Awe-Inspiring: Insights from the Ancient Mystagogy of the Church

Today we start a new series reflecting on the catechumenate of the 4th-5th century church. In 1971 Edward Yarnold published a collected edition of all the ancient mystagogical catecheses of the church fathers (The Awe-Inspiring Rites of Initiation: The Origins of the R.C.I.A, Second Edition, Collegeveille, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1994; unfortunately no longer in print). While many church fathers comment on the ritual process of the catechumenate and on the catechetical teaching that accompanied it, four church fathers wrote their mystagogy (catechetical commentary on the rites, usually post-Baptism) and so they are available today. These four church fathers include: Cyril of Jerusalem, Ambrose of Milan, John Chrysostom, and Theodore of Mopsuestia. (Although Augustine preached baptismal catechetical sermons, we don’t have a complete set of mystagogical lectures from him). Yarnold’s book provides an introductory overview of the catecheses, oriented toward grounding the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) in the ancient catechumenate. Translations of the four mystagogues above follows his introduction.

Each of the mystagogues taught the significance of what happened in the rites of initiation in different ways, with different emphases, and in association with some rites that may have been unique to their context. We hope to introduce some of the unique and compelling ways in which the mystagogues teach what happened to the catechumens as the church incorporated them into the life of Christ through the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit. As with the mystagogues, our focus will be on aspects of the rite and the rich symbolism that envelops them.

Throughout the period of Lenten Enlightenment exorcisms were a common feature of the early catechumenate. Baptism entailed a move from the lordship of Satan, sin, evil, and death to the lordship of Christ Jesus and his life, holiness, and mercy. The exorcisms dramatically conveyed the shift in lordship for the catechumen. They now owed their life and allegiance to the Lord over all creation, life, and death and not to the powers and principalities of the Evil One. Chrysostom describes the exorcisms in this way,

So you need to know why it is that after the daily instruction we send you off to hear the words of the exorcists. This rite is neither a simple one nor a pointless. You are about to receive the heavenly King into your house. So those who are appointed for this task, just as if they were preparing a house for a royal visit, take you on one side after our sermon, and purify your minds by those fearful words, putting to flight all the tricks of the evil one, and so make the house fit for the presence of the King. For no demon, however, fierce and harsh, after these fearful words and the invocation of the universal Lord of all things, can refrain from flight with all speed. And, in addition, the rite imprints great reverence in the soul and leads it to great sorrow for sin (Yarnold, 156).

As Chrysostom notes, there is no difference of rank here. All—the wealthy, the powerful, the poor, the dispossessed—must be exorcised, for all fall under the power of the Evil One prior to baptism. Usually they came in bare feet with their outer garments removed and with hands outstretched pleading to the Lord for their removal from the kingdom of evil. In St. Augustine’s Hippo, this attitude of repentance toward and intentional rejection of the Evil One’s rule was reflected in the sack-cloth made of goat’s hair. As Yarnold indicates,

The symbolism of the goat’s fleece is fourfold:

  1. Sack-cloth is the traditional sign of penitence;
  2. It recalls the tunics of skin worn by Adam and Eve after the fall and so reminds the candidate of original sin;
  3. It is an acknowledgement of the candidate’s former slavery to the devil;
  4. The trampling of the goat’s hair shows that the candidate wishes to be numbered among the sheep rather than the goats at the Last Judgement (Yarold, 10-11).

The mystagogues are in dread earnest! This is life or death business. The catechumens can only embrace the true life when the Lord has exorcised them from the rule of the Great Liar and Deceiver.