is an opportunity to offer a mystagogical homily allowing both reflection and anticipation of the personal celebration of this sacrament.

The readings of Year B are replete with images of suffering. There are references to affliction, testing, drinking, authority, and service. This is an excellent opportunity to explore the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. The ritual text will be the formula of anointing itself. The pastoral value of preaching about the Anointing of the Sick is that it removes the fear that many people still have of this sacrament, while at the same time unveiling its power.

The dominant theme of the readings in Year C is the power of persistent prayer. The images involved are the holding up of the arms of Moses, the unjust judge, and the persistent widow. Paul provides an admonition to remain faithful, and attend to the power of the scriptures. With this image of communal support in prayer, I will use the gesture of extended and raised hands, along with the ritual text of “The Lord be with you, and with your spirit” as the central text. Exploring such a common liturgical experience as an expression of communal unity and support will allow the assembly and the preacher to more deeply engage the celebration.

For the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, I propose to explore the Prayer and Anointing of Confirmation, the Anointing of the Sick, and the most common liturgical greeting.

30th Sunday
The prayers for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time ask for an increase of the theological virtues and that through our reception of the sacraments we may one day possess what we celebrate in signs.

Year A offers images of foreigners, lenders, cloaks taken in pledge, and turning away from idols. There is a strong ethical component to these readings deriving from the double command of love for God and neighbor. While this can be an occasion to explore renunciation and profession, I propose to connect the cloak given in pledge to the white garment given in baptism. Using this symbol of Christian dignity, I will expound on the ethical responsibilities inherent in living as a follower of Jesus.

In Year B, there are images of blindness, sight, weakness, and petition. There is also a dominant theme of restoration and return to society. Those who were on the margins and excluded are brought to the center and included. There are an abundance of scriptural images that focus on the restoration of the lost. I will use this opportunity to explore the sacrament of reconciliation, using as the ritual text the Formula of Absolution. This prayer begins with the declaration of the primacy of God’s mercy. I will demonstrate how this prayer text, and the celebration in which it is used, is Trinitarian, ecclesial, and personal.

Year C provides images of the poor, the dying, the publicly pious, and the publicly scandalous. There is a contrast between the proud and the humble, particularly in terms of prayer. In this case, I will use the liturgical adaptation of the centurion’s words that are used before the reception of Communion as the central preaching text. This provides an opportunity to explore true and false images of humility and the healing nature of the Eucharist. The preacher will need to exercise pastoral sensitivity in this homily as some of the members of the assembly are not able to receive sacramental Communion at the present time.

For the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, I propose to explore the ethical implications of the baptismal garment, the sacrament of reconciliation, and the prayer which precedes the reception of Holy Communion.

Conclusion
The method of mystagogical preaching presented in this plan can be utilized on any given Sunday. It begins with the determination of the dominant or prominent images present in the appointed scripture readings. From these and associated images, a related liturgical or sacramental text, or symbol, is selected. Placing this symbol or text in dialogue with these images, the layers of meaning of both are explored. The mystagogical preaching of the 4th century continues to inspire and edify the faithful of each generation. Appropriating their methods, along with contemporary developments, we can offer to our assemblies an intentional exploration of the Christian mysteries at a time when they are already disposed for learning. What was effective in the 4th century in April can certainly be effective in the 21st century in October.

Bibliography

Eslinger, Richard L. Preaching and the Holy Mystery: The Eucharist as Context and Resource for Proclamation. Ashland City, TN: OSL Publications, 2016.

Fragomeni, Richard N. “Wounded in Extraordinary Depths: Towards a Contemporary Mystagogia.” In A Promise of Presence: Studies in Honor of David N. Power, O.M.I., edited by Michael Downey and Richard N. Fragomeni, 115-137. Washington, DC: Pastoral Press, 1992.

Harmless, S. J., William. Augustine and the Catechumenate. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1995.

Morris, Thomas H. The RCIA: Transforming the Church: A Resource for Pastoral Implementation. New York: Paulist Press, 1997.

Satterlee, Craig Alan. Ambrose of Milan’s Method of Mystagogical Preaching. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2002.

Vincie, Catherine. “Mystagogical Preaching.” In A Handbook for Catholic Preaching, edited by Edward Foley, 134-45. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016.

  1. Craig Alan Satterlee, Ambrose of Milan’s Method of Mystagogical Preaching (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2002), 337.
  2. Thomas H. Morris, The RCIA: Transforming the Church: A Resource for Pastoral Implementation (New York: Paulist Press, 1997), 213.
  3. Richard L. Eslinger, Preaching and the Holy Mystery: The Eucharist as Context and Resource for Proclamation (Ashland City, TN: OSL Publications, 2016), 18.
  4. Richard N. Fragomeni, “Wounded in Extraordinary Depths: Towards a Contemporary Mystagogia,” in A Promise of Presence: Studies in Honor of David N. Power, O.M.I., ed. Michael Downey and Richard N. Fragomeni (Washington, DC: Pastoral Press, 1992), 127.
  5. Catherine Vincie, “Mystagogical Preaching,” in A Handbook for Catholic Preaching, ed. Edward Foley (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016), 143.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. William Harmless, S.J., Augustine and the Catechumenate (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1995), 365-367.
  9.  Satterlee, 327.
Fr. Benjamin Roberts About Fr. Benjamin Roberts

Fr. Benjamin Roberts is a priest of the Diocese of Charlotte, North Carolina, and pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Monroe, NC. He holds degrees from D’Youville College in Buffalo, New York, and St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. He has done additional study at the Centro Pro Unione in Rome, and is currently working on a D.Min in Preaching at Aquinas Institute in St. Louis, Missouri. His Sunday homilies can be heard at FatherBhomilies.podbean.com.  

Comments

  1. Cynthia Gutmann says:

    Father Benjamin can write!! He has expressed himself so well, and has a clear way of holding one’s attention. His article was interesting, explanatory and educational. He has also peaked my interest in William Harmless! God bless Father Benjamin and continue to guide him.. He always seems to do things just right!!

    JMJ
    Cindy Haefling Gutmann
    San Antonio, Texas

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