The Mysterium Fidei and Gethsemane

Human events spring from various depths. Some of them, like a simple purchase, exhaust their possibilities in the process of taking place; in others an experience out of the past may be revived, or a long chain of events brought to an end, or an old tension eased or misunderstanding clarified. Thus the associations of a particular event can penetrate ever deeper, or reach back, or grope ahead. The event that took place on Holy Thursday rises from immeasurable depths.

Jesus is with his disciples for the last time. . . . to celebrate the Pasch together, solemn reminder of the Chosen People’s exit from Egypt, when God’s final and most dreadful plague, the smiting of the firstborn, forced Pharaoh to let the captives go. The Easter Supper was instituted to commemorate this “high deed” of God. Upon this memorial supper of the Old Covenant, Christ founds the mystery of the new: the “mysterium fidei.” On the other hand, the hour also reaches far into the future, to that unknown day “. . .when I shall drink it new with you in the kingdom of my Father.” (Matt. 26:29).

The Book of Exodus reports: “And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: . . . Speak ye to the whole assembly of the children of Israel, and say to them: On the tenth day of this month let every man take a lamb by their families and houses. . . . And it shall be a lamb without blemish, a male, of one year: according to which rite also you shall take a kid . . . and the whole multitude of the children of Israel shall sacrifice it in the evening. . . .”

The last time he did not strictly adhere to the ritual. The very day  was changed from Friday to Thursday, for was not he who called himself Lord of the Sabbath also Lord of the Passover? During the meal there were other, incomparably weightier, innovations: “And having taken a cup, he gave thanks and said, ‘Take this and share it among you; for I say to you that I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God comes.’ “And having taken bread, he gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘(Take and eat) This is my body, which is being given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ ”

For almost two thousand years men have prayed and probed and fought over the meaning of these words. They have become the sign of a community that is holier, more intimate than any other, but also occasion for profoundest schism. . . .There is only one answer: literally. The words mean precisely what they say. Any attempt to understand them  “spiritually” is disobedience and leads to disbelief. It is not our task to decide what they should mean in order to express “pure Christianity,” but to accept them reverently as they stand, and to learn from them what Christian purity is. When Jesus spoke and acted as he did, he knew that all he said and did was of divine importance. He wished to be understood, and spoke accordingly. The disciples were no symbolists, neither were they nineteenth- or twentieth-century conceptualists, but simple fishermen much more inclined to take Jesus’ words literally . . . .than spiritually.

   The Agony in the Garden by El Greco, c. 1610

What then is the Eucharist? Christ in his self-surrender, the eternal reality of the suffering and death of the Lord immortalized in a form that permits us to draw from it vitality for our spiritual life as concrete as the food and drink from which we draw our physical  strength. . . .Any attempt to “spiritualize” or “purify” it must destroy it. It is presumption and incredulity to try to fix the limits of the possible. God says what he wills, and what he wills, is. He alone “to the end” sets the form and measure of his love.

Then they walked up the valley until they came to a farm called Gethsemane. Jesus has often sat there with his disciples, teaching. . . .Only the three who had recently been with him on the mountain of the Transfiguration, Peter, James. And John,  accompany him. A terrible sadness overcomes the Lord – sadness “unto death” says Holy Scripture. . . .Alone, he advances a few paces, falls on his face and prays. This is no place for psychology. When guided by reverence and warmed by generosity, psychology is an excellent thing, doing much to help one human understand another. . . .

Psychology would explain Gethsemane similarly: the rejection by both the ruling class and the masses, the pilgrimage to Jerusalem with its tremendous experiences, the entry into the city, the terrible waiting of the preceding days, the treachery and the Last Supper – as a result of the prolonged strain now the breakdown. . . .But with Jesus any such explanation is bound to founder. If it is insisted upon, Holy Thursday is robbed of that weight and salutary power which can be sensed only in contrition and adoration. Here we can proceed solely through faith guided by revelation. . . .

What does faith tell us? Before all else who this man is there on his knees – the Son of God in the simplest sense of the word. For that reason he sees existence in its ultimate reality. . . .

No one has ever seen existence as Jesus saw it. . . . In that hour when his human heart lifted the world from its vapors of deception, he beheld it as otherwise only God beholds it – in all its hideous nakedness. What happened was truth realized in charity. And we are given the standpoint from which we too can see through and reject deception. For that is the meaning of salvation: seeing the world as Christ saw it and experiencing his repulsion of sin. 




Fr. Romano Guardini (1885–1968), author and academic, was one of the most important figures in Catholic intellectual life in 20th-century. His most famous book is The Lord (Gateway Editions). He was a mentor to such prominent theologians as Hans Urs von Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger.