The Christian Mystery
No one really understands Christianity. Fortunately the many layers of it are a bit like Quantum Physics, you don’t need to understand it fully to become part of it. There are some layers of the central message of Jesus that are not a complete mystery but have become lost to popular culture. This is particularly true since the Protestant reformation. Whilst there were many well intentioned reasons why Luther and his followers rebelled against the Church of his time, in doing so he cut off an understanding of fundamental aspects of Jesus’ life and words from many.
When asked about this “kindom of god” that he spoke of, Jesus said ;
The kingdom of God will not come with observable signs. Nor will people say, ‘Look, here it is,’ or ‘There it is.’ For you see, the kingdom of God is in your midst.Luke 17:20
The early christians were very clear that the kingdom of god was present when celebrating the eucharist. This seems a strange claim to make – that the sometimes awkward and sometimes boring sunday mass service can be some kind of direct experience of the creator of the universe, the one that that made all the wonders of the universe possible. The reason for the early christians believing this is because it’s what he told the disciples when he broke the bread and shared it with the wine at the last supper. “This is my body … this is my blood”. More than that, when they reflected on his words they realised that this was something that all the old Hebrew scriptures pointed to directly. The power of this realisation was central to the message that spread across the known world, and its well worth a closer look.
Rather than starting at the beginning of the universe (as John rightly starts the christian story), I’ll start with two central sacrifices in Genesis, both at a place called Salem (“Peace”) that would become Jeru-Salem (“City of Peace”). The first is the enigmatic priest and king of Salem called Melchizadek. Untypically for the time, the sacrifice made by Melchizadek was not of animals, but of bread and wine. This story would have been well known to early christians, and would have been in their minds when they reflected on the last supper – where the “Prince of Peace” offered himself as a sacrifice, to become bread and wine to us.
After Melchizadek offered his sacrifice, he made a blessing on Abraham. Years later, god asked Abraham to return to Moria (the site of the future Temple in Jerusalem) to make another sacrifice. Abrahams son Isaac travelled with him and when they arrived Abraham gave Isaac the wood for the sacrifice to carry to the place where it would take place. When Isaac asked where the lamb for the sacrifice was, Abraham answered “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering”. By itself the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son seems strange and cruel, despite the fact that God did not ask Abraham to go through with it. However this is clearly an incredibly important event in biblical history – this is when god made his “everlasting covenant” with Abraham through which “all nations will be blessed”. As the writer Scott Hahn points out, because the Hebrew text did not contain punctuation, another reading of Abrahams statement to Isaac could be “God will provide himself, the Lamb, for a burnt offering”. In the realisation of the prophesy, he would also carry the wood for the sacrifice on his back.
Again, this story would have been on the minds of early christians when they heard that John the Baptist had called Jesus “the Lamb of God”. Jesus was crucified at Passover, a time when Jews sacrifice lambs with no broken bones, in thanks for the time when god asked their ancestors in Egypt to sacrifice a lamb with no broken bones , so that their first born sons would be saved. It therefore seemed more than a coincidence to early christians that the Roman soldiers pierced Jesus with a sword, rather than breaking his bones as was normal.
Throughout the Hebrew scriptures there are these references that point to Jesus or reflect his life, often the most central ones point to the events of the last supper and the crucifixion. Isiah’s prophesy of the messiah must have been strange to the Jews who were expecting a great millitary king like David, but with Jesus suddenly something like this and its surrounding chapters made sense:;
Though he was harshly treated, he submitted and opened not his mouth; Like a lamb led to the slaughter.Isaiah 53:7
The cynics are left with no option with these (and the many other ‘pointers’ to Jesus) than to claim that they were retrospectively fitted onto Jesus life as inventions, presumably by witnesses who were then willing to die rather than reject what they clearly saw as the truth. Apart from that it’s just not feasible to have made such overt fabrications about such public events that happened in living memory, in a Roman governed province. The more sane thing to do is to look at what Jesus said about these things, including his words at the last supper. John’s gospel usually captures the deeper words spoken by Jesus, but in this case the simple words from Matthew 26 are more appropriate;
Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.
To many nowdays, this last statement seems to suggest some kind of party after we die. But to the early Christians he was talking about the eucharist. “This is my body … this is my blood” is directly linked through the old scriptures to a fulfilment – the kingdom of god is in our midst through his body and blood in the eucharist.
Up until Jesus death, gods presence on earth was in the “Holy of Holies” in the temple on the site where Melchizadek had made the sacrifice of bread and wine. When Jesus died, the curtain to the Holy of Holies was ripped open. The presence of god on earth was no longer in the temple, but in the body and blood of the Lamb of God when shared and blessed as he had shown. There are many references in the old testament that predict a new version of the covenant with Abraham where god will dwell among his people, rather than in stone.
All over the world, every week, hundreds of millions of people hear and speak the same words of the mass in their own language, where gods promise to Abraham is fulfilled in the blessing of the bread and wine, where gods presence that was once in the Holy of Holies comes down instead on bread and wine. The kingdom of god hidden in plain sight! When Jesus entered the temple before the last supper, he was taunted;
So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?”Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead [in three days], his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scriptures and the words that Jesus had spoken.John 2:18
Over the years since I have started going to mass, I have slowly deepened my appreciation of the rhythms and realities of the mass. I will never be a fan of the likes of the BBC’s “Songs of Praise” as that always feels a bit alien to me (although some hymns have grown on me). But the subtle presence of god in the mass is something that slowly and brilliantly creeps into my awareness over time. The same presence that can be sometimes felt more clearly in Eucharistic Adoration. When I first went into a Catholic church I was aware of the dogma about the bread and wine becoming the body and blood, but I could never understand why people – before they sat down – genuflected (/bowed) towards the tabernacle in the corner of the church (where the unused Eucharist bread is stored) – rather than the alter and large crucifix at the front. Now it makes perfect sense.
For anyone interested in this subject I can recommend “The Lambs Supper” by Scott Hahn, an ex protestant minister. He shows how the Book of Revelation is not as strange as it can at first appear, or as the many bizarre interpretations claim. As soon as you accept Pope John Paul II’s description of the mass as “Heaven on earth … [where] the liturgy we celebrate on earth is a mysterious participation in the heavenly liturgy”, you have they key to start to understand Revelation.
Going back to “No one understands Christianity”, of course many, many understand it far better than I do. To those who have understood it best, all that understanding becomes trivial and partial next to the mystical experience of god. This can be a short, dramatic and indescribable experience. The slow growing relationship is just as indescribable, and just as real.