For us, baptized Christians, the mystagogical catechesis has precisely this purpose: to teach us the profound meanings of all these elements which, in the context of the Holy Mysteries (i.e., Sacraments), convey to us divine teachings about the eternal destiny of humanity. If we examine the texts preserved from both the Apostolic authors and the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, we realize how much time and effort they dedicated to transmitting these teachings, Mystagogical catechetical “courses” have been handed down to us by saints such as Dionysius the Areopagite, Ambrose of Milan, Augustine, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Jerusalem, and others. Based on the revealed texts of Holy Scripture and such patristic and scholastic texts, the Roman Catechism, written and published in 1566 after the Council of Trent, systematizes them, encouraging priests to convey them to the faithful. We will try to do the same, continuing to expound on the profound, allegorical, and mystical meanings of Baptism.
We have been recreated so that, like Adam and Eve before the original sin, we can once again enjoy life in Paradise.
Contemplating the mysteries
In order to gain access to the meanings of Christian sacred symbols, we must first understand the nature of the act we perform whenever we reflect upon them. Expressed in a single word, it is about “contemplation.” There is no other activity more important and valuable for a Christian. If the entire contemplative life of religious orders such as the Carmelites holds a place of great honor in the context of the Church’s religious life, actual contemplation is strongly recommended to all Christians. This also applies to the meanings of this sacrament, which, as the Roman Catechism tells us, places “the death, burial, and Resurrection of our Lord as objects both of our contemplation and imitation”[ii] before the eyes of our minds. A little later, while making certain recommendations to priests regarding the manner in which catechesis should be conducted, the same catechism tells us that everything should be presented in such a way that “the faithful can contemplate with a pious and attentive mind the meaning of those things which they hear and at the same time see it illustrated by the sacred ceremonies of Baptism.”[iii]
More than a thousand years before the great catechism of the Church, Saint Ambrose of Milan, the mentor of Saint Augustine, in a small mystagogical treatise on the holy mysteries titled De Mysteriis, also emphasized the act of contemplation engaged in by the minds of those who receive catechesis. Imperatively, he encourages the faithful to realize that the essential, invisible element of the sacrament is the grace transmitted through the ministry of the priests:
“There you saw the Levite (i.e., the deacon), you saw the priest, and you saw the highest priest (i.e., the bishop). Do not consider the bodily forms, but the grace of their ministration.”[iv]
Later on, emphasizing the necessity of contemplation, he presents Saint Apostle Paul as a true master who taught us that “we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen, are temporal; but the things which are not seen, are eternal.” (II Cor. 4: 18). In practice, through the act of contemplation of the mind within the context of mystagogical catechesis, we move beyond the realm of our passing earthly life to mysteriously enter into the world of the eternal. Here, concretely, is what you will do when you read the following lines!
We begin to realize this great mystery when we understand that it is not only about the future life, after the end of history and the final judgment, but also about our life – here and now.
The allegorical interpretation
In his excellent work already mentioned by us in a previous article, A Forest of Symbols: The Traditional Mass and Its Meaning, Father Claude Barthe, drawing on the doctrine of Saint Thomas Aquinas, reminds us that the interpretations of Holy Scripture and sacred symbols have two aspects: the first, of a historical or literal nature, recounts an episode from sacred history (such as the sin and penance of King David); the second, of a spiritual nature, is further divided into a) the allegorical sense in which episodes from the Old Testament foreshadow the New Testament (such as the manna in the desert signifying the Holy Eucharist), b) the tropological or moral sense (such as Jacob’s struggle with the angel, illustrating how a Christian must strive to enter the Kingdom of Heaven), and c) the anagogical or mystical sense (which reveals the profound mysteries of faith, such as the so-called “rest of God” on the seventh day).[v] In this article we will present the allegorical spiritual meaning of Baptism, with the intention of explaining its mystical significance in a future essay.
Without exception, the most important part of the mystagogical catechesis delivered by the Saints and Doctors of the Church is dedicated to the allegorical interpretations concerning the Old Testament, which are then complemented by the essential Christological meaning of being “born of water and the Spirit.” From the Old Testament, the episodes that are most frequently presented as “typological” prefigurations of Baptism are the creation of the world, when “the spirit of God moved over the waters” (Gen. 1:2), Noah’s ark which traversed the waters of the flood (Gen. 7 and 8), and the passage of the people of Israel through the Red Sea (Ex. 14:16-31). Saint Ambrose sees in the creation of the world a prefiguration of Holy Baptism when we are told that “the spirit of God moved over the waters” (Gen. 1:2). Saint Jerome follows the same interpretation, stating that “it could not be true baptism, to be sure, without the Spirit” (Homilies 10). The suggestion is highly significant: what the analogy between the beginnings of creation and the ritual of baptism conveys, made possible by the element of water, is the idea of re-creation. Indeed, every baptized person is, in a mysterious sense, recreated by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The second analogy is with the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea. One of the authors from whom we have received extensive mystagogical catecheses,[vi] Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by Pope Leo XIII in 1883, insists on this episode. The Egyptians who pursued the Jews represent the demons who held the souls of the unbaptized in slavery. The water through which the Jews pass, but which drowns their pursuers, prefigures the blessed water of Baptism. Finally, the pillar of fire that guides Moses and his compatriots is the fire of the Holy Spirit, the divine power that saves the faithful. A very important aspect of Saint Cyril’s catechesis is the clear connection he establishes between the “figures” (i.e., “shadows”) of the Old Testament and the light of truth in the New Testament:
“Now turn from the old to the new, from the figure to the reality. There we have Moses sent from God to Egypt; here, Christ, sent forth from His Father into the world: there, that Moses might lead forth an afflicted people out of Egypt; here, that Christ might rescue those who are oppressed in the world under sin: there, the blood of a lamb was the spell against the destroyer; here, the blood of the Lamb without blemish Jesus Christ is made the charm to scare evil spirits: there, the tyrant was pursuing that ancient people even to the sea; and here the daring and shameless spirit, the author of evil, was following thee even to the very streams of salvation. The tyrant of old was drowned in the sea; and this present one disappears in the water of salvation.”
The words above gradually lead us to the essence of Baptism, which is connected, as we will see shortly, to the crucifixion and resurrection of our Savior Jesus Christ, our only Savior. However, before we focus on what we can rightly call the “sacrament of sacraments,” let’s also consider the third episode from the Old Testament found in the allegorical interpretation of Saint Ambrose of Milan: the flood.
We are somewhat already in Paradise, even if our physical eyes and our present life do not allow us to see this. The symbolic universe of the Church enables us, if we learn the language of sacred signs, to fully understand this.
First, the teacher of Saint Augustine refers to one of the biblical verses from which we learn that God’s decision is determined by the fallen nature of humanity after the original sin and expulsion from Paradise: “My spirit shall not remain in man forever because he is flesh” (Gen. 6:3). Therefore, the impurity of the body due to sin determines the divine verdict. This verdict does not imply the destruction of man but his restoration through Holy Baptism, prefigured by the flood.
“God shows that the grace of the Spirit is turned away by carnal impurity and the pollution of grave sin. Upon which, God, willing to restore what was lacking, sent the flood and bade just Noah go up into the ark. And he, after having, as the flood was passing off, sent forth first a raven which did not return, sent forth a dove which is said to have returned with an olive twig. You see the water, you see the wood [of the ark], you see the dove, and do you hesitate as to the mystery?
The water, then, is that in which the flesh is dipped, that all carnal sin may be washed away. All wickedness is there buried. The wood is that on which the Lord Jesus was fastened when He suffered for us. The dove is that in the form of which the Holy Spirit descended, as you have read in the New Testament, Who inspires in you peace of soul and tranquillity of mind. The raven is the figure of sin, which goes forth and does not return, if, in you, too, inwardly and outwardly righteousness be preserved.”
Buried and risen with Christ
As seen in the above interpretation of Saint Ambrose, all these allegorical interpretations referring to the Old Testament culminate in the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ described in the New Testament. This touches upon the heart of the matter. For more than anything else, immersion (or sprinkling) in the blessed water represents death with Christ. The fact that this is done three times signifies the three days that the Savior’s body remained in the tomb – a period during which His soul descended into hell to free the righteous. And emerging from the water is the visible sign – the symbol – of our very resurrection. Saint Cyril of Jerusalem is the one who expounds all of this. We will understand immediately that he is referring to the experience of adult baptism, which, during his time (the 4th century), was still widely practiced:
“After these things, ye were led to the holy pool of Divine Baptism, as Christ was carried from the Cross to the Sepulchre which is before our eyes. And each of you was asked, whether he believed in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, and ye made that saving confession, and descended three times into the water, and ascended again; here also hinting by a symbol at the three days burial of Christ. For as our Saviour passed three days and three nights in the heart of the earth, so you also in your first ascent out of the water, represented the first day of Christ in the earth, and by your descent, the night; for as he who is in the night, no longer sees, but he who is in the day, remains in the light, so in the descent, as in the night, ye saw nothing, but in ascending again ye were as in the day. And at the self-same moment ye were both dying and being born; and that Water of salvation was at once your grave and your mother. And what Solomon spoke of others will suit you also; for he said, in that case, There is a time to bear and a time to die; but to you, in the reverse order, there was a time to die and a time to be born; and one and the same time effected both of these, and your birth went hand in hand with your death. O strange and inconceivable thing! We did not really die, we were not really buried, we were not really crucified and raised again; but our imitation was in a figure, and our salvation in reality. Christ was actually crucified, and actually buried, and truly rose again; and all these things He has freely bestowed upon us, that we, sharing His sufferings by imitation, might gain salvation in reality.”
His exclamation is so eloquent! Indeed, we are dealing with strange and inconceivable things. And yet, this has happened to each of us, as shown by the profound spiritual meanings of sacred symbols: we have been buried and risen together with Savior Christ. We have been recreated so that, like Adam and Eve before the original sin, we can once again enjoy life in Paradise. We begin to realize this great mystery when we understand that it is not only about the future life, after the end of history and the final judgment, but also about our life – here and now. This can truly shock us: how can we be in our everyday world and at the same time in Eden? Overwhelmed by everything happening around us, as well as by the great apostasy, we can hardly conceive of such a thing. And yet, as we will see in the future mystagogical article, things are indeed like this: we are somewhat already in Paradise, even if our physical eyes and our present life do not allow us to see this. The symbolic universe of the Church enables us, if we learn the language of sacred signs, to fully understand this.
May the hope be with you!
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[i] This is the first proper mystagogical catechesis, following the three introductory pro-catecheses: https://remnantnewspaper.com/web/index.php/articles/item/6714-the-replacement-of-the-traditional-roman-catholic-mass-and-the-need-for-mystagogical-catechesis, and https://remnantnewspaper.com/web/index.php/articles/item/6759-on-glory-what-it-means-to-give-glory-to-god, and https://remnantnewspaper.com/web/index.php/fetzen-fliegen/item/6801-symbol-the-most-important-notion-of-mystagogical-catechesis
[ii] Catechism of the Council of Trent for Parish Priests, Issued by order of Pope Pius V, Translated into English with notes by John A. McHugh, O.P., and Charles J. Callan, O.P., Tenth Printing 1947, New York-London, p. 161.
[iii] Idem, p. 162.
[iv] Saint Ambrose, Theological and Dogmatic Works, Translated by Roy J. Deferrari, The Catholic University of America Press, 1963, p. 6.
[v] Claude Barthe, A Forest of Symbols: The Traditional Mass and Its Meaning, Angelico Press, 2023, p. 15.
[vi] Saint Cyril’s mystagogical catechesis about Baptism can be read in its entirety here: https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf207.ii.xxiv.html și https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf207.ii.xxiii.html