The Nature of the Redeemer

A Homily for the Fourth Sunday in Advent

by Bishop Steven Marshall

The nature of the Redeemer is a very real mystery to the Gnostic, not in the conventional sense of something that is to be deduced and solved but in that it is something that is too great to be expressed in ordinary words and speech. It cannot be figured out rationally or in statements of fact or theory. It cannot be reduced to a single person in history, a specific figure in religion or even a single experience that is true for all. In this case, we must approach the amplification of this intent with caution and the realization that all we can do is open some windows that may reveal a few facets of this great mystery. As recounted in the collect for this Sunday, “O Thou our Redeeming Power… our thought has not swerved from searching Thy secrets.”

Many references and insights of Gnosis may appear secret, but they are secret only in that they can only be apprehended through mystical experience; they transcend ordinary thought and speech. Without the Gnosis, without the mystical experience for ourselves, such theoretical knowledge is nothing worth. Only the interior experience can transform us. Our Pre-Eucharistic prayer refers to “the Grace beyond thought and speech.” The prayer of Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom), one of the principal Goddesses of Tibetan Buddhism, refers to her in the title “beyond thought and speech.” In the same way the nature of the Redeemer is beyond thought and speech.

The use of the word “nature” in this context might also be explicated by the Buddhist term for the essential and true nature of a thing, which is Dharma. It is similar in meaning to the Chinese Tao or “way” as well. This relates to a phrase in the Gospel of St. John where the Christ exclaims, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Yet we must not narrow this to one person in history; the nature of the Redeemer cannot be contained in such a fashion. The “truth” and the “way” suggests something much more intrinsically universal and yet individual in expression and realization.

In the Gnostic framework the individual is redeemed through a process of internalization and consciousness of the figure of the Redeemed Redeemer. One of the mythic representations that most fully expresses this process is that of the Holy Prophet Mani. Although Mani’s vision is the result of a unique transmission, he poetically draws upon the religious imagery surrounding him, including that of mystical Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Alexandrian Gnosticism. He describes the First Man (Human), the androgynous Anthropos, as a Man (Human) of Light who is tricked and trapped by the Darkness or is otherwise knowingly sacrificed to the Darkness to redeem the Light previously consumed by it. One can find remarkable parallels of the consuming of the Light by the Darkness in the story of Ungoliant, the monstrous spider who poisons the life and drinks the light of the Two Trees in The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien. (I do not pretend that Tolkien was inspired by the Manichean writings, but suggest that, although inspired by Finnish, Celtic and Germanic mythology, he primarily drew upon a vision of mystical truths and a source common to the prophets of any age.) The Darkness wishes to defeat the Light by consuming it, and by that means the Light is fragmented into sparks and dispersed throughout the cosmos. Such a metaphor is described equally in the Lurianic myth of the fragmented sparks of Adam Qadmon and in the Sethian Gnostic accounts of the seed of Seth. In the Manichean myth the distress of the Darkness, in having consumed the Light, brings forth material creation and the living universe. This entire cosmos by which the Darkness hoped to capture and defeat the Light becomes a mechanism for freeing and putting back together the fragments of the Light dispersed throughout the Chaos. Yet this redemptive process does not happen automatically. The dispersed sparks of the Light of the First Man suffer from a faint of ignorance, a forgetfulness of their origin. The Father of Greatness who with the Mother of Life engendered the androgynous First Man together send envoys of light in the form of Messengers of Light to remind the fragments of the First Man of their celestial origin and perfection. In this scheme the process of redemption is remembering from whence we came. This call to remembrance is present in all the traditions of Gnosticism, in all times and cultures. It is poetically recalled in the “re-membering” of the body of Osiris in the Egyptian mysteries and in the Manichean myth with the gathering together of the fragmented light of the First Man.

“When men asked for the Redeemer, then the Mother of Life, and the First Man and the Spirit of Life decided to send to their children One who should free them and save them, to show them the knowledge and the righteousness and rescue them from evil.” (The holy prophet Mani) A Messenger of light is sent by the Father of Greatness and the Mother of Life for our Redemption. Another portion of Manichean writings lists not just one, but a stream of such messengers sent throughout history: “Seth-el, Shem, Enos, Nikotheos, Enoch, Elias, Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus, Mani.” The Redeemer is not just an occurrence in history. The Messenger continues to come to us, the ever-coming and redeeming Logos. Like the Chanticleer of the dawn the Redeemer comes to awaken us from the slumber of ignorance, to guide us to Liberation. The Christ came to free us, to save us, “to show us knowledge and righteousness and to rescue us from evil.” He did not come to bring us a vicarious atonement by dying on a cross, but he came into this world to bring a message of liberation and a redeeming power to achieve it. According to the writings of Mani, the Christ only appeared to be a man: “While coming, the Son changed himself into the form of man, and He appeared to men as a man, being no man, and men fancied him to have been born.” The Gnostic Christ is both a mysterious otherness and a perfect likeness within us. In the Odes of Solomon, the redeemer figure states, “I am from another race.” We too, our essential spirits, are alien to this worldly reality; they are the exiled sparks of the First Man (Human), the Redeemed Redeemer. So too, we bear a kinship to Christ in that way. The goal of the Gnostic is not to become a Christian but a Christ. To seek to know this divine nature is to “wonder at the place from whence we have come.”

(The Untitled Apocalypse from the Bruce Codex)

In reference to the Redeemer as the way, the truth and the life”, the Sanskrit word dharma besides the true “nature” of a thing and the “way”, also means the “law.” The nature of the redeemer, then, is the Law, for the Law of the Gnostic is one, the Law of Love:

“And he also gave us the law: to love one another, and to honor God and bless Him, and seek Him—who He is and what He is—that we should wonder at the place whence we have come, and not return to evil again but follow after Him who has given us the Law of Love.”

(The Book of the Gnosis of the Light, from the Untitled Apocalypse of the Bruce Codex)

The commandment to love one another and to love God intends that we “should wonder at the place from whence we have come.” To discover the nature of the redeemer within us we must seek God within ourselves and find our way to the place from whence we have come. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, “If they say to you: whence have you originated, say to them: We have come from the light where the light has originated from itself.” When we seek who and what God is, we find who and what we are. The Redeemer and the redeeming power within us are one; the nature of the Redeemer and our true divine nature are the same. “If you will know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will know that you are the sons (offspring) of the living Father.”

Redemption to the Gnostic means liberation, liberation from the collective powers of the mass psyche, as well as those bonds within our own individual psyches. If not for such a redeeming power from outside the system, the hyletic and even most of the mind-centered people of this world would never make it. The wheels of karma and fate are not sufficient to the task. Certainly, we have our own work to do in the process of purification and redemption; yet our worldly oriented egos alone are not sufficient to the task either. Without the Divine Aid we end up in the same hole, shoveling and shoveling the same old mire, without ever getting out of it. The Redeemer came to lift us out of both our individual limitations and the bonds of the mass psyche. Besides the message of an alternative world view, the Redeemer brought a liberating power, a power to alter our consciousness into more elevated states of perception, a power conveyed through the institution and revivification of mysteries, which the Church today calls “sacraments.” The sacraments are mysteries; the Redeemer also is a mystery. The sacraments are doorways to a transcendental mystery. The sacraments enact metaphors and myths of transcendent and timeless processes of purification and apotheosis. The rituals become external cues to an interior state of consciousness as well as external symbols of an interior and invisible grace from on high.

The whole world has a need for redemption and liberation. Mani writes of the light of nature trapped in the suffering world of material creation. To the Gnostic salvation is, as the alchemists of old, to liberate the light of nature and the light fragmented in ourselves. We can accomplish such a task only by becoming liberated ourselves through recognition of the transcendent and redeeming power within us, however it may reveal itself to us. Whether yellow, black, red or white, masculine, feminine, young, old, Neopagan, Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Moslem or Jew. The Redeemer humbly adapts itself to our humanity, not just once 2,000 years ago, but every time it reveals itself to us. Every time that the mystery of the Eucharist takes place the redeeming power and light of the Logos sacrifices itself to the limitations of matter for our sakes. Like Buddhism, Gnosticism places more emphasis on the message and the redemptive process itself rather than on the individual founder in history. And yet, one cannot really discuss the nature of the redeemer without giving due recognition to the inestimable importance of the mystery-figure of Jesus in the Gnostic soteriology and world view. He lived an archetypal life, the Word made flesh, that we too might have that life of spirit and wholeness, which is our spiritual birthright, not by mere belief in a historical or pseudo-historical event, but through Gnosis, a knowing that his story is the story of each one of us and that we must discover the redeemer and the one in need of redemption within.

Another aspect of the redemptive process related to this world view is the bringing together of the masculine and feminine parts of the Androgynous First Man, Adam. In this regard the mythic figure of the redeemer transcends gender designations. The Gnostic myths are replete with stories of divine feminine figures redeeming the fallen masculine as well as divine masculine figures redeeming the fallen feminine. To some degree the Gnostic journey towards wholeness involves both these relationships within us, regardless of our outward gender. In the Sethian gospels Eve is called the Mother of life, the Mother of all living, just as the divine feminine is titled in the Manichean scriptures. The Gnostic Eve is not an evil temptress; rather, she is the bringer of enlightenment and Gnosis to Adam; she awakens him from the sleep of unconsciousness of who and what he is. Through the divine, feminine spirit of Eve, Adam’s progeny, the seed of Seth, carry the light and its message forth to all generations of Gnostics, which culminates in the advent of the Christ.
The Christ is the divine redemptive image of the redeemed Adam, just as the Blessed Virgin Mary is the redemptive image of the divine Eve. Likewise, the Sophia who gives herself to the depths of the material chaos for our redemption is redeemed by the Christ to become the feminine image of the redeemed redeemer. The Gnostics portrayed this latter image of redemption in the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. The point of all this juxtaposition of masculine and feminine images is that we have both these natures and their relationship to the divine within us, spiritually. Thus, for the Gnostic, the story of the Advent of Christ brings not a mere recounting of historical or pseudo-historical facts but a rich mythic weaving together of timeless archetypes and our potential for liberation and redemption.
In referring to the Redeemer as “the way, the truth and the life,” the way implies a process, in Gnostic terms, a process of interpreting religious symbols to represent, illumine and further develop an interior Gnosis. The varied, diverse and occasionally contradictory mythologems of the Gnostics model this process. These are not “just” psychological symbols but symbols in a Jungian sense, symbols that are not simply to be studied but to be used in the process of portraying the interior realities of Gnosis, a process facilitated by mystery actions using them (sacraments). When we “do” something with them they may “do” something with us. Symbols, in this sense, represent spiritual potencies that are at once intra-psychic and extra-psychic, mystic and cosmic, individual and collective, subjective and objective. In this manner, the religious symbols of Christmas: the figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Christ child and others can take on an even more transcendent and illuminating character.
The mother Mary of the Christmas story is called, in the Western Church, the Immaculate Conception. The Immaculate Conception refers to the doctrine that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was conceived without original sin to be a fit vessel for the birth of the Christ Child. To put this in a Gnostic context we must understand that the doctrine of original sin was by no means universally held in Christendom until after its popularization by St. Augustine of Hippo. The Gnostic myth rather indicates a doctrine of original divinity. In this fashion, we are all immaculately conceived. But we are yet far from that divine nature with in us. Rather than an original sin, we suffer from an original ignorance, an ignorance of our divine origin. Each of us, in spirit, is conceived immaculately in the love of the Father of Greatness and the Mother of Life. We have the potential and capacity to bring forth the “virgin birth” of the Christ within us. Yet without Gnosis and an awakening from our ignorance, without the Gnosis of this Divine Love, we have nothing. In reference to the “virgin birth,” it is the realization that the Mother of Life, her unadulterated love remains ever itself, one, undefiled and pure, regardless of its myriad forms of expression, for it is by the Law of Love that we are brought to “wonder at the place from whence we have come.”

A passage from an Ethiopian manuscript based on the Protevangelion describes Mary’s conception and announces her role in the birth of the Savior:

“Gabriel appeared to her and said: Peace be unto thee, O Woman. Fear not, for thou hast found mercy with the Lord, and behold, thou shalt conceive and bring forth a daughter and thou shalt call her name Mary; from her shalt spring the light of creation and Him for whom the worlds wait.”

Mary is the immaculately conceived and purified Holy Grail prepared for the descent of the Christ. Yet, she in many ways is an image of our own souls and represents our individual role in and preparation for the Advent of the Christ within us. As announced by St. John the Baptizer: “For this is He that was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah… the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight a pathway for our God.’”

Mary affirms this role in the Gospel story of the Annunciation by saying, “Be it done according to Thy word.” She realizes that the Holy Grail that is herself, before it can bring forth the Christ Child, must be cleaned and emptied to receive the Fullness. So too must we, in some way, empty and clean our cups to receive the Christ, for the ego-personality alone cannot transform the base metal of our personality into the golden chalice of the divine birth. The womb of Mary, the Mother of life, represents the Holy Grail. Through Gnosis we are prepared to conceive the interior Virgin Birth, spiritually. She has been called the Spirit of Prophecy and the Daughter of the Voice, both represented as a dove. Dove, or the Latin “Columba”, is the title for virgins, such as Mary who were dedicated in the Temple of Jerusalem. The Christmas season brings to us the Dove of Peace. Thus, it is the spirit of Mary, as a dove, who ushers in the peace at Christmastide. She speaks in the heart, announcing the coming of the Redeemer and our own Redemption. She introduces us to the nature of the Redeemer, the Prince of Peace that dwells within us. As in Jung’s “Hymn to Izdubar” in “The Incantations of Liber Secundus” of The Red Book, we must in some paradoxical fashion become the mother of our Selves: “I am the maiden, the simple mother, who gave birth but did not know how.” The mother “who gave birth but did not know how” speaks to the mystery of the process of the birth of Christ, which must occur within each of us.

As our consciousness grows and our ego is transformed, the birth takes place, the peace descends upon us, and we bring to fruition the seed of our redemption. Thus, we become one with Christ and know the Redeemed Redeemer within us; we know the redeemed and the Redeemer as one. We know the one who is redeemed and the one who gives birth. The Holy Mother of all gods, Our Lady reveals to us the nature of the Redeemer who dwells within us and is our truest Self. We find the mystery that that which is born in us, like Christ, has always been, is now, and ever shall be, the ever-coming and Redeeming Logos.

My Lady is a fragrant rose,
And near to God my Lady grows;
And all my thoughts are murmuring bees
That haste in silent ecstasies
Upon her beauty to repose.
Sweeter than any flower that blows,
Since all the scents her lips disclose
Are prayers upon the heavenly breeze,
My Lady is.

Her summer never comes and goes
And, for the sweetness she bestows,
My heart’s the hive where, by degrees,
I hoard my golden memories.
For Mary, as my Angel knows,
My Lady is.


Steven Marshall is the Bishop of Queen of Heaven Gnostic Church, a parish of the Ecclesia Gnostica in Portland, Oregon.

The Gnosis of the Eucharist

by Stephan A. Hoeller
Regionary Bishop, Ecclesia Gnostica

The Mass, or, as it is sometimes called, the divine liturgy or the Eucharist, is the most solemn of all the Christian sacraments. Through it we are led step by step to the purpose of our earthly lives — union with the divine — for at its climax the faithful are made one with God and each other by receiving the body and blood of Christ under the earthly forms of bread and wine.

Although these mystical aspects of the Mass have been known and proclaimed by all the branches of Christendom that have not abandoned the ancient sacramental system (including the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and, with some ambiguities, the Anglican), the rationalistic tendencies that have arisen since the Second Vatican Council in the Roman Catholic Church are robbing the Mass of much of its numinosity and psychospiritual utility.

Similarly, many in the occult, metaphysical, and New Age movements have little appreciation for the magic and mystery of the time-honored sacramental system of Christianity and within it for the supreme sacrament of the Mass. The older of these movements bear the imprint of nineteenth-century thinking, which was hyperintellectual, moralistic, and at times materialistic. The groups that have sprung up since the 1960’s are a bit more favorably disposed toward ritual than their predecessors, but their appreciation of the sacraments is still small. Much of alternative spirituality is thus in danger of losing touch with one of the most valuable aspects of the mystico-magical heritage of the West.

To be sure, there are valid objections to ritual. Its practice has often been accompanied by blind superstition. Still, it must be remembered that a lack of consciousness will regularly turn meaningful and transformative practices into superstitious ones. The fault is not with the ritual, but with the practitioner. Ritual, provided it uses authentic symbols, is no more or less than what H.P. Blavatsky called “concretized truth.” This may be covered up by superstition, but the hidden truth is always discernable beneath the covering. Gnostic studies of the sacraments are intended to free the kernel of truth from the accretions of unconsciousness and misunderstanding that have been permitted to obscure it.

In the following we shall deal with several separate approaches to the greatest of the Christian mysteries. Some of these may contradict each other, while others tend to complement one another, and still others will restate truths present in other approaches.

Dogmatic and Rationalistic Views

The non-Gnostic church after the third and fourth centuries A.D. regarded the Eucharist as a commemoration of the meal Jesus is said to have shared with his apostles, where he is said to have blessed bread and wine, admonishing those present to do the same in remembrance of him. Christendom made it into dogma that Jesus mystically changed these substances into his body and blood and gave authority to his apostles to perform the same sacred miracle until the end of time. The mystery of the Eucharist was thus transferred to the mental realm of belief, although mythic elements continued to subsist under the façade of dogma. Protestant Christendom gradually came to deny this mystically inspired and mythically reinforced dogma. The Eucharist became a mere memorial meal, a sign rather than a symbol.

Today, the Roman Catholic Church is undergoing an internal reformation whose effects on the Mass are not unlike those produced by the revolt of Luther and Calvin. Twenty-five years ago one could still observe nuns herding their small charges to the communion rail while admonishing them, “Don’t chew the Baby Jesus,” while today almost all awe and reverence for the Mass and the consecrated elements seem to have evaporated. Kneeling for communion, receiving the sacrament on the tongue, and other ancient rules reflecting numinous dignity have gone by the wayside. A traditionalist-inspired pun declares that the present Mass ought to be spelled “mess,” and this writer tends to agree.

The trivialization and desacralization of the Mass are but a natural outcome of the intellectualization of this mystery, which in essence began at the time Constantine established the church and the church established its dogmas, while casting out the Gnosis. The mind is the slayer of the real; numinous myth and transcendental mystery cannot survive rationalism, whether in the form of Aristotelian theology or in the shape of the modernism of Hans Küng and his fellows. Dogma is the murder of mystery, even if it takes centuries for the victim to die.

The Mass As Sacred Mystery Drama

The mysteries in the pre-Christian era were elaborately devised ritual dramas contrived to intensify the spiritual transformation of the initiate. They were usually patterned after the mythic life, death, and resurrection of a particular deity to whom the mystery was dedicated. The candidate was usually made to symbolically undergo certain events in the life story of the hero. This is still evident in the initiation rituals of Freemasonry, particularly in the sublime degree of Master Mason, where the candidate undergoes the death and rising again of the Masonic hero Hiram Abiff.

It does not take much imagination to see in the Christian Mass the elements of the same ritual drama, wherein the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus are symbolically reenacted by the priests and worshippers. The fact that the Eucharist is a mythic dramatization of the career of Jesus has been recognized by the church for a very long time. As Pope Innocent III stated, “The Mass is arranged upon a plan so well conceived that everything done by Jesus Christ or concerning Him, from His Incarnation to His Ascension, is there largely contained either in words or in actions, wonderfully presented.”

The Gnostic would contend that this is undoubtedly true, but that the reenactment of the drama does not concern the historical Jesus alone, but involves the Divine Man resident in each human being. Myth is truer and more powerful than history, and the events in the life of Jesus are elevated to mythic significance by the symbolic relation of his drama to the drama of the transforming human spirit. As Joseph Campbell said, the Mass is “a metaphor open to transcendence,” and as such it is capable of miraculous effects in transforming not only bread and wine, but the human personality as well. The great fault of non-Gnostic Christianity has always been to reduce myth with a meaning to history with a moral, and this is what happened to the Mass at the hands of the theologians.

The pagans of antiquity were convinced that humans could undergo apotheosis, that they could become gods and goddesses. The Mass is closely connected with this process, since in its mysteries earthly substances are transmuted into divine ones, and, more important, humans may be similarly transformed in their psychospiritual natures. The ancient Gnostics for the most part seem to have held that Jesus was a human being who, very much like a hero in the pagan tradition, became divine as a result of his spiritual virtue. Jesus the hero became Christ the God. (This event is said to have been finalized, as it were, on the occasion of the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan, which was called the Epiphany, or the manifestation of Christ to the world.)

The imitatio Christi, when understood as copying the moral qualities of the Christed Jesus, borders on absurdity. How could a fallible mortal imitate the Divine One descended to earth? On the other hand, the main body of the liturgical work of the church is involved in an imitation of a different order. In the church calendar the events of the life of Jesus are relived, from Christmas to Ascension and beyond. The four-day cycle of Easter (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday) is an intense reliving of the core drama of the Passion and resurrection. And the celebration of the Eucharist is a daily reenactment of this same drama, fortified by the mystical communion one may partake of with the hero himself. The imitation of Christ is the deification, the transformation, of the human being, and the Mass continues to be the most efficacious means of that transformation, at least as far as the Christian tradition is concerned. Only Gnosis, experienced within the Gnostic tradition, discloses this fact to us in all its promise and wonder.

The Mass As Magic

Ritual that reenacts authentic mythic themes always possesses a magic of its own. While magic may be anathema to the rationalist, it is an old friend to the lover of myth and ritual. The magic of the Mass is the operational effect of the lived myth upon the participants. People can have visions, experience expansions of consciousness, undergo healing, and engage in effective prayer during the Mass. Still, to overemphasize the magical element of this rite would be inaccurate, and would put one in the same league as the person who defined the combustion engine as “noise, speed, and stink.” It is wise to have a balanced attitude toward this issue and to refrain from any attempt either to rob the Mass of its magic or to turn it into ceremonial magic pure and simple. (The much-publicized but rather infrequent phenomenon of the Black Mass is an example of the latter.)

The magical aspects of the mystery are acknowledged in the very liturgy of the Eucharist itself: Prayers are said for the living, for the dead, for particular intentions. It has always been considered legitimate for persons attending the Eucharist to pray for private concerns. On the other hand, one ought to participate in the mystery of the Mass for its own sake, and not in order to “get results” of any particular kind. If one comes only to obtain specific favors from the deity, this would interfere with the nature and amount of grace received. Eventually one would miss the true significance of the Mass entirely. A mystery of such magnitude should never be allowed to degenerate into a forum for airing petty concerns in the face of transcendence.

C.W. Leadbeater, the theosophist and Liberal Catholic bishop, in his work The Science of the Sacraments, made some fascinating observations on the magic of the Mass. With his paranormal faculties Leadbeater perceived certain recurring patterns of forces not ordinarily visible that manifested at each celebration of the Eucharist. The pattern seemed to organize itself into a form that described as a sort of structure resembling a spire or cupola.

Personal experience of the writer may be of interest in this connection. About 1948 or 1949, the writer acted as a part-time assistant to a Roman Catholic prelate in Austria, Abbot Alois Wiesinger, O.Cist., who was writing a book on occult phenomena. While perusing the abbot’s files he discovered a drawing prepared some years before by a rural seer, representing a form clairvoyantly perceived by the seer every time the Mass was said in the village church. Some six or seven years later the writer discovered a representation of the “Eucharistic edifice” in Leadbeater’s book. It matched the Austrian one in eerie detail! Moreover, the chances of an illiterate Alpine peasant ever having encountered Leadbeater’s book are very small. That two persons of such different characters should have perceived the same structure of magical forces in the Eucharist is evidence that cannot be easily dismissed.

But this magical attitude toward the Mass must be kept in bounds also. People may be tempted to participate in it in order to take a sort of “astral shower bath” while neglecting the devotion that is required to receive sacramental grace.

C.G. Jung and the Mass

That great modern representative of the Gnosis, C.G. Jung, had a great interest in the Christian sacraments, particularly in the Mass. He repeatedly stated that he considered Catholicism a far more complete religion than its Protestant counterparts. The mystery of the sacraments, said Jung, had great value, and produced a degree of psychological health among Catholics that was not found among Protestants and atheists. (One wonders whether he would have made the same statement about the post-Vatican II church, with its folk Masses and burlap vestments.)

Jung contended that the Eucharistic sacrifice contained a vital mystery that was not entirely negated by the dogmatic structure in which it was veiled:

The ritual act [of the Mass] consecrates both the gift and the givers. It commemorates and represents the Last Supper which our Lord took with His disciples, the whole Incarnation, Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ. But from the point of view of the divine, this anthropomorphic action is only the outer shell of husk in which what is really happening is not a human action at all but a divine event. 1

Jung emphasizes that those involved in the celebration of the Mass are ministering causes of the divine event. The priest does not cause the mystery; he is merely a minister of grace and power. The same is true of the congregation and of the seemingly inert substances of bread and wine. The Mass is not an action executed by humans, but by divinity.

To revert to magical terminology once again, there are two main categories of magic. Low magic is personalistic and egotistical: It envisions its operators as the causes of magical acts. But when humans become the ministering agents of divinity, having mystically sensed that divinity wants to manifest itself through humanity, then we are dealing with high magic.

According to Jung, the Mass, when properly understood, is best treated as an act of high magic. In this regard he wrote:

Wherever the [low] magical aspect of a rite tends to prevail, it brings the rite nearer to satisfying the individual ego’s blind greed for power, and thus breaks up the mystical body of the Church into separate units. Where on the other hand, the rite is conceived as the action of God himself, the human participants have only an incidental or “ministering” significance.2

Jung does go on to state that the lesser, human consciousness, symbolized by the priest and the congregation, is confronted with a situation that is independent of human action. Divinity and its sacrificial mystery exist on a plane that is timeless and transcends consciousness as humans know it. It impels the human being to act as a minister of grace by making him an exponent, in time and among humanity, of an event that is timeless and divine.

Jung’s attitude differs, commendably, I believe, from the prosaic, humdrum interpretation offered by rationalizing theologians, who reduce this sublime mystery to the trivial proportions of their own thinking. It also differs from the arrogance of some New Age teachers, who insist upon humans “creating their own reality.”

Humility in the face of transcendence; this is Jung’s great characteristic as a man, and it is also his advice to us. “The hammer cannot discover within itself the power which makes it strike,” as he remarked in the essay quoted above. What seizes the human being in the mystery of the Mass or in any other mystery is something outside humanity: a sovereign power, as free from limitation as light is from darkness. Ordinary human consciousness cannot find anything within itself that would cause humans to perform a mystery. It can only do so when it is seized by the mystery.

The human soul is at once near and far from the divine. On the one hand we are all suffering from the great alienation, the great estrangement; yet there also dwells within is a portion of the free and eternal one who is forever united with all that is holy, great, and good throughout the aeons of aeons. The dazzling spark of the divine lives in the outermost darkness. When viewed from without, it appears clothed in darkness, having assumed some of the likeness of this darkness. The Gnostic myth declares that the sparks of our indwelling divinity have come forth from a central flame, and that they partake of two aspects: They have the quality of “sparks” (separateness) and of “flames” (union) at the same time. (This recognition is in fact the central idea behind the much-discussed Gnostic “dualism.”)

In addition to the views of the mass discussed above, there is also the notion that this mystery is of the nature of a sacrifice. The sacrifice, in its Gnostic sense, involves the return of the alienated spark to its original flame. Neither philosophy, metaphysics, nor dogma can accomplish this longed-for union, for it is not a matter of concept but of experience. If we wish to join our shining twin in heaven by removing the dichotomy, we must do a work, an opus, as the alchemists of old would have called it. We must offer the bread and wine of our lesser nature to a power from above, so that this human self may be transformed into the likeness and indeed the substance of the wholly other, the alien God, the One beyond and above all the aeons, who in some utterly mysterious way is still our own, true, inmost Self. God in man returns to himself in the sacrificial mystery. As Jung expressed it:

The dichotomy of God into divinity and humanity and his return to himself in the sacrificial act hold out the combbforting doctrine that in man’s own darkness there is hidden a light that shall once again return to its source, and that this light actually wanted to descend into the darkness in order to deliver the Enchained One who languishes there, and lead him to light everlasting.3

This return is not an act that can ever be performed by the lesser human consciousness. This lesser self can only offer itself as an instrument, an offering on the eucharistic altar of Gnosis. Words cannot describe, thoughts cannot penetrate, senses cannot perceive the true character of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans (awesome and bewitching mystery) enacted on the altar. Only the still mind, the reverent emotion, and the pure will directed toward the goal of divine union can bring us closer to the secret that blazes forth at the center of the mystery. Myths may bring us nearer, magic may illuminate, philosophy may elucidate, but the mystery remains, as it must, for it is in us and we are in it.

This article originally appeared in Gnosis: A Journal of Western Inner Traditions, (Vol. 11, Spring 1989).


  1. C.G. Jung, “Transformation Symbolism in the Mass,” in Eranos Yearbooks, Vol. 2: The Mysteries (New York: Pantheon Books, 1955), p. 314.
  2. Ibid., p. 314.
  3. Ibid., p. 317.

Introductory Reading

A Gnostic Catechism


by Stephan A. Hoeller

A compendium of instruction of the Gnostic framework, tenets and mythos, arranged in question and answer form. A Gnostic by definition is a knower, which carries no implication of dogmatism, as intuitive knowledge and direct experience supersede belief.

The Mystery and Magic of the Eucharist


by Stephan A. Hoeller

Outlining and “explaining” the liturgy, the ritual phases and the mystic and symbolic elements of the Gnostic Holy Eucharist, a profoundly moving religious rite, the sacrament central to 2,000 years of Christian practice and worship.

Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing

by Stephan A. Hoeller

The history of Gnosticism as an unfolding drama of passion, intrigue, martyrdom, and mystery. Dr. Hoeller traces this fascinating story through time, showing how Gnosticism has inspired such great thinkers as Voltaire, William Blake, W. B. Yeats, Herman Hesse, Herman Melville, and C. G. Jung.

The Gnostic Gospels

by Elaine Pagels

Landmark study of the long-buried roots of Christianity, a work of luminous scholarship and wide popular appeal. First published in 1979 to critical acclaim, winning the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

A Gnostic Book of Hours: Keys to Inner Wisdom

by June Singer

A recasting of the wisdom found in these texts into a book of hours, the traditional framework for an ongoing meditative practice, inspiring an awareness of the presence of the divine mystery within the everyday world.