The Mystery: Upborne, Fulfilled


Orthodoxy has a number of “favorite” words – all of which fall outside the bounds of normal speech. Though we commonly use the word “mystery” (for example), popular speech never uses it in the manner of the Church. I cannot remember using the word “fullness,” or even “fulfilled,” in normal speech. More contemporary words have come to replace these expressions. This doesn’t mean that an English speaker has no idea of what the words mean – but, again, they do not understand these words in the manner of the Church. There is a reality to which words such as mystery and fullness refer – a reality that carries the very heart of the Orthodox understanding of the world and its relation to God.

In popular usage, the word mystery has become synonymous with puzzle. Thus a mystery is something we do not know, but something that, with careful investigation is likely to be revealed. In the Church, mystery is something which by its very nature is unknown, and can only be known in a manner unlike anything else.

Words such as fullness and fulfilled are equally important and specialized in the language of the Church, but whose meanings bear little resemblance to popular speech.  Fullness (pleroma), occurs a number of times in the New Testament. It was also a favorite word in the writings of the gnostics. In Christian usage, it refers to a spiritual wholeness or completeness that is being manifested or revealed in some way. It is more than a Divine act – it carries with it something of the Divine itself (God Himself is the Fullness). It is not simply the action of God, but is itself God. Prior actions and words may have hinted at the fullness, but in the revelation of the fullness all hints will have passed away and been replaced by the fullness itself.

The core understanding of words such as mystery and fullness is the belief that our world has a relationship beyond itself, or beyond what seems obvious. The world is symbol, icon and sacrament. Mystery and fullness reference the reality that is carried as symbol, icon and sacrament.

Many people read the frequent statement in the gospels: “This was done so that the prophecy of Isaiah (or one of the other prophets) might be fulfilled….” What many people think this means is that the prophet made a prediction and it came true. Biblical prophecy (in a proper Christian understanding) has little or nothing to do with prediction. The prophets do not see the future – they see the fullness. What comes to pass is the fullness breaking into our world such that the prophecy “has been fulfilled.”

This same fullness is referenced in Ephesians:

And He [the Father] put all things under His [Christ’s] feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all (1:22-23).

This description of the Church as the “fullness,” is among the most startling statements in Scripture. The phrase, “the fullness of Him that fills all in all,” is an early version of “God became man so that man might become god” (St. Athanasius, 4th century). God is the one who fills, and we are what is filled (or even the “filling”). At least as striking is a kindred passage in Colossians (the two letters have many similarities):

For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power (2:9-10).

The English disguises the wordplay within the verse. We are told that “in Christ dwells all the fullness (pleroma) of the Godhead (or deity) bodily, and you are the ones who have been made full (pepleromenoi) in Him…” Again, this time Christ is described as the fullness, but we have also been made the fullness (pleroma) in Him. His life is our life, and this life or fullness is precisely that which is important about us.

The idea is not dissimilar to Christ’s statements in St. John’s gospel:

I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me (17:20-23).

In John, Christ has given us “his glory,” just as the Father gave Him glory. Glory is not praise or reputation, but rather something substantial (as I search for words). In Hebrew, glory (Kavod) is precisely something substantial, the weight of something. God’s kavod pushes the priests to the ground at the consecration of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 8:11). But glory is not simply an effect of God, it is, somehow, God’s presence itself.

Fullness has a relation to glory, in this substantial sense.

… we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full [pleres] of grace and truth…. And of His fullness [pleroma] we have all received, and grace for grace (Jn. 1:14 and 16).

The glory of the only begotten is full of grace and truth and it is of this fullness that we have all received.

I am sure that this excursion through Scripture may be somewhat tedious for readers – but it is an excursion through unknown territory for many. Mystery, fullness, glory and the like are largely neglected in many of the doctrinal structures of the West. Where they are not neglected they are stripped of mystical content and morphed into more rational systems.

Within the Orthodox East, the mystical content is allowed to shine forth – particularly within the liturgical life and prayers of the Church (this is also true of the ascetical tradition of the Church). One place where language and reality are deeply united is in the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts (celebrated on the weekdays of Great Lent and Holy Week). The Eucharist is not celebrated on these days, but communion is given from the gifts consecrated on the Sunday previous – thus the Liturgy of the “Pre-Sanctified” Gifts.

It is a very solemn service, with a liturgical “climax” when the Pre-Sanctified Gifts are brought out of the Altar and processed through the congregation in silence. The congregation is prostrate during this procession with faces to the floor. Thus the procession occurs in silence and “invisibly.”

Just before the entrance, the choir sings, “Now the powers of heaven do serve invisibly with us. Lo, the King of glory enters. Lo, the mystical sacrifice is upborne, fulfilled.” The Gifts of Christ’s Body and Blood are indeed the “mystical sacrifice,” the very mystery hidden from the ages made manifest and present in the midst of the Church. This same mystery is also the fullness – its presence is fulfilled.

The Christian life lived within the mystery is a life in which God is hidden, made known, revealed, perceived. It is a life in which the Kingdom of God is breaking forth, not destroying nature but fulfilling it. In the same manner, we are not destroyed by our union with Christ but rather fulfilled. We become what we were created to be – the fullness of that life and more is made manifest within our own lives.

It is this same fullness that describes the lives of saints. Saints are more than moral exemplars to be copied – they have the quality of life-fulfilled. In them, the fullness that is ours in Christ is made manifest.

The mystical life marks the whole of Orthodox Christianity. Its doctrines are replete with references to the mystery and speak of matters such as the atonement in a manner that is consistent with the revelation of this mystery. The Conciliar definitions, from first to last, are rooted in this language and presuppose its grammar within every aspect of the life of the Church.

Upborne, fulfilled.


  1. It is not unusual to experience a bit of God’s Kavod during the silent entrance I think such that even if one wanted to look up it becomes difficult.

    Father your post removes any sense of faith as merely ideas or morals. A real blow to the two storey universe. The substance of things hoped for takes on greater meaning.

    Thank you once again

  2. “I am sure that this excursion through Scripture may be somewhat tedious for readers – but it is an excursion through unknown territory for many.”
    True enough about me. Keep it up, Father.

  3. As I grow in the faith and the renewing of my mind continues, I am learning to read these words and many others differently than I did in my past as a Protestant. I have discovered that many terms have different meanings in Orthodoxy than what I was taught in my Protestant Seminary. I have had to learn to ask those of other faiths to define what they mean by many words that we use and find their ideas of them and ours are vastly different. It is a great contributor to their very different world view

  4. This reminded me of your other article about the noetic life. “At some level, true salvation begins in a noetic experience between the soul and God. And this cannot be forced or managed. It is an intrinsically holy action in whose presence we can only be silent.” Though I am at an elementary level in absorbing all this, I can’t help receiving the joy of the good news of this gospel as I read this: that God has loved me, even as He has loved Christ! (John 17). Thank you, Fr.

  5. Not tedious in the least – I love when I am guided into the deeper meanings of words we take for granted in our services…

  6. Father,
    I cant stop smiling after reading this. You commented, “We become what we were created to be – the fullness of that life and more is made manifest within our own lives.” This encapsulates much of what I’ve been missing.

    Sincerely, thank you!

  7. Thank you, Father. At the Pre-Sanctified liturgies I find that I am overwhelmed by the beauty: finding myself just shaking my head, if that makes sense. In prostration at the Entrance and also during the singing of Let My Prayer Arise, I sense being in the womb awaiting birth. The womb of the church? Today I was searching for the music similar to what is at our parish and found The St Symeon choir on YouTube. Their Fire and Ice CD is on Amazon Prime. It is exquisite. If others haven’t experienced this, it is a treat. In a church context, the YouTube versions are very nice. Also, St. Mary’s in Minneapolis. We are so blessed to be able to worship in this way. On another note, I am increasingly seeing Church as a resplendent human/divine butterfly garden: so “full” of what our Protestant friends might call “unnecessary things.” Yes!! So full! Like God’s garden of unnecessary everythings… Butterflies, stars, saints, artwork everywhere. Overwhelmed.

  8. Fr. Stephen,
    While this is not one of your easiest posts to plow through, I thank you for it. But I do have a question or two.

    I’m with you in your writing on “mystery”.

    I’m almost with you on “fullness” (I probably need to study this one more.)

    However, I’m struggling more with “glory”. I think I understand what you have written here. But then I am confused about using the same word to say “Glory to God” – not just in the context of this blog’s name but in phrases that suggest that we should “give glory to God”. In the “Kavod” sense of this word, I do not see how we can give that to God.

    BTW, I have puzzled about the word “glory” prior to reading your post here. I like the word but am often baffled if I attempt to define it. I have similar confusion with words like “praise” and “worship” in the same context. I use the word “praise” a fair amount but I know I mean something different than the dictionary definition (which suggests admire, compliment, commend, etc.) – but what is it I DO mean?

    I use the word “worship” less often. I have sometime felt uneasy when people say they go to church to worship God or describe their church as a “house of worship”. For some reason, the word conjures up an image of the golden calf (and other idols) with people dancing around it. Not an image I associate with the Eucharist.

    Words are such fascinating things – because they can have multiple meanings and sometimes their meanings shift over time or change in different contexts. We can often have a feel for a word but not know how to define it.

    I would appreciate it if you can help out with any of these words.

  9. mary benton if I may,

    Two types of glory: one which we give to God which includes all of the following and the Glory of God.

    Praise in the Christian sense is different than the everyday meaning. It is an open, verbal, physical and emotional recognition of God as God-giving thanks.

    Worship can include all of the above but also encompasses the inward heysechia: “Be still and know that I am God”

    A house of worship is a building, set aside for God and His people that has been consecrated by God’s glory either sacramentally and/or through pious use. where we can gather and communion with God and through Him, each other.

    Humility is central to each and they are interrelated.

  10. Mike,
    The pronouncements of that Council and the circle of the Emperor Justinian are enough to keep us all busy. There’s much more to be said positively about Origen than not, though his name remains under an anathema of the Church. I’ve tried to write carefully about universalism – at least regarding what I think – along with many saints, I “hope” for such to be the case, because I believe that God is good. I do not and cannot proclaim such to be the case because it hasn’t been delivered to me to say so. I write as a priest, and try to do that carefully. There certainly was (at the very least) a version of the apokatastasis associated with Origen’s name that was condemned.

    The article you reference is by DB Hart, whose felicity towards Origen is well known. I have a number of other friends who like him as well, among whom are St. Basil and his brother, St. Gregory. I don’t generally write on Origen. I don’t know enough.

  11. “…He gave Himself a ransom to death, by which we were held, sold under sin; and *having descended through the Cross into hades, that He might fill all things with Himself*, He loosed the pains of death; and arose on the third day…” — the Anaphora of St Basil the Great, emphasis added

  12. I think that Origen is not only condemned for his universalism but especially for his heresy regarding the pre-existence of souls, the initial pleroma from which souls fell, the creation as a sort of prison for the sin of having fallen away from the pleroma etc.
    I consider to be much good stuff in Origen’s writings, but the above mentioned are unquestionably heretical, there can be no doubt about that.

    As for DB Hart, with apologies to Fr. Stephen who I know holds him in some regard, I consider him to be a typical example of something very prevalent among western converts (especially Americans) to Orthodoxy- an ahistorical intellectualism, an attraction to the most lofty doctrines of the most mystical Fathers coupled with an obvious disregard for what constitutes an actually organic living of the tradition- this may not be obvious for Americans, but for someone from Eastern Europe it is very plain to see.
    I’ve read an article by him somewhere in which he stated that for him “Holy Tradition” means the 7 Ecumenical Councils+ the Neopatristic synthesis’ such as those of V. Lossky, Evdokimov etc, even scoffing at what seem to him as nothing but popular superstitions- as if Tradition is only accessible to a select few who actually can afford a library.

  13. I simply try to treat DBH with respect. He’s an academic, and I take that for what it’s worth, which is not nothing, but falls short of integration. We converts have many failings. Mine are legion.

  14. A question to anyone about the Divine Liturgy: When the priest says “Holy things are for the holy”, who is being referred to as “holy”?

    I’m relatively new to Orthodox liturgy and also wondering what is the best “handbook” that would have most of the words that laypeople should learn. E.g., I don’t know the pre-communion prayer that nearly everyone recites by heart, but would like to learn this as well as other basic parts of the Liturgy.

    Thanks in advance.

  15. A question to anyone about the Divine Liturgy: When the priest says “Holy things are for the holy”, who is being referred to as “holy”?

    Hello KC. I was told by my priest that Jesus is the one referred to as “holy”.

    I’m relatively new to Orthodox liturgy and also wondering what is the best “handbook” that would have most of the words that laypeople should learn.

    Our parish actually has printed booklets of the Divine Liturgy that are available for use, although my priest (and several other people) recommended to not worry about knowing the exact prayers. Instead let the Liturgy wash over you; the words will come in time. I hope this helps!

  16. Byron,
    It caught my eye where you said your priest and others recommended not to worry about knowing the exact prayers….because there I am, with the booklet opened and reading it through, not all, but a good part of the liturgy! Your point is well taken though. For me, it’s a choice between the distraction of too much reading or the distraction of my mind wandering. Plus I was lost as to what was going on and I had to know. What to do?! I suppose in time as I become more familiar with the content I’ll put the booklet down.

  17. KC,

    I recommend just attending the Divine Liturgy regularly for a year or two before you worry about following along. At that point, the structure of the service will be second nature, and a lot of what’s said and done will bubble up from inside of you as it happens.

    The prayers that are most important to know are the Lord’s Prayer, the Nicene creed, and the prayers before communion. Those are often, though not always, spoken communally. But it’s important to understand that they are not ALWAYS spoken communally. If you’ve only been to one parish, especially one in the convert-heavy OCA or Antiochian, you might not realize this, but many parishes and most traditions have the choir chant everything.

    I think memorizing prayers is also counterproductive, because the prayers can only be understood in their liturgical use. The Nicene creed, for instance, comes after the Gospel and sermon, as the liturgy moves towards consecration and communion, and that context should inform your understanding of that creed. It’s not a disembodied statement of theological dogmae, but an affirmation of orthodoxy of the congregation before communion.

    The prayers before communion, too, are most important to learn after being baptized and chrismated.

    We modern Americans are driven by a need to read the text, to follow along, and to intellectualize, as though that provides some level of understanding. It doesn’t, at least not in any important way.. You might be convinced that the body of Christ is truly present in the communion bread, but if you don’t bow before the altar (which has preserved consecrated bread on it at all times), crossing yourself as you cross in front of it, then you don’t actually understand what that means. That can only come with time.

    But take this all for what it’s worth, they are the internet ramblings of a poorly read and insufficiently catechized Orthodox layman.

    Similarly with the texts of prayers. Learn them, but don’t stress yourself about learning them, and don’t think that learning the prayers gives you an understanding divorced from their place in the Divine Liturgy.

  18. KC,
    The “Holy things are for the holy,” translates the Greek ( Τὰ Ἅγια τοῖς ἁγίοις) The holy things are for the holy people (plural). The holy things, are the Body and Blood of Christ. The Holy people (the second holy) are those who are about to receive.

  19. KC,
    this from a priest: Do whatever makes you comfortable. Use a book or not. But no matter what you do, if simply takes care of itself in time. I do suggest using a book in some way, at some time (even if it’s outside the service). The liturgy is one of the richest and most complete accounts of the faith of the Church stated in an Orthodox manner and is outstanding stuff for meditation and understanding. I’m constantly learning things as a priest with the text always in front of me!

  20. KC,
    In the Liturgy we see an indication of four exchanges: (1) God, the Creator, first gives us wheat and grapes, (2) we “put ourselves into” that gift, (turning it to bread and wine), and then we offer it back to God [“thine own of thine own”] and (3) He “puts Himself into those gifts” and offers them to us [“the holy things to the holy”]. We receive from him the Body and Blood of Christ, it enters our bodies, and then (4) we offer our bodies and all of ourselves back (having received His sanctification) as holy –consecrated ones –,a living sacrifice to God. Interestingly, this same reciprocal communion and transformation occurs in the Jesus prayer invoking God’s name, God gives us his Name in the incarnation, we invoke Him putting our longing inside this invocation, he then answers by revealing, softening and cleansing our heart through it, and we answer back by offering ourselves and our hearts completely to him who finally enters us so that it is Christ that lives in us and transforms us into his bodily presence in this world.

  21. Dino,
    This is the finest explanation of what happens in Liturgy. I have never understood it in this way. Thank you. It is an eye opener.

  22. Dino,
    Very nice synopsis of the liturgical exchange all the way to the last sentence where I get a bit lost in the blur of Christ living in me, transforming me and then I am “his bodily presence in this world.” Is this then Christ and not me? Am I then of little consequence as unique, differentiated as person absorbed by Christ? Perhaps it is important to go back to Father’s article and bring in the “fullness” of Christ’s creative intention in me as an icon of Christ’s “event” happening in my body and soul eternal. Somewhere in this “exchange” I am renewed, transformed, consumed into divinity without totally losing the personification of who I was intented to be–separate but united “in” Christ without dissolving the “being” made worthy of life and offered back to God.
    I shy from the thought that I become “Christ” while the creature “me” vanishes? Just wondering.

  23. sbdn andrew,
    that is a sometimes needed clarification indeed!
    The increasing sense of “I, Christ” of a saint (i.e.: of one that is fully possessed by the Holy Spirit and through whom we almost only see God acting) does not make their distinct personality vanish, no. It brings that out in its greatest beauty.
    However, as the customary image goes, ‘the metal glows like fire because of the fire and nothing else.’ Even, the Theotokos Herself, (whose “individual” virtues are inconceivable), is hardly ever addressed as Mary, the individual, in Orthodoxy, but as the God-bearer, the God-birther.
    That’s the yardstick of this participation and union, without dissolution.

  24. Thanks to all for your explanations and advice regarding participation in Liturgy. Very helpful and appreciated!

    The Orthodox church I’m attending appears to hold Pascha services at midnight (i.e., Saturday night/beginning of Sunday) and again at 12 noon on Sunday. Would this be typical? If a newcomer wanted to attend other Holy Week services, what would be the most important one(s) — Thursday and/or Friday nights?

    Many thanks for this blog, and for Father Stephen & other commenters.

  25. KC,

    My parish holds the Paschal matins/Liturgy services beginning at midnight. What is served at noon Sunday is “Agape Vespers” a prayer service followed by a feast on Pascha basket & pot luck leftovers. Perhaps that’s what you have seen as well.

  26. Dino, great description of the Liturgy. Growing up in the United States I have seen the call and response worship prevalent in the black community. We even use the same response: Lord have mercy. When I first came to the Orthodox Church that form surprised me but it also helped me realize that the Liturgy is not a performance. It is hierachically participatory.

    When Father Stephen described the actions of the Deacon awhile back that added another layer. Of course the presence of the saints and angels adds another dimension.

    There is a lot going on and it is not complete without all of us.

    The offering of eaxh other, ourselves and all our lives includes the offering of our sins along with the incense. I just noticed the other day that the use of incense is much greater during the Liturgy of the Catechumens.

  27. KC, as a note on Dino’s wonderful concise explanation of the Liturgy, lest you be looking somewhere in the Santuary for wheat and grapes, you won’t find them there during the formal Liturgy. For an Orthodox, though, all of life (properly lived) is Liturgy, and I believe this is what Dino’s description incorporates. (There are times, too, during the Church year where the fruits of the harvest may be brought within the Nave to be formally blessed.)

  28. Thanks Nikolaos, Father Stephen, Dino, Matth, and others, for the helpful advice. Glory to God!

  29. KC,
    It’s hard to pick a “most important” service. If your schedule and family allow, try to attend one of the Bridegroom Matins services (Mon, Tues, Wed of Holy Week), then Holy Thursday Gospels, Good Friday services and Holy Saturday service. Of course you should try to be at the midnight Pascha service – that is truly the “most important” but all the others lead up to it and point to it – it all makes the best sense as a whole. (There is usually a chance to grab some sleep on Saturday afternoon/early evening). If time is short, try to get to Holy Friday and Holy Saturday, along with Pascha. You can read through the other services at various places on the Internet. May the Lord help you!


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