Even to the Angels Unknown! The Resurrectional-Dismissal Theotokion in Tone Four

That which was hidden from eternity,

Even to the angels, a mystery unknown,

Through you, Theotokos, is revealed to those on earth:

God incarnate by union without confusion.

Who even voluntarily accepted the Cross for us,

By which, resurrecting the first-created,

He saved our souls from death.

I wonder whether we Christians realize how privileged we are?  The dismissal-resurrectional Theotokion in tone four reminds us that we are privy to the greatest mystery of all times—a mystery hidden even from the angels for long ages!  A sensitive telling of our Christian story could begin like the epic beginning to the film the Lord of the Rings, in which the back-tale of the ring is recounted, from its primordial creation with the other nineeteen rings, to its sowing of discord and loss, to its retrieval by Gollum and Bilbo, to the calling of the Fellowship.  In our story, however, the mystery was never lost, but kept back for the “right time”— our human time of need.  And it was no mere object forged by a power-hungry ruler, but God’s own loving and powerful Presence, ready to come among us when He deemed it fit. Ages, centuries and years prepared for this coming:  the scattering at Babel, the divine word to Noah, the wandering of the patriarchs, the call of Moses, the creation of Israel, the confusion at the time of the judges, the anointing of the kings, the failure and separation of the kingdoms, the exiles, the partial return, the final word of Malachi for repentance.  And then, finally, that great Mystery, hidden for ages long, even from the angels– the God-Man Jesus.

Mystery is mentioned with reserve in the Old Testament.  We hear about secrets at several places in the TORAH and the Psalter, but it is not until the book of Daniel that the actual word “mystery” is used—Daniel, the prophet, is privy to mysteries that God shows him concerning salvation history.  But, typically, the Old Testament is not a book of unseen things, but a book about ourselves as humans, and Israel, in particular, in relation with God. Even Daniel’s visions concentrate upon God’s dealing with Israel and the world, not with unseen beings, who are mentioned only from time-to-time. The scope of the Scriptures is mostly our world, and ineffable matters are only lightly treated when necessary to tell the story.

We should not be surprised, then, that the ancient rabbis warned those who had an appetite for the “apocryphal” with these words:

Whoever gives his mind to four things, it were better for him if he had not come into the world—what was beforetime, what will be hereafter, what is above, and what is below—whoever gives his mind to these things, and forgets the honor of his  Maker, it were better for him if he had not come into the world (Mishnah Hagigah 2:1).

The rabbis did not say this because they disbelieved in events before the creation, or in eschatological things to come, or in heaven, or in the abyss.  They said this to warn the simple against unfruitful and impious speculation, so that the faithful of Israel would keep the main thing the main thing.  The Christian Fathers seemed to have shared their reserve, for just as there is only one apocalypse in the OT, Daniel, so the Fathers eventually only recognized one in the NT—the Apocalypse of Jesus to John.  Unfortunately, with that one book, coupled with several stray verses from the gospels and 1 Thessalonians, some contemporary speculators have devised a whole system of eschatological dooms-saying, and alarmed countless Christians, especially in North America.  The potential for the symbolic presentation of mystery to be mis-used is no doubt one of the reasons why the Eastern Church was reluctant to read the Apocalypse publically, and still handles the book gingerly—though with great respect!

Perhaps another reason why mysteries are not the main focus of our Holy Scriptures is because everything is understood, whether ordinary or extraordinary, to center around the One great Mystery—God Himself.  Pagan mythologies were full of strange and wonderful events concerning various gods, goddesses, demigods, and other bizarre beings.  But the true story of God emphasizes His dealings with us, His people.  As we know, the nature of God is so mysterious that when Moses asks the LORD His name, He responds, “I am what I am” or, in Greek “I am the existing One.”  That word about His eternal being, coupled with the signs in history that He gave as He superintended humanity and Israel, had to suffice for the earliest ages.  But finally, when the time was right, God consented to be born of a woman, and to enter in an indescribable but full way into our human condition, without ceasing to be God.  It is not, however, that the Old Testament Scriptures had nothing to say about this greatest of all mysteries, God-in-the-flesh!  After all, Jesus taught his disciples, both on the road to Emmaus, and in the upper room (Luke 24) how to properly read the OT, so as to see Him prefigured in it.  And in the early years of the Church, it was the Hebrew Scriptures that were used in order to teach about the God-Man.  And so we hear St. Paul’s benediction to the Romans:

Now to Him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which was kept secret for long ages, but is now disclosed and through the prophetic writings is made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith –to the only wise God be glory for evermore through Jesus Christ! (Rom 16:25-27)

Similarly, the apostle Peter in 2 Peter 1 speaks about the confirmation that was given to the apostles who were eye-witnesses of Jesus’ majesty— a confirmation that made the OT writings more secure, and to which, as a lamp, all Christians should pay heed (2 Peter 1:19-21)!  Indeed, in that same chapter, the apostle makes it clear that we have not received mere pagan “myths,” but (2 Peter 1:16), but have seen the true light.  It is, after all, in the Old Testament that we hear about the angels who wait upon the LORD and sing His glory (e.g. Isaiah 6); it is in the Psalms that we hear about the hint that God will make a human being even greater than the angels (Psalm 8); it is in Isaiah that we catch a glimpse of One who will recall the Gentiles as well as fallen Israel through suffering (e.g. Isaiah 52-3); it is in Ezekiel that we hear about the Shepherd who is both God and “the servant David” (Ezekiel 34).

HERE is the mystery that the angels could not have understood, since they are not flesh and blood:  God became a human being, not an angel!  Who would have thought that the Creator of all could become a creature, the Arch-Creature, giving us the hope of God-in-us. We have come to know “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his saints…this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:26-27).

The major lesson of the Old Testament, that God is God, and we are not, had to be learned thoroughly and well, so that we could properly understand that God became the perfect Human Being, as our hymn says, without confusion— that is, without the commingling that would destroy or dilute His human and divine natures.  Having seen the God-Man, through the witness of the apostles, and in our own experience, we now are in a position to actually enlighten the angels, for whom this was a mystery!  And so, St. Paul marvels:

To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places (Eph 3:8-10).

How amazing!  Though we were originally created a little lower than the angels, now we are in a position to dispel their ignorance, and they become dependent upon us.  We know this instinctively since we speak of our Lady as “more honorable than the cherubim, more glorious than the seraphim!”  For as Hebrews reminds us, God became a human being, not an angel! We only are blessed in this way.  Further, our knowledge of the secret hidden from the angels becomes part of the unification of all the creation.   For just as they were ministering servants to us, speaking to Abraham and Moses and the prophets, coming to Joseph and Mary, so now we serve them, telling them the wonders of the Incarnate God.  The creation is brought together, members relying upon members, as God intended from the beginning, before the great rift caused by Satan and human disobedience.  “For He has revealed to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of His will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:9-10).  The gathering up of all things in Himself is possible because, “when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman…so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal 4:4-5).  What happened at the right time, in the Theotokos, makes it possible for us to hope in what will happen in the fullness of time, when He comes again!

All of this mystery is recounted in the first four lines of our hymn:

That which was hidden from eternity,

Even to the angels, a mystery unknown,

Through you, Theotokos, is revealed to those on earth:

God incarnate by union without confusion.

But the hymn says more than this.  For, the Incarnation was expressed in the whole of Christ’s pilgrimage for us—his life, through scandalous death, to resurrection (and ascension):

[He] even voluntarily accepted the Cross for us,

By which, resurrecting the first-created,

He saved our souls from death.

I have translated this rather literally, so it is more awkward than the beautiful renderings that we sing in our parishes. But the literal translation helps us see more detail. Please note the little word “even” inserted here—it is not just that Christ took on our frail human natures, but that He even went to the Cross.  And, marvel of marvels, through this instrument of torture He resurrected those who were created first—our parents, Adam and Eve, along with all those of their children who await His mercy, and the world itself, which “hopes” also for a release from bondage (Rom. 8:20-21). The “first-created” will be glorified in the “new creation.”  Here the song sends us back to the very beginning, to God’s perfect creation, and to the mysterious creation of our fore-parents, reminding us of how they plunged the world into its dying condition!

We hold our breaths at the mystery of death—how is it possible that those called into life, called to bear God’s own image, could die? Of course, this impossible possibility came our way because our nature is dependent on the LORD of life, and our first parents (with us following shortly after) let go of God’s hand.  Some contemporary songs, and even translations of the Bible, make it seem as though human beings are summed up in the word “mortal.” (Consider, for example, the NRSV’s translation of “son of man” in Ezekiel, where God addresses the prophet in the words “O mortal.”  This has the unfortunate effect of recalling, at least for me, the scene in Ghostbusters where Gozer asks the character played by Dan Ackroyd “Are you a god?”  Receiving a negative response, the deity thunders: “Then, DIE!”)

But in the intent of our Creator, this is not the case: we were made to live, and in the beginning, had free access to the tree of life.  Our mortality was only hypothetical, so long as we lived as God intended—walking and talking with Him in the garden, and depending upon Him.  God evidently thought it worth the risk to make us able to say “no” to Him—and so to lose our lives, and our integrity.  The remedy for this was the Incarnation, but also the willing sacrifice of God the Son on our behalf.  Here we see the difference between Old Testament types, or images of Jesus’ work, and His own action for our sake.  He accepted the cross willingly;  the lambs, goats, rams, and birds sacrificed in the Temple had no such power.  Moreover, His willingness is far more potent than ours.  We make decisions based on partial information, and often guided by competing motives.  Our Savior, however, accepted the cross wholly out of love, with a complete and undivided will, a will united with that of the Father.

This insight is what gives us the answer to those daring theologians today who speak against the atonement because it gives the picture of a “blood-thirsty” Father who demands, as a kind of cosmic child-abuse, the sacrifice of His innocent Son.  In this sacrifice, the Son’s will was at one with the Father, for the Triune God loves His creation.  And, in agreement with this, the Holy Spirit calls us to thanksgiving and adoration. God’s first creation, when healed and transformed, becomes His final word, praising Him forever!

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