The Mystagogical Tradition

St. Cyril of Jerusalem

“Mystagogy” is a word that some parishes hear during Easter Time, and is often associated with the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). Yet, a proper understanding of mystagogy provides inspiration and wisdom, not only for catechetical content, but also for evangelization, and the art of celebration of the Sacred Liturgy. This article, and those that will follow in this series, will begin this exploration by reviewing the historical context for the Christian mystagogical tradition.


PART ONE: The Pre-Christian Mystagogy

Mystagogy, in the Greek, is defined as a sense of being guided into the mystery. This word and its meaning predated the Nativity of Jesus Christ. In the Christian tradition, mystagogy is an entry into the Mystery of Christ. In theological circles today, the use of the word mystery or mystagogy is most often referenced in relation to the Sacraments and their liturgical celebration.

The Greek musterion generally means “secret.” Within the religious sphere, this sense of secrecy was associated with the gnosis of sacred and divine things. As Liam Walsh, OP, demonstrates, this is how “mystery” is used in the Septuagint1 and New Testament2. When these Greek Scriptures were translated into Latin, the Greek musterion was either replaced by sacramentum or mysterium with no indication of the preference between the two. Both were used to describe the reality of the secret wisdom of God’s saving work, ultimately revealed in the work of Jesus Christ. This reality of God’s saving work was then understood to be communicated through the liturgical rites of the Church. The Greek Christians would later use musterion to describe these liturgical rites and the Latin Christians would use sacramentum. Since both connected to the biblical reality, it allowed mysterium to remain an option for liturgical use.3

Before the wide-spread liturgical use of mysterium, the first and second century Christians recognized the previous use and application of the term “mystery” by non-Christian ritual initiations, and the Christian response was not positive. Saint Justin the Martyr, in the context of writing about the Eucharist, wrote,

Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn.4

Justin is referring to the Mystery Religions from the East that practiced their rites within the Roman Empire at the same time of the early Christians. Each of these groups had their own creation stories, of how a god, or gods, defeated a conflicting power; “the story was sometimes about the death of a god, about the shedding of blood that brought life, about descents from, and ascents to, heaven.”5 These stories were not fully shared until the ritual initiation celebration. The ritual gestures that accompanied these stories often included ritual washing, and a ritual meal. To protect this mystery, the fullness of the story, and rites, had to be kept secret. The parallels, in story and rite, were too close for comfort for early Christians.6

This discipline of secrecy is likely the reason why information on the Mystery Religions is limited, yet there is evidence of their existence a thousand years prior to Saint Cyril of Jerusalem’s mystagogical sermons and writings. For example, the rites in honor of Demeter of Eleusis begin with instruction by one who is initiated and able to reveal the secret mysteries; the participants receive a purification bath, and then solemnly process with song and dance to the place of initiation where drink is given and shared.7 The Mystery Religions viewed their story and rites as mystagogical in their own way. This point will be crucial in the development of the Christian liturgies as being mystagogical as the notion of mystagogy is often applied to the accompanying catechesis.

A couple of centuries later, Christianity had grown to be a large presence throughout the Roman Empire, and the mystery religions were between decline or extinction. The similarities were no longer an issue, and greater ease allowed for the concept of mysteries to be applied to the Christian liturgical rites, and to see the combination of the apostolic faith, and Sacraments of Initiation, as actualizing a transformative experience.8

By the fourth century, a mystagogical standard was in place in which the pastoral leaders preached and taught on the sacramental liturgies in order to call out the deeper reality present in the celebration. This mystagogical catechesis included a cultivating of the new life that these liturgies make possible, as the gift of new life is dispensed in the liturgy, and the catechesis assists the assent of the liturgical participant.9


PART TWO: Mystagogy in the Church Fathers

The Church Fathers of Mystagogical Catechesis, further called Mystagogical Fathers, universally include Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, Saint Ambrose of Milan, Saint John of Chrysostom, and Theodore of Mopsuestia. Others have included Augustine of Hippo and Maximus the Confessor.

There are commonalities between the Mystery Religions and the Mystagogical Fathers. Concerning the Christian purification of the adopted elements, Edward Regan states that recent “scholarship has made it clear that borrowing from the mystery cults did not go beyond language and external forms; more substantial roots of the Christian practice of initiation can be traced back to Judaism rather than to the traditional cults of Greece, Rome, and further East.”10 Edward Yarnold agrees that there was not a direct imitation of the Mystery Religions by the Church but rather a greater emphasis on the elements of mystery, secrecy, and awe.11

Each of the Mystagogical Fathers emphasizes these elements in differing expressions and degrees. The connection with the pre-Christian “awesome” or “awe” is most explicit in the works of John Chrysostom and Theodore of Mopsuestia. The discipline of secrecy was used by the Mystagogical Fathers, but had a greater emphasis in Cyril of Jerusalem, and Ambrose of Milan. The use of these elements in the emerging formalized system of catechetical instruction may have begun with a pastoral impulse, or at least had a pastoral benefit. “The necessity of producing behavioral and cultural changes in those converted in increasing numbers from paganism demanded more than an intellectual exposition. It required an environment suitable for conversion and growth in Christ.”12

The sermons of Cyril of Jerusalem are considered the archetype for the mystagogical process within Christianity. He was born around 313 A.D., the same year as the Edict of Milan, and benefited from the Council of Nicaea.13 His Mystagogic Catecheses were preached in the days following the reception of the Easter Sacraments. Some, like Edward Yarnold, believe the mystagogical sermons were given in his final years prior to his death in 387 A.D.14 These sermons focus on Scriptural texts—liturgical rites with a commentary on their meaning through the use of biblical typology.15 “Cyril presents Christianity not as a doctrine, or an obligation, but as a history into which the Christian must enter, and a life which the Christian must live.”16

Saint Ambrose of Milan was born around 339 A.D., less than a decade before the writings of Cyril of Jerusalem. His successor died in either 373 or 374 A.D. Yarnold’s dating of De Sacramentis is 391 A.D. for this collection of six homilies. De Mysteriis is a shortened version of De Sacramentis; the missing elements in the shorter version could be due to the discipline of secrecy. His mystagogical style is marked by a strong use of allegorical interpretation of Scripture for illuminating the work of God in the sacraments.17 His mystagogical sermons, like that of Cyril, were given only after sacramental initiation.

As bishop, he scheduled his enrollment of the seekers (competentes) at Epiphany, and provided daily instruction throughout Lent. There were regular scrutinies and exorcisms throughout Lent, with the Creed being taught on Palm Sunday. By the end of their catechumenal formation, they had been formed in Christian living, in the Scriptures, moral instruction by use of the Patriarchs and Proverbs, and the Creed. After sacramental participation and initiation, the initiated received instruction on Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Communion, the meaning and model of the Our Father, and psalms provided for the use in prayer.18

Based on his overall theology of the sacraments, Ambrose’s mystagogical method highlights the “deeper and invisible effects” operating “behind the visible and tangible rites.”19 For Ambrose, the process, the invisible and visible, brings about a participation in the Mystery of Christ. It was the role of his mystagogical sermon to bring about an awareness and appreciation of this process. In Ambrose, the liturgical rite and the sermon are both mystagogical.20

John Chrysostom was a priest of Antioch. He was ordained the bishop of Constantinople in 397 A.D., a few years after the recorded mystagogical sermons of Ambrose.21 John Chrysostom references the term “mystagogy” more often than the other Mystagogical Fathers.22 While his writings are numerous, there is no single text that outlines his mystagogical process.23 His view of mystagogy largely referred to the sacramental liturgies. Most of his mystagogical insights came prior to the reception of the sacraments, unlike Cyril and Ambrose, who waited until after initiation, with final instructions on the Eucharist coming after sacramental initiation. Since the sacramental liturgies were mystagogical, the insights by a mystagogue24 like John Chrysostom were to “enhance this role of the sacraments as themselves the mystagogy.”25 John Chrysostom’s preaching focused less on liturgical commentary, and more on furthering a moral response leading to a more mature Christian life.26 His approach was highly personal and pastoral. He preached about the issues facing the participants in the age in which they lived, and demonstrated that Christ, active in the sacraments, can provide real change to their situations.27

Like Chrysostom, Theodore of Mopsuestia was ordained a priest in Antioch. He was ordained the Bishop of Mopsuestia in 392 A.D.28 His catechetical style was more formally doctrinal and lengthy, with ten sessions on the Creed, one on the Our Father, and five on sacramental initiation. Of these five mystagogical lectures, the final three on the Eucharist were reserved for the days following initiation. Like Chrysostom, he splits his mystagogical instruction by providing some instruction prior to reception of the sacraments, and the rest after the eyes of faith are supplied.29 His mystagogical sermons emphasized the reality of the Resurrection in the celebration of the Mass, and provided key insights into the eschatological reality of the sacraments.30 Theodore would often provide numerous interpretations of a single liturgical element or rite.31 He saw his work as a mystagogue as explaining the invisible realities of the visible that the senses perceive.32

There was a near disappearance of any similar approaches to mystagogy. It is not possible to know the exact cause, yet numerous possibilities provide a likely context of contributing factors. It is believed that the allegorical interpretation of the liturgical rites eventually became removed from their original meaning.33 Other contributing factors may have been the gradual intellectual emphasis within the study of liturgical theology and catechesis, and the disappearance of the communal component in the process of Christian Initiation expressed in the catechumenate of the Mystagogical Fathers.34 Mystagogy enjoyed the unity of theology, mysticism, and Christian experience. Its absence over the last 1,200 years is due, according to Regan, to disproportions in this unity.35 During the pastoral work of these Christian leaders, mystagogy was “a spirituality of growth and deepening for the whole Christian community. Formally (at least in places), all had shared in the mystagogy of the neophytes.”36

What begins to be clear is that the initiation rite, from both the pre-Christian concept of mystagogy and then its Christian development, is a unique, mystagogical reality distinct from its instructional commentary. It can also be argued that the rites are the primary mystagogy; this understanding of liturgical rites as mystagogy presumes a specific understanding of the nature and purpose of liturgy rooted in anthropology, the Incarnation, and the Divine Will. The anthropological foundations for liturgy will be examined in the next essay of this series to appear later in these “pages” of HPR.

  1. Liam G. Walsh, Sacraments of Initiation: A Theology of Life, Word, and Rite (Hillenbrand Books, 2011) p. 16. Cf. Tobit 12:7, Judith 2:2, Daniel 2:18, 2:27, 2:47, Wisdom 2:22 (cf. 6:22)
  2. Walsh 16. Cf. Matthew 13:11, Mark 4:11, Luke 8:10, Romans 16:25-27, 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, Colossians 1:9-20, Colossians 2:2-4, Ephesians 1:9-20, Ephesians 3:1-6, Ephesians 5:22-33, Revelation 1:20, 10:7, 17:5.
  3. Walsh 16-17
  4. First Apology of Justin the Martyr, Ch. 66
  5. Walsh 19
  6. Ibid. As described in Walsh, page 20, Tertullian also rejected the possibility of similarities between the Mystery Religions and Christianity.
  7. Edward Yarnold, The Awe-Inspiring Rites of Initiation (The Liturgical Press, 1994) pp. 61-62.
  8. Walsh 20. By the fourth century musterion and sacramentum were exclusively used to describe the sacramental liturgies of the Church (Walsh 20-21).
  9. Ibid.
  10. David Regan, Experience the Mystery: Pastoral Possibilities for Christian Mystagogy (The Liturgical Press, 1994) p. 14.
  11. Yarnold 66
  12. A Faithful Church: Issues in the History of Catechesis (Morehouse Pub Co, 1981), Edited by O.C. Edwards Jr. Chapter Three: the Faithful Church by Leonel L. Mitchell, p. 49.
  13. Yarnold 67
  14. Yarnold 69, Mitchell 55, see Benedict XVI angelus on Cyril for a counter view.
  15. Regan 15
  16. Ibid.
  17. Yarnold 98-99
  18. Mitchell 72-75
  19. Regan 16
  20. Regan 16
  21. Yarnold 150
  22. Ibid.
  23. Michell 66
  24. Regan 11: the Patristics applied Mystagogue, the one that brings about or assists in the process of initiation into the mystery to God, Jesus, biblical figures and the mystagogical instructor like the Mystagogical Fathers. Boselli page 7 explains that while mystery is used often in Scripture, mystagogue is not applied to Jesus within the New Testament since the biblical cultural already had the similar and acceptable title of Rabbi.
  25. Regan 18
  26. Ibid.
  27. Michell 70
  28. Yarnold 165
  29. Mitchell 70-71
  30. Yarnold 166
  31. Regan 19
  32. Mitchell 72
  33. Regan 23
  34. Regan 24
  35. Regan 31
  36. Regan 22
Brandon Harvey About Brandon Harvey

Brandon Harvey is a writer and speaker on the new evangelization, liturgy, and mystagogy. He received his BA in Theology from Briar Cliff University, and MA from Franciscan University. Brandon is married with kids and resides in the Archdiocese of Omaha.