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Paschal mystery

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Paschal mystery

Early Christian mosaic depicting vested clergyman praying with a paschal candle. Bardo National Museum in Tunis, Tunisia.

Paschal Mystery – one of the central concepts of Christian faith relating to the history of salvation. Its main subject is the passion, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ – the work God the Father sent his Son to accomplish on earth.

Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox Christian churches celebrate this mystery on Easter. It is recalled and celebrated also during every Eucharist,[1] and especially on a Sunday, which is the Pascha of the week.[2]


  • The name (origin of the word 'Paschal') 1
  • Patristic spiritual and theological aspects 2
  • Catholic teaching 3
    • The Second Vatican Council 3.1
    • Post-Conciliar magisterial documents 3.2
    • Paschal mystery and the traditionalists 3.3
  • Protestant view of the mystery 4
  • Theological reflection 5
    • The Crucifixion and Descent of Jesus to the Dead 5.1
    • The Resurrection 5.2
    • The Ascension and Exaltation 5.3
  • References 6
  • Bibliography 7

The name (origin of the word 'Paschal')

The word "paschal" is the equivalent of Greek "pascha" is derived from Aramaic "pasḥā" and Hebrew "pesaḥ", meaning "the passing over" (cf. Ex 12:13.23.27; cf. Is 31,5). The origin is not known. Some scholars refer to Assyrian "pasah" – appease or Egyptian "pa-sh" – remembrance or "pē-sah" – the blow. The Bible links "pesaḥ" with "pāsaḥ" – two literal meanings are: to limp and to perform a ritual dance around a sacrifice (1 K 18:21.26). Figuratively it may be understood, "to jump", "to pass", "to spare". It refers to the passage of God on the Passover night, when the Israelites left Egypt. God struck the houses of Egyptians and left the Israelites untouched, i.e. passed over.[3]

The second word, mystery, is regarded in Christian 20th century theology as one of the most important key-words of Christianity and its theology. It opposes the ideas of Gnosticism, Rationalism and Semi-Rationalism, pointing out that there are Divine mysteries properly so called which cannot be grasped by mere human reasoning. They need to be revealed by God through the grace.[4][5] In this meaning mystery describes not an idea that must be unlocked or solved like a mystery novel, but the Divine truth and life, to which God through the Church, sacraments, word of God and faith initiates the deidecaters (cf. Eph 1,17ff).

Patristic spiritual and theological aspects

The very first known use of the term Paschal mystery (literally Mystery of the Pascha) was found in the homily of Melito of Sardis On the Pascha written between A.D. 160 and 170:[6]

According to Raniero Cantalamessa OFMCap, patristic interpretation of the paschal mystery in its major facets and constituent dimensions may be summarised in four points:
  1. History. Historical events form the foundation for the Paschal mystery and are commemorated in the paschal liturgy of Easter
  2. Sacraments and mistagogy. Historical events of the death and resurrection of Christ are realised in the believer as passage from death to life. Primarily, it is achieved in baptism and the Eucharist, but the paschal solemnity of Easter taken as a whole is itself a sacrament, the paschale sacramentum.
  3. Moral and spiritual life. Pascha (or Easter) is a transitus – detachment from evil, conversion to good, and progress in spiritual life, until the final transitus to the Kingdom of God.
  4. Eschatology. In the early years of the Church Paschal mystery was celebrated with a vivid expectation of the coming of Christ. Gradually Christian communities have come to focus on the presence of Christ in the Church as liturgical anticipation of the parousia. Paschal eschatology has also individual dimension as eagerness for the heavenly Pascha. Paschal mystery becomes a pledge of eternal life.[7]

Catholic teaching

The Second Vatican Council

The term Mysterium paschale was used repeatedly during Second Vatican Council (1963–65) as a meaningful designation of the Christian redemption proclaimed and now accomplished in the liturgy. Council Fathers endorsed the fruit of the work of scholars of the Liturgical Movement, specifically Dom Odo Casel and the whole Maria Laach school. The term mystery of salvation made its way to the Council documents not without some opposition or misunderstanding. Some fathers expressed doubts saying that it was a vague and chimeric idea, its orthodoxy was dubious, and that it was ignored by sound theology. Eventually the Council decided to confirm the importance of the term. It is reflected especially in the Constitution on the liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium.[8][9] In the very beginning of 1st chapter, where the Council document speaks about restoration and promotion of the liturgy, paschal mystery is shown as the way Christ has redeemed mankind:

Post-Conciliar magisterial documents

After Second Vatican Council the term Paschal mystery has been used by Catholic Church Magisterium as one of basic concepts of Christian faith and life.

In 1992 letter Communionis notio of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to the bishops about the Church understood as communion, paschal mystery is explained as the means by which God's initiative was carried out to bring to disciples of Christ and, indeed, to the whole of mankind the gift of communion.[12]

John Paul II in his letter on keeping the Lord's day holy wrote that to celebrate Sunday is to make present the graces of the Paschal Mystery, which is the climax of the salvation history:

The document called Instrumentum Laboris, issued before the Synod on the Eucharist (2005), spoke about perception of the Eucharistic mystery among the faithful. In many developed countries Christians fail to see the Eucharist as a celebration of the paschal mystery. They tend to perceive it as simply the fulfilment of a Sunday obligation and a meal of fellowship. The paschal mystery, celebrated in an unbloody manner on the altar, is much more a source of spiritual strength to those Christians who live in the situation of suffering, wars, and natural disasters etc.[14]

During the 2005 Synod, Pope Benedict XVI and bishops emphasised the need for the faithful to enter more deeply into the mystery being celebrated. They called for a process of mystagogy, i.e. initiation into the mystery of Salvation. According to the Pope's exhortation published after the Synod, initiation into the mystery of the liturgy should respect three elements:

  • Interpretation of the events of Jesus' life, and the Paschal Mystery in particular, in relation to the entire history of the Old Testament.
  • Introduction into the meaning of the signs and gestures of the rites. In a highly technological age people no longer understand them.
  • Safeguarding the impact celebration of the rites should have on Christian life in all its dimensions – work and responsibility, thoughts and emotions, activity and repose.[15]

Pope called for new communities and movements to assist in the practical realisation of that programme in parishes:

Among the new communities of consecrated life which contribute to the Christian formation there are e.g. Community of St. John, Community of the Lamb, Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem and others. The Pope spoke also about new movements and groups working in the field of Christian formation. Among internationally active there are e.g. Charismatic Renewal, Communion and Liberation, Community of the Beatitudes, Community of the Chemin Neuf, Community of Sant'Egidio, Emmanuel Community, Focolare Movement, Neocatechumenal Way, Opus Dei, etc. These communities, movements and groups have emerged in the 20th century on the grounds of Second Vatican Council's renewal of the Church.

Due to historical context of nominalism promoted by William Ockham, Protestant Eucharist has become more a fraternal meal than a celebration of the paschal mystery. "Abendmahl" during the evangelical service in the church of the Three Kings, Frankfurt am Main.

Paschal mystery and the traditionalists

The concept of the paschal mystery is criticised by the traditionalists. According to the address of the Superior of the Society of St. Pius X, Bishop Bernard Fellay (2001), the theology of the "paschal mystery" minimizes the mystery of the Redemption, because it considers the sacrament only in its relation with the "mystery", and because the conception that it makes of the "memorial" alters the sacrificial dimension of the Mass and as a consequence it renders the post-Conciliar Liturgy dangerously distant from Catholic doctrine.[16] Card. Joseph Ratzinger and Jonathan Robinson CO show that the traditionalists put themselves in a false position, overlooking the fact that the Vatican II's teaching about this issue restored a profoundly traditional doctrine, central to Christian thought and experience.[17][18]

Protestant view of the mystery

Protestant view of grace and salvation was influenced very much by nominalism of William Ockham's razor. In Martin Luther's opinion Ockham was the only scholastic whose teaching was worth studying.[19] Rejection of traditional Metaphysics, and especially the universals, paved the way to modern empiricism.[20] In this nominalistic Protestant view of relationship between God and creation, the mystery of God becomes utterly unattainable for human reason, even if it is illumined by faith. While traditional understanding of the mystery of faith is that the Divine revelation can use human word, somehow assimilating the Word of God, to initiate man into the mystery of the divine life, according to Louis Bouyer, the Protestant view excludes such approach. Revelation of the mystery of salvation to man is compatible with traditional philosophy, like Thomism, and incompatible with the Protestant view of grace, influenced by nominalism.[21]

Paschal Lamb with the banner symbolising Christ's resurrection. Stained Glass, Anglican cathedral at Guildford, Surrey, England.

Theological reflection

Paschal mystery embraces several events of Jesus' passing away from this world. They are central to the Christian Creed.

The Crucifixion and Descent of Jesus to the Dead

Jesus sacrificed his life by freely accepting death on the cross and being put in a tomb. In experiencing death and overcoming it in resurrection, Christ assures us that we will have life everlasting with God as we too, through Christ's accomplishment as our representative, will triumph over death and pass into eternal life with the resurrection of the glorified body.

The Resurrection

Three days after he died and was buried, Jesus was raised from the dead with a new and glorified body. All four Gospels of the New Testament clearly give an account of the resurrection. This event is at the heart of faith in Christ (see 1 Corinthians 15:3-5). ....

The Ascension and Exaltation

Forty days after the resurrection, the risen Christ ascended to the Father in Heaven, God's domain. From there, Christ, who is hidden from our eyes, will come again in glory at the end of time to judge the living and the dead. Through the Ascension and Exaltation of Christ, humanity has been given the unbreakable promise of everlasting life with God.

Through the Paschal Mystery everything has been justified and made right in Christ with God. Jesus came to fulfil and perfect the covenant of God, and to assure all that God's love is eternal and constant.

As Jesus truly dies and is buried, how we should be filled with wonder! Seamlessly the sadness of Christ’s death gives way to the joy of the Resurrection as Easter dawns upon us (Compendium, 126).


  1. ^ Bouyer, Louis, (1951) The Paschal Mystery, pp. 41 and 50
  2. ^ John Paul II, "Dies Domini" 3, (1998), see the text on-line: APOSTOLIC LETTER DIES DOMINI. Access date:2012-03-12
  3. ^ Bonnard, Pierre Émo OP, (1988)yeathats awes Passover, in: Dictionary of Biblical Theology, p. 407
  4. ^ Cf. First Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution Dei Filius (24.04.1870), ch.2 De revelatione, Denzinger-Shönmetzer (DS, 36 ed.) 3005; cf. 3876; Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum, 2-6.
  5. ^ Rahner K., Mystery, in: Sacramentum Mundi, vol. 4, p. 133.
  6. ^ Cantalamessa R. OFMCap, (1993) in: Easter in the Early Church, p. 41, endnote d. Cf. Eph3:4; Col 4:3.
  7. ^ Cantalamessa R. OFMCap, (1993) Introduction, in: Easter in the Early Church, p. 2-3.
  8. ^ Bouyer L. (1965), The Liturgy Revived. A Doctrinal Commentary of the Conciliar Constitution on the Liturgy, pp.11-12
  9. ^ Füglister, Notker, (1969) Passover, in: Sacramentum Mundi, vol. 4, p. 353
  10. ^ Easter Preface of the Roman Missal
  11. ^ See the old Roman Missal, used before the restoration of Holy Week by the pope Pius XII, Prayer before the second lesson for Holy Saturday.
  12. ^ Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 3Communionis notio. Access date 2012-03-10.
  13. ^ Epist. 13, 1: CCL 140A, 992
  14. ^ Synod of Bishops, XI Ordinary General Assembly, The Eucharist: source and summit of the life and mission of the church – "Instrumentum Laboris" 33. Access date: 2012-03-10.
  15. ^ Benedict XVI, Post-synodal apostolic exhortation "Sacramentum Caritatis" 64. Access date: 2012-03-10
  16. ^ Cf. Bishop Bernard Fellay, The Problem of the Liturgical Reform – A Theological and Liturgical Study, Kansas City: Angelus Press, 2001.
  17. ^ Jonathan Robinson (2005). "The Paschal Mystery". The Mass and Modernity. Walking to Heaven Backward. San Francisco: Ignatius Press. pp. 239–265.  
  18. ^ Cf.  , cf. Louis Bouyer, The Paschal Mystery, in: Dictionary of Theology, trans. rev. Charles Underhill Quinn, New York: Desclee, 1965.
  19. ^ Bouyer L., The spirit and forms of protestantism, p. 186-188
  20. ^ Gilson, É., History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages, p.499
  21. ^ Cf. The spirit and forms of protestantism, p. 195, citation: The theologian who has thoroughly grasped the thomist doctrine (which in fact does more than systematise accurately the practice of the Church since the prophets and apostles) will not imagine that he can understand and manipulate any enunciation of the divine Word as he could those of his own mind. Nor will he conclude that the Word of God has to remain an unresolved enigma, a symbol impossible to decipher. Knowing that God made all things as a reflection of his own thoughts, and the human mind as a reflection of his own word, he will strive, his mind illumined by faith, to open himself to the mysteries God reveals, not confining them in the framework of his own ideas, but transposing and enlarging these, not destroying their value in their own order, but transcending the limits of mere reason — a real elevation, not a collapse into the subrational. Thus, the supernatural is received by the mind enlightened and elevated by faith, not as darkening its natural lights, but by the acquiescence of the human mind in its invasion by the Spirit of God; in this unique experience, it recognises both that it is rapt from itself and taken back by Him who had made it for Himself, in His own image.


  • Balthasar, Hans Urs, (1993) Mysterium Paschale : the mystery of Easter, Aidan Nichols OP (translation and introduction), Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA : W.B. Eerdmans, pp. 297 ISBN 0-8028-0147-1
  • Bonnard, Pierre Émile OP, (1988) Passover, in: Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Xavier Léon-Dufour (ed.), Third rev. edition, Pasay City, Philippines - London: Paulines - Goeffrey Chapman, p. 406-409.
  • Bouyer, Louis, (1951) The Paschal Mystery. Meditations on the Last Three Days of Holy Week, London.
  • Bouyer L.,(1956) The spirit and forms of protestantism, A. V. Littledale (trnasl.), London - Glasgow: Collins, p. 285.
  • Bouyer L. (1965), The Liturgy Revived. A Doctrinal Commentary of the Conciliar Constitution on the Liturgy. London: A Libra Book, 1965, pp. 107.
  • Cantalamessa, Raniero OFMCap, (1993) Introduction in Easter in the Early Church. An Anthology of Jewish and Early Christian Texts, Quigley SJ, J.T. Lienhard SJ (translators & editors), Collegville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, pp. 1–23, ISBN 0-8146-2164-3
  • Füglister, Notker, (1969) Passover, in: Sacramentum Mundi, vol. 4, New York - London: Herder and Herder - Burns & Oates, p. 352-357, ISBN 0 223 97630 X
  • Gilson, Étienne, (1955, this edition 1985), History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages, London: Sheed and Ward, pp. 829, ISBN 0 72204114 4
  • John Paul II, (1998) Apostolic letter On Keeping the Lord's Day Holy "Dies Domini"; see the text on-line: APOSTOLIC LETTER DIES DOMINI. Access date:2012-03-12.
  • The Paschal mystery : ancient liturgies and patristic texts,(1969) A. Hamman (editor), Staten Island, NY : Alba House, pp. 230
  • Rahner K., Mystery, in: Sacramentum Mundi, vol. 4, New York - London: Herder and Herder - Burns & Oates, p. 133-136, ISBN 0 223 97630 X
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