Thursday, March 5, 2009

"Mystery of Faith" in ASL

Here I would like to begin a series of ASL commentaries on the Ordinary of Mass, especially giving attention to certain liturgical texts which, in my opinion, fail to be conveyed in its original intent by way of commonly-used signs in the Deaf Catholic community. I would like to begin with the "Memorial Acclamation", that point immediately following the Words of Institution in which the presider says "Let us proclaim the mystery of faith" (or in the new translation, "The mystery of faith").

The Latin text simply reads mysterium fidei, "[the] mystery of-faith." What does it mean? From the way it is usually conveyed in ASL, one might guess that it means that object of faith which is incomprehensible, puzzling, secret, or supra-intellectual. This is the impression given by E. Costello, Religious Signing (New York, NY: Bantam, 1986), 122.

In point of fact, the English word "mystery" used here is wholly unrelated to the sort of mystery one finds in Murder She Wrote or Matlock. The Latin mysterium is actually a Grecanism, a noun borrowed from the Greek language, having nothing to do with 'mystery' in the conventional English sense (cf. Warren C. Trenchard, A Concise Dictionary of New Testament Greek [New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2003], 104). Allow me to quote from Edward Foley's recently-reprinted From Age to Age: How Christians Have Celebrated the Eucharist (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2008), 74:

One of the ways this "Latinizing" process will affect Christian thought is through the translation and adaptation of Greek texts, like the New Testament. For example, the Greek New Testament does not speak about "sacrament" but about musterion. Musterion, which occurs twenty-seven times in the New Testament, is a difficult word to translate. It was a term that was employed in Greek philosophy and ancient mystery cults to designate rites in which devotees of a god celebrated and participated in the god's fate. In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures known as the Septuagint the word appears nine times, and it takes on the sense of a divine mystery in the process of being fully revealed in the future. In the New Testament the term occurs when Jesus explains the purpose of the parables (e.g., Mark 4:11) or when Paul speaks of Christ as the "mystery of God" (Col 2:2), but it is never used to describe or explain worship.

One of the more common translations of the Greek musterion was the Latin sacramentum. As used by Romans, the word sacramentum had numerous legal meanings. For example, it could designate a sum of money that the parties to a lawsuit had to deposit with a magistrate before the suit would go forward. The "sacred"connotation of the word (Latin sacra = holy) comes from the practice of turning the money of the losing party over to the state for religious purposes. [...] More important for the history of Christian sacramentality, however, was the borrowing of the word sacramentum by Latin writers like Tertullian--the son of a soldier who understood the range of legal and political meanings of the word. By borrowing such a word, Tertullian inadvertently introduces legal connotations into a Christian understanding of worship that did not exist with the Greek musterion.

Obviously, the Latin sacramentum was used as the Roman inculturation of the Greek musterion. It means, primarily, a religious or cultic ceremony, and secondarily one such ceremony that was "secret" or "private", i.e., available only to the initiated. Liturgists would immediately recognise the custom of the disciplini arcana, the "discipline of the secret", in which only those who experienced the Sacraments of Initiation knew what "Eucharist" was all about.

Given this, then, it follows that the Mysterium fidei is a cultic rite pertaining to faith. The Scholastics were fond of speaking of the sacraments as precisely the "sacraments of faith" (e.g. Summa theologiae IIIa, q. 64, art. 2, ad 3). They were keen on maintaning the connexion between the sacraments and the theological virtue of faith (a connexion that was lost to juridical concerns by the Manualists and Neo-Scholastics).

This is why, for example, the post-baptismal catechesis is called mystagogy: it is a discourse for those who have been initiated into the sacred mysteries, namely the rites of baptism, chrismation/confirmation, and Eucharist. And of course, the introduction to the Penitential Rite at Mass begins, Fratres, agnosticamus peccata nostra, ut apti simus ad sacra mysteria celebranda--we are invited to acknowledge our sins before the "sacred mysteries" are celebrated. We do not mean something primarily baffling or that which makes us clueless; we mean a ceremony, ritual, or rite of sorts.

In the context of the Eucharistic Liturgy, the more specific meaning of Mysterium fidei, following the Memorial Acclamation, presents itself at the Anamnesis: "Calling to mind the death your Son endured for our salvation, his glorious Resurrection and Ascension..." The Anamnesis in the Eucharistic Prayer recalls precisely the Paschal Mystery! The event of Chist's Passion, Death, and Resurrection is the ultimate worship given to God; the Eucharist, according to the Council of Trent, is the re-presentation of this event (Denzinger 1741; cf. 3848). The Eucharist, in a way unique to itself, is the sacrament that proclaims precisely the Lord's Pasch (1 Cor 11:26). This "event", this "cultic rite", this musterion is the action which proclaims this Pasch which forms the foundation of Christian faith. It was no mere poetry when the supreme magisterium taught that the Eucharist is the "source and summit" of the Christian life (Lumen gentium, 11), because our life of faith is founded on both the tragedy of Good Friday and the Triumph of Easter Sunday. It is precisely for this reason we respond to the Mysterium fidei with the Memorial Acclamation--of the the three succint statements of the Easter event: "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again", "Dying you destroyed our death; rising you restored our life, Lord Jesus, come in glory", "When we eat this Bread and drink this Cup, we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus, until you come in glory." Each of these acclamations stress the event of Christ's Death and Resurrection in articulation of the "mystery of faith." The liturgy is its own best interpreter.

It was common, especially since Pope Innocent III, to think that Mysterium fidei meant the incomprehensibility of transubstantiation. St Thomas Aquinas certainly picked up on this. Not that Pope Innocent is entirely wrong, but the incomprehensibility of the change from bread and wine into the Sacred Body and Precious Blood of Christ is to be subsumed into the events of that first Paschal Triduum, which was the ultimate worship given to God by Christ, the ultimate musterion. We cannot drive a wedge between the Real Presence and Easter; rather, the Real Presence is true because of Easter, and therefore the primary focus of our attention is indeed Easter, the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ.

As I hope it is obvious by now, Mysterium fidei is not a religious or liturgical way of saying "Huh? But I'll take it on faith." Rather, as an acclamation, it calls attention to the central, defining event of Christianity--the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ--which in turn defines our faith or belief.

I would therefore propose that in conveying Mysterium fidei in ASL, we retain the linguistic and theological overtones of the Greek noun musterion. Two signs can be proposed:

SACRAMENT [OF] BELIEF or FAITH (formal equivalency)

CELEBRATION [OF] BELIEF or FAITH (dynamic equivalency)

Since catechesis and liturgy are interrelated and symbiotic, we cannot expect to thrust a new way of signing the Mysterium fidei without any proper introductory catechesis. It would be, I think, a golden opportunity to re-introduce certain elements of the Ordinary of Mass to our Deaf congregations in hopes of enhancing that "full, conscious, active participation" in the sacred liturgy mandated by the Second Vatican Council (Sacrosanctum concilium, n. 14).

Readers are invited to post possible ASL signs for communicating Mysterium fidei.


  1. Profound insight to what for a long time has been assumed the word meant, puzzle, or blurry thought. Hence the reason one ASL sign is PUZZLE ON FOREHEAD + BLURRY IN FRONT OF FACE = RELIGIOUS MYSTRY.

    Therefore my new understanding, unmeditated, is that one enters into something new and profound. Not something not understood, but something beyond what we experience on the everyday life. My knee jerk response to what would be a good ASL is something more along the lines of:

    MIND OPEN + FAITH + ACCEPT. One of course must pray on this to come up with perhaps a more appropriate idea of ASL convey of concept. Thanks for a great post.
    Nancy Louise

  2. You maybe have had contact with Fr. Paul Z as he is considering how better to communicate the meaning of much of the readings and the text of the Mass. I'm glad for these discussions.

    We know that in the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches they indeed use the word "mystery", from the Greek, where we Latins use the word "sacrament", from the Latin.

    I suspect 90% or more of the hearing Latin Rite Catholics in the pew translate the word "mystery" in "mystery of our faith" the way we usually see it inadequately signed in ASL. They also have a pretty firm idea about what a "sacrament" means ("outward signs of inward grace, instituted by Christ for our sanctification"), so I'm guessing "SACRAMENT [OF] BELIEF or FAITH" would equally miss the mark.

    I'd want to explore more what does this mean? I don't know... Is it something like "Let us proclaim the (GIFT directional from above to self) of our faith..."?

    Another place, among many, where I think we misrepresent the intent is in "Do this in memory of Me" with REMEMBER (or LOOK BACK).

  3. I agree, it might miss the mark. Hence the "dynamic equivalency" disclaimer. But if we include a pre-Augustinian definition of sacrament, i.e. Tertullian's original suggestion, it might be helpful.

    I agree with your assessment of "Do this in memory of me." It includes a "looking back" of sorts, but we run the risk of missing the Jewish understanding of anamnesis, making a past event a present reality. Since it involves time, it would be complex.

    I'm interested in hearing suggestions.


Please ensure that comments are concise, to the point, and substantiated. All laws of English grammar remain in force. Thanks!