Sunday, May 1, 2011

Beyond Eden

Central to the Mass, and indeed our entire existence as Christians, is on the nature of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross at Calvary. When a Protestant hears of the Mass as a sacrifice, they think of it the same way as the sacrifices of the Old Covenant: they are rote, mechanical, and simply “solve” the problem of man’s sins, yet things stay fundamentally the same.

Unfortunately, many Catholics present it precisely this way, which is completely anathema to the true understanding of Catholics. In the crowd of Christopher West and friends, there is talk that Christ’s sacrifice allows us to “reclaim Eden.”  The sacrifice of Christ in this view simply resets the balance. While our sin once barred us from Eden, now we can re-enter it through the merit of Christ’s sacrifice.

This is ambiguous at best. Luckily, those of us attending the Extraordinary Form have a prayer to reflect upon. During the Offertory, water is mixed with wine in the chalice, and the priest says:

O God, who in creating human nature, didst wonderfully dignify it, and hast still more wonderfully restored it, grant that, by the Mystery of this water and wine, we may become partakers of His divine nature, who deigned to become partaker of our human nature, Jesus Christ our Lord, Thy Son, who with Thee liveth and reigneth in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God: world without end. Amen.
When speaking on this gorgeous prayer, Cardinal Ottaviani said the following:

The "Deus qui humanae substantiae dignitatem mirabiliter condidisti et mirabilius reformasti" was a reference to man's former condition of innocence and to his present one of being ransomed by the Blood of Christ: a recapitulation of the whole economy of the Sacrifice, from Adam to the present moment.
In this one paragraph, the entirety of the teaching of Christ’s sacrifice is mentioned. God is mentioned as the creator of man and woman, and that this creation was a good thing, nay, a wonderful thing! By the point it must be “restored”, we learn that man lost what he was given. Our faith tells us this happened in Eden. Yet the curious phrase is “et mirabilius reformasti.” In English, it could roughly be understood as “more wonderfully restored.”

Calvary was not simply pressing the reset button on the human race. Sacred Scripture teaches us that upon Christ’s death on the cross, the gates of Abraham’s bosom were opened, and souls (tradition stating the first being Adam) flocked to heaven as fast as they could. When Christ rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, he showed us our true home, and the ultimate truth about Eden: there is nothing to reclaim. Christ offers something far greater than Eden could ever offer.

What is that he offers? The prayer makes it clear. The water mixed with wine is rich on so many levels. It calls to mine the mixing of two natures, just as Christ had a union of a human and divine nature. It recalls the blood and water which flowed from His side on Calvary, and that blood and water cleansed the Roman Centurion. (Whom tradition identifies simply as Longinus.) That water and wine will come soon to truly be the Blood of Christ, “the chalice of the New Covenant in My Blood.” Through the cleansing of Christ’s blood, we become “partakers of the Divine Nature.” We become united to God, sharing in His nature as a result of that Blood.

Eden was but a symbol of that which was to come, just as the sacrifices of the Old Testament were mere shadows of the true and ultimate Sacrifice of Christ. Like the Old Testament sacrifices, Eden had some efficacy. The paradise and providing of every physical need ultimately pointed toward the one who provided that need, the Father. The sacrifices in an imperfect way cleansed sin, but not necessarily the guilt of such sin. Furthermore, since the sacrifice died, for new sins you had to constantly offer a different animal. Though Christ died, He demonstrates His power over even death in the Resurrection. He is present always before the Father, and need not be killed again to offer Himself. He offers himself once in time, and that one offering extends outside of time. Through this one offering we are provided something Adam never had.

Indeed, we are provided by grace the very thing Adam and Eve attempted to grasp by force. As we remember from the beginning, they ate of the tree to become like God. They attempted to grasp something beyond themselves by force. Jesus Christ, who “though being equal with God did not consider that equality something to be grasped” gave us the example of resignation to God’s will and faith in the Father’s promise. When we are faithful unto the end, He gives that to us. A true irony in this entire situation is that all Adam had to do was ask and be patient, and it would have been provided.

Creation itself speaks of the consummation of this gift. St. John tells us (1 John 2) that “the old world passeth away.” If the old world passes away, something new is being prepared. When this age is consummated, a new heaven and new earth exist. Both are as far beyond the former as can be imagined, and then some. With that in mind, why on earth would we want to “reclaim Eden?” Why would we want to have what we had in Eden? We would sooner wish to go back to the Sacrifices of the Old Covenant. Yet the writer to the Hebrews makes one thing emphatically clear: one cannot return to the Old Covenant because there is nothing to return to. Likewise, Eden is in the past. Even now, we have something greater. Even the slightest experience with Christ and His sanctifying grace surpasses all the splendor of Eden, which had only that grace which existed in the created nature. To return to Eden would be to turn our back on the greater gift Christ gives us. Further still, once this age is completed, there will be something yet greater still. That is what we should direct our eyes to with anticipation. The liturgy draws our eyes towards this and gives us that path, as will be made clear.

All of this we know to be true, because we know the liturgy. Even in the Ordinary form, the totality of this symbolism exists. (If not the explicit formulation by words.) Those amongst the company of West and friends speak with great fervor about refusing to limit the power of Calvary. We should agree with them, and point out, using the liturgy, the incredible power of Christ’s sacrifice. On this “Mercy” Sunday, may we reach the destination this prayer of the Mass speaks of.

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