Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Lord: Chapter 58, “Mysterium Fidei

Dear friend,

At the literally highest moment of the Catholic mass—after he has raised the precious body and blood of Jesus in his hands—the priest intones the words “the mystery of faith” (in Latin, mysterium fidei). The assembled worshipers reply in one of three pre-scripted ways, including “We proclaim your death O Lord, and profess your resurrection, until you come again.” And so we commemorate together the Last Supper, or what Romano Guardini calls with deceptively simple humanity “The Final Reunion.”

What happened at the Last Supper? What happens in the mass? “For almost two thousand years men have prayed and probed and fought over the meaning of [Jesus’s] words. They have become the sign of a community that is holier, more intimate than any other, but also occasion for profoundest schism.”

Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor famously said of the mass, “Well, if it’s a symbol, then, to hell with it.” Guardini would agree. “When we ask what [Jesus’s words] mean,” he writes, “let us first be clear as to how they should be taken. There is only one answer: literally.”

Much of the chapter “Mysterium Fidei” joins time BC and AD to this singular moment in history, when Jesus gathered his Apostles for the last time and gave them Himself, for them to share with us. The Last Supper links the sacrifice of the first Passover with the future moment at an as-yet-undetermined hour when Christ will come again. Jesus says, “Take this and share it among you; for I say to you that I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God comes.”

Thus does the Last Supper become the ultimate crossroads of human history.

But Guardini does something more—or less—in this chapter. He notably stops short of a final, absolutist interpretation of the moment in a way that humbles the old Harkness table warrior in me. You remember, I’m sure, how we prep scholars sat around a wooden oblong—with its echoes of the table at which the Teacher and the twelve gathered 2000 years ago—and we argued points to death, certain that there was no question that couldn’t be solved with enough words, enough teen BS shot through with angst.

The question of the meaning of the Passover supper that took place in the Upper Room is one too great to answer, even for a theologian as brilliant as Romano Guardini. For faith (fides) is finally a mystery (mysterium).

“These words,” he writes of Jesus’s words, “will be clear only when the Lord has come. They suggest the heavenly banquet he will hold with his own when the kingdom has been established. . . . There is little more to say. The promise must stand as it is; the heart alone can sense its meaning and wait for its realization.”

As Hamlet said punningly, in another context and with different meaning, “The rest is silence.”

Your old friend,
WB

This series of posts on Guardini’s The Lord continues here with chapter 59.

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