The Mystery of “Mystery”

Few words can be more misleading to the modern ear than the Orthodox use of the word “mystery.” It’s a fine New Testament word and is (technically) the proper name for the sacraments in Orthodoxy (though we most often say ‘sacrament’ in English). Its root meaning is that of something “hidden.” In our culture’s language, mystery is more a matter of a who-done-it or a reference to something so puzzling or beyond us that it cannot be known. It’s not unusual for the non-Orthodox to complain that when pressed really hard, the Orthodox will take refuge and say, “It’s a mystery.” So, what is the mystery in “mystery?”

There is a debate about the exact root of the word in Greek. Most agree that it has to do with silence. Indeed, one speculation is that it is onomatopoetic (a word that sounds like what it is). As such, it comes from a root which is the sound you make when your mouth is closed (“mmmm”). In St. John Chrysostom’s liturgy, directions to priests on certain prayers are that they are to be said “mystically,” meaning that the prayer should be spoken softly (solta voce). This soft-spoken meaning also can reflect the sense of “secret.”

“Mystery” is a major term in some of St. Paul’s writings, particularly Ephesians and Colossians. There he describes the entire plan of salvation as a “mystery that has now been revealed.” He makes reference to the same thing in Romans as well (16:25). Christ Himself uses the term in Mark’s gospel, telling the disciples that it has been given to them to “know the mystery of the Kingdom of God,” while it is hidden in parables for others (4:11).

But there is more to the word than mere secret. St. Paul also speaks of the “mystery of godliness” and the “mystery of iniquity.” In those expressions the word does not describe secret information, but a hidden process at work. And this gets closer, I think, to St. Paul’s other uses as well. For him, “mystery” is not the same thing as “secret.” It is not information that is being held back. Rather, it is a reality that is not made manifest as of yet. And this is at the very heart of the Orthodox use of the word.

When St. Paul speaks of the “mystery hidden from before the ages” (1Cor. 2:7; Eph. 3:9; Col. 1:26) he is referencing Christ’s Pascha, the “Lamb slain from the foundation.” This is not a reference to a secret plan, but to the very hidden truth of Christ Crucified and its work in creation. I’ve always appreciated C.S. Lewis’ play on this in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. He describes a “deep magic” which the witch does not know, and, on account of which she unwittingly brings about her own defeat. In the Corinthians passage St. Paul says:

But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (1 Cor. 2:7-8)

In the presentation of Christ crucified as mystery, we are to understand that the crucifixion itself is a manifestation in time of that which has been true from before the ages. The crucifixion is more than an event – it is a revelation of the truth of who God is. It is proper for us to say that Christianity is inherently apocalyptic – it is a revealing of that which has been hidden.

This same theme even plays out in the description of our salvation:

Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. (Col. 3:2-4)

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. (Rom. 8:18-19)

Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. (1 Jn. 3:2)

Something of the same notion is found in the Old Testament as well:

 Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; like gold in the furnace he tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them. In the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble. (Wis. 3:5-7)

It is keenly important to understand that what is hidden is not something that does not already exist: that would be a mere secret, an idea. The mystery described and referenced within the Scriptures is a reality that existed before the creation itself. It is Christ crucified. It is the treasure of our salvation:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Pet. 1:3-5)

It is this very “mystery” that forms the substance of the sacraments of the Church. In Baptism, we are Baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ (an eternal reality); in the Eucharist, we eat and drink the Body and Blood of the crucified Christ, slain from the foundation of the earth, and so on. The mystery of our salvation is not presented to us as something that has not yet happened. It is rather something that has not yet been revealed. Its reality is greater than the things we see at present:

For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor. 4:17-18)

This same understanding is the basis for the various forms of allegory used in reading the Scriptures. That reading is not a literary device. Rather, it is a discernment of something that is true and real and that lies beneath the surface of the words. Those who champion the “literal-historical” reading, as though it were the only firm foundation, utterly neglect the very character of our salvation. The mystery of the crucified Christ is the content of all Scripture, and is read by those who know Him.

The Orthodox answer, “It is a mystery,” is not an effort to dodge difficult questions. It is, instead, an attempt to say what is most profoundly true. Not only is Christ the mystery which has been made known, but we ourselves are a mystery, yet to be revealed. The world around us, like the Scriptures themselves, have Christ Crucified as their truth, for Christ is the Logos, according to which and through which the logos of every created thing is made. If you do not know the mystery of creation, then you do not know creation.

It is a mystery known to the trees and rocks. They groan, waiting for it to be made manifest. Occasionally, they begin to shout, to sing and to clap their hands. The song of creation is a mystery, heard by those who have ears to hear.

27 comments:

  1. Sublime and vital words Father!

    P.S.: tiny typo/omission : “Rather, it is a discernment of something that *is* true and real and that lies beneath the surface of the words.

  2. As usual, a succinct and clear explanation of an Orthodox concept which falls on modern ears as strange. You end with an enigmatic word picture that I see only dimly, yet feel you had a clear and bright image in mind as you wrote. Care to share? When did the trees and rocks shout for you?

    I struggle in my vocation to speak clearly to those around me; you have helped on so many occasions. Thank you, Father. May your lenten journey be blessed, and our Paschal celebration joyous!

  3. St. Augustine was once trying to understand the meaning of the Holy Trinity, and he was getting very frustrated doing so. His brilliant mind simply couldn’t comprehend the concept of the “three-in-one” Godhead. One day he was walking along a beach, and he saw a little girl digging a hole in the sand, and, with a small bucket, was putting ocean water into the hole. When St. Augustine asked her what she was doing, she replied, “I’m trying to put the ocean into this hole.”

    It was then that Augustine had an “aha” moment. He began to realize that that’s exactly what he was trying to do with God; he was attempting to understand the infinite with his finite mind, and it was impossible.

    The Mystery of God is not a wall that we come up against, and we can go no further. The Mystery of God is an ocean that we plunge into, and while we may understand a little bit, there are vast and unreachable parts of the ocean that we will never explore or understand in our lifetime.

  4. I believe you are being poetic, Fr. Stephen – not a bad thing at all.

    “Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet.” (St. Porphyrios)

  5. Partakers in Divine Nature. Would it be true to say then, that we are called to be participants in this apocalyptic Mystery?

    This is why a mental approach to Mystery gives rise to endless questions. Where as, if it is from the heart we may be worthy of His mercy.

    Thank you Father for this insightful and inspirational article.

  6. Excellent Father. This is one of the best explanations I have heard on our concept pf “Mystery.”

  7. In traditional Jewish practice, at the beginning of the Passover Seder, the middle matzah is broken, and the larger half is hidden. The leader explains that it is because “more is hidden than is revealed.” It is kept hidden while the story of deliverance is told. At the end of the Seder, the larger half is found (usually after hidden again somewhere in the house and recovered by the children) and ransomed.

  8. Father, ditto what Nicholas said.

    You do have a gift for “putting the cookies on the lower shelf” for your readers—not in any sense offering a reductionist account of the Gospel, but rather translation of the real meaning of words and images in the Tradition into terms modern minds can truly begin to grasp. It is so valuable. I receive every offering with gratitude.

    I notice during times of deep crisis and pain (often after weeks, months, or even years of intermittent storms and dark clouds dogging me), God in His grace often markedly draws back the curtain on this mystery and suddenly I am noticing and perceiving all kinds of happenstances, large and small, aligning in truly significant ways I could not have arranged in order to announce in no uncertain terms (even if only to me) the Lord is very present and knows exactly what is going on and what He is doing, speaking His love, wisdom and peace to my troubled heart in very situation-specific ways. Usually this is in preparation for taking a significant step forward in furthering the good purposes of God in mine or one of my loved ones’ lives (usually both).

  9. Karen,
    I’m writing a follow-up to this article next week to contrast what it means to see the mystery (particularly as something that already is), versus the typical literal/historical account (I need a better word for it) that many follow in which our salvation is like something that is working on a chronological level – timeline manner – etc. I hope it will be equally useful.

  10. Because of faith we are able to anticipate the revelation of that reality that is not yet revealed, and know it will be revealed…

  11. I think part of the difficulty of hearing this message with our modern ears is that The Orthodox Faith is not metaphorical (or even poetic) in the way which moderns usually mean.
    This is something I have used in Sunday School class to begin to get at the mystery: when we sing that “the trees clap their hands” or any number of hymns in the present tense, this is not metaphorical, it is supra-literal! It is closer to what is really real than the “literal” reality we see every day.

  12. Father, is it correct to say that the sacraments, the mysteries of the Church, are all revealing Christ? Indeed, that all things in Creation, including ourselves, reveal Him if we only see? In other words, the revealing of ourselves and of all Creation is not a matter of methodology but of grace? Is this the action of theosis in the Church?

  13. Father,

    I look forward to your further elucidation of our Salvation not being on an historical/chronological tract. Very interesting concept! I recently had the pleasure of meeting Hieromonk Seraphim Aldea who is in the process if rebuilding an ancient monastery on the Isle of Mull in the Outer Hebrides. In a talk he gave (linked below), Fr. Seraphim spoke about his own conversion to becoming a believer and entering in to monasticism. When he was 19 yrs old, he went to see the famous Vladimir Icon in Moscow and, while standing in front of it, he experienced a deep and profound sense that everything in the world was right. The Church represented everything he hated: hierarchy, organization, institutions, etc. but all of his resistance to this was demolished in this single momentous experience which can only be described as a “Mystery.” And it made no sense historically or chronologically based on his life experience up to that moment in time. Frederica Matthews-Green was converted in a similar way while standing before a statue of Christ in Ireland. I can easily say the same for myself and my own conversion experience, which took longer but was equally “mysterious.” Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined or predicted that I would become a follower of Christ. Christianity (and especially not Orthodoxy!) was not even on my radar, and yet here I am… much to my own amazement.

    https://youtu.be/f6l-2GKfoCM

  14. Raphael, the distinction between metaphor and supra-literal is very helpful. Metaphor is emotionally evocative, and helps us to see things intuitively rather than analytically. I suppose the supra-literal sees things from an every deeper and more hidden wholeness. I think one of the best 20th-century exponents of the supra-literal was the Swiss philosopher Max Picard who wrote of phenomena such as silence as having bodily existence – clinging to the trees, or gathering in the cavities of a statue.

  15. Rev. Fred,

    I too was intrigued by Fr. Stephen’s parting vision, but I suspect for the most part it’s something one sees when one is ready to. C.S. Lewis once said that miracles only happen to those who believe in them. An easy reference to go along with this is the dwarves at the end of the The Last Battle in the Chronicles of Narnia. They simply could not see the great feast or the beautiful scenery around them. They were unable to see anything but the stable.

    Right now I’m reading “The Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben. For those who believe in the hidden life of all creation, his reports of trees being able to think, remember, make decisions, have personalities, etc. would come as no surprise. For those who don’t, there is nothing in that book but a nature lover’s fancies about how he’d like to think about trees. See what I mean?

  16. Jay,
    By “metaphor in the modern sense” I also mean that we use words like “metaphor,” “poetic,” or “symbolic” to indicate something less than the truth.
    When we moderns say something is a metaphor we mean that it is a stand-in for the Really-Real thing. So the blessing of the waters at Theophany doesn’t really sanctify the waters, it is a kind of stand-in allowing us to feel (have ideas) like we are doing something.
    In this way, the modern metaphor simply becomes another idea or opinion.
    This is why I like to tell people that The Orthodox Church doesn’t do metaphor. It’s a bit of a cold water in the face of modernity.

  17. Raphael – I have a non-Orthodox non- believing friend who continually refers to services in the Church as “rituals,” and it drives me crazy, LOL! 😂 I’m continually correcting him, “It’s NOT a ritual; it’s a Service/Sacrament,” but my efforts have not had much effect to date I’m afraid. I think you have to experience it to fully grasp it.

  18. Esmee,
    Many Protestants of the Low Church type and non-believers see no reason for what we do. Its impossible to explain it to them. I have seen some come and see and it was heart warming how they were taken by surprise by the Liturgy. One old time baptist brought his bible and note paper. I suspect he was going to point out all our heresies in worship. After service in speaking to Father, he was blown away that the whole of the Liturgy was in fact an exposition of Scripture in a holistic and meaningful way. So far he has not returned but he went away changed in opinion.

  19. Yes! Yes! Yes! Thank you for sharing these beautiful insights. The Protestant tradition of which I’m a part has so distanced itself from mystery in an attempt to explain things away. I’m trying to recapture this imagination for me and my people. Thank you again!

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