Back to the Future
No Temples no Altars
Writing at the beginning of the first century, St Justin delighted in boasting, “We have no temples, we have no altars,” for Jesus had introduced a new form of worship that needed none of them. For now, as he had promised to the Samaritan woman, the only form of worship that would be acceptable to God would be the new worship ‘in spirit and in truth’ that Jesus himself had practised at every moment of his life on earth.
Jesus was the first to offer this new form of worship. His apostles, his disciples and everyone else for that matter, and that included his mother Mary, had all offered material sacrifices of one sort or another in the Temple. Jesus had been to the Temple regularly to preach, to teach and to pray, but there is no record of him offering any form of material sacrifice, he had no need to, for the sacrifice that he offered was the sacrifice of himself, every moment of every day, of all he said, and did, to his Father. His very first words, recorded in the Gospel ( Luke 2:49), were to proclaim that he had come to do his Father’s will. His Father’s will was that he should observe the first of the new commandments himself, so that he could teach it to others not just in words, but by the example of his own life.
The New Commandments- The First
That new commandment impelled him ‘to love God with his whole mind and heart, with his soul and his whole being’, at every moment of his life, and for that matter at every moment of his death. The first of the new commandments then is the new Worship, in spirit and in truth, offered by Jesus both before and after the resurrection. After the resurrection he continued to make this offering to his Father together with all who chose to join him. Just as the offering Jesus made, and is still making, expresses the offering that he made on every day of his life on earth, so the offering the early Christians made in, with and through him at the end of the Eucharistic prayer, summed up what they had been doing and offering to God on every day of their lives. That’s why, as St Justin writing at the time assures us – the great Amen at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, echoed through the church like a massive symphonic crescendo, because it expressed in a single word their single minded purpose, which was to consecrate every moment of every day to God by offering everything that they said and did, to him in, with and through Jesus. This is how they came to practise the prayer without ceasing.
The more Jesus offered himself to God, through all and everything he did whilst on earth, the more he received the Holy Spirit, who finally raised him up after his death on the cross, to enjoy once again the ecstatic joy that he had experienced before the world had been created. But this time Jesus was able to receive and experience his Father’s love in his human nature too, so that the infinite love of God could be converted into human loving, in such a way that other human beings could receive what was infinitely beyond them before. That’s why Jesus has said that, although no man was greater than John the Baptist, even the least in the Kingdom was greater than he.
So, as they too tried to observe the first commandment by offering themselves to God each day, the first Christians were able to receive the same Holy Spirit, who animated Jesus, because his transformed and transfigured human nature converted infinite loving into human loving. All genuine love yearns for union, and the love with which Jesus loved the first Christians, wanted to draw them up into himself, not just to share in his life, but in his love of the Father, not just for a time but for ever.
God’s Plan – The Mysterion
This had been God’s plan from all eternity. He wanted to create a world of matter and form, of flesh and blood, of male and female. This would enable the flames of their love on earth to reflect the furnace of love that animated God in heaven, and encourage them to generate more human beings to satisfy his desire to share with as many as possible the joy, the sheer bliss of loving and being loved. What would begin on earth would be brought to completion in heaven when, thanks to Jesus, they would be able to experience the love of God in ever increasing measure to all eternity.
St Paul, who wrote in Greek, used the Greek work Mysterion to mean God’s secret plan. The word simply mean ‘secret’. When he used that word everybody, at the time, knew he was referring to God’s secret plan, and they knew precisely what it meant, for them. The word was pregnant with meaning that is lost on us today. When we hear the English word Budget it too is pregnant and full of meaning that we can all understand. It means that the government wants to take every thing they can from us. When St Paul used the word ‘secret’ it meant that God wants to give us all he can!
It is from this word, Mysterion that the words mystic, mystical, and mysteries were derived. Jesus was the first mystic because he was God’s executive, who came to implement the plan designed by God, by showing by what he said and did, how to receive God’s love and how to communicate this love to others. Those who chose to follow him, became mystics too, as they followed his example. Their inner spiritual life was, like that of Jesus, hidden or secret – it could not in itself be seen by anyone other than God. However just as the fruits of this mystical life could be seen in the extraordinary love that Jesus showed for others, the same could be said for those early Christians who followed him. In fact it was this extraordinary love that so attracted the pagan world in which they lived. In only three centuries what had seemed to be no more than a small Jewish sect transformed the Roman Empire into a Christian Empire.
The New Commandments – The Second
By practising the first of the two new commandments, those first Christians practised the second without hardly realising it, as practising the first commandment enabled Jesus to continue living and loving in and through them, as the Holy Spirit made his home within them, as he had promised at the Last Supper.
It was the indwelling Spirit, whose life was received and sustained by participating in the sacred mysteries, ( later called sacraments) and personal prayer, that enabled the first Christian mystics to consecrate and sacralise everything t they said and did, by offering it to God each day, through Jesus. When they came together each Sunday to offer themselves to God as a community, St Justin tells us that their communal Amen at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer nearly raised the roof of the ‘church’ where they were celebrating the sacred mysteries. The liturgy that they shared together was so vibrant, so full of live and vitality that outsiders were astounded, not just at the spiritual enthusiasm that seemed to ‘rap them up in God’, but in the way that which they received, surcharged their everyday lives with a quality of living and loving, the like of which had never been seen before.
Decline, and the rise of Counterfeit ‘Mysticism’.
When, for reasons that will be discussed later, this ‘golden age descended into a dark age’ alien influences began to change the meaning and significance of the profound spirituality that prevailed in the first Christian centuries. One important change involved the change in the meaning given to the words mystic and mystical. By the end of the nineteenth century these words had come to mean something totally different from the meaning that they had for the first Christians. Thanks to a revival of Neoplatonism, the word ‘mysticism’, incidentally a word never used by the Fathers of the church, came to be used to describe a state of transcendental awareness. One could enter into this ‘mystical state’, by man-made means and techniques, where one could encounter ‘the absolute’ in an experience that was common to all religions in both the East and West, where all could be united together in a new religion without dogmas.
The scholars whose exemplary work made the renewal embodied in the Second Vatican Council possible, were sadly so prejudiced against mystical theology in general, because of the many unorthodox, bizarre and simplistic interpretations and practises, that they failed to appreciate the authentic mystical theology that had inspired the spirituality of the early Christians. The renewal of the Liturgy that they helped reintroduce was admirable, but their failure to understand and inspire the profound mystical spirituality that made it vital, alive and so full of meaning has left it like salt without its savour, like bread without leaven, – flat and lifeless compared to its ancient counterpart. The profound daily mystical prayer that inspired the ancient rite must be reintroduced, and encouraged, while it’s modern counterfeit must be shown for what it is – counterfeit – leading some of the most well- meaning Christians to spend their precious time going round and round in circles, getting nowhere.
The Golden Key
When Pope Benedict first used the internet to tweet, he was asked how busy lay people with families to support could pray. He answered, “By making your morning offering each day, and putting it into practice throughout the rest of the day.” Simplistic this might sound, it is in fact the key to reintroducing the mystical spirituality that inspired the early Christians . This course will continue by exploring the meaning and significance of this simple practice, and the profound spirituality gleaned from our early forbears that can help promote and sustain it, because it is the only way ‘back to the future’. This first lecture has of necessity been predominantly theoretical to create the context in which the next four, predominantly practical lectures, will be set.
(Although this is as accurate a summary of the first of the Lenten Lectures as is possible in the space and time permitted, it cannot convey the electric atmosphere created by the use of analogies, metaphors, stories, humour and personal conviction. Somehow something of the esprit de corps that must have galvanised the first Christian communities became all but tangible. This is something that cannot be captured in words, least of all in a short prosaic summary – Hopefully the podcast of the talk will convey this. Ed.)