From Meeting Christ in His Mysteries
The man Jesus has risen up to name above all names, he was crushed in the flesh of sin, bore the form of a servant, was obedient to death; he became Kyrios (Lord), pneuma (Spirit). He is, then, the same Lord who walked unnoticed and persecuted through the fields of Palestine and at last ended his life like a criminal on the cross; now he rules the world as king and the church is his bride. All his life, beginning in the Virgin’s womb, is the great mystery of salvation, hidden from eternity in God and now revealed in the ecclesia (church). The deeds of his lowliness in that life on Earth, his miserable death on Calvary appear now in a different light: God’s own light; they are his acts, revealed, streaming with his light. (Odo Casel)
If one were asked to define what is meant by “Christianity” today, a variety of different responses might be forthcoming. Evangelicals might describe it as a personal encounter with Jesus: being born again, an experience of spiritual breakthrough after a long period of searching or suffering. Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and many Anglicans might speak about belonging to the church and emphasize things like authority, continuity with the past, and participation in complex communal worship. Other Christians, more liberally inclined, might describe it as a moral code, seeing in the teaching of Jesus a God-given means to transform society and humanize the world. Charismatics or Pentecostals would tend to stress conscious spiritual experience, particularly of the Holy Spirit.
Yet in the letters of Saint Paul (and those traditionally ascribed to him), Christianity is consistently described as a mystery, mysterion in Greek. For Paul and the tradition he generated, this mystery concealed eternally in God has been revealed to us in time, for our salvation. God made it known through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, whose followers had acclaimed him as the Lord’s anointed, the Christ or Messiah longed for by many in Israel. According to Paul and the other writers of the New Testament, his death and resurrection brought us new and wonderful knowledge about who God is, along with an invitation to enter through faith into an intimate relationship with him in the community of Christ’s followers, his body the church.
Although this understanding of Christianity as the revelation of a hidden mystery was developed mainly in two letters nowadays generally attributed to Paul’s followers (the Letters to the Ephesians and Colossians), it is also present in those which were certainly written by the apostle himself. For example, at the end of his longest and most influential work, the Letter to the Romans, Paul says, in a concluding doxology or prayer glorifying God:
Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith – to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever! Amen. (Romans 16:25-27)
Paul was writing in Greek against the background of both his own Jewish faith and the complex religious situation of the Greco-Roman world. This dense passage would have touched major chords in the understanding of those who heard and read him. Yet the text is neither a theological treatise nor a statement of belief but a prayer at the end of a letter, praising God for what he had done for the world. What, in Paul’s view, had God actually done?
For Paul, echoing the early Christian proclamation, God’s action was no less than his self-manifestation and the disclosure of his will to save the world. It did not come completely out of the blue. It was rather the culmination of an ancient dialogue God had begun with the people of Israel to whose prophets he had first revealed his will. That dialogue had been destined to have immense consequences for the rest of the human race. God had established his covenant with Israel, aiming to create a perfect partner to carry out his will in the world but fallen human beings were unable to accomplish that. In Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, God himself stepped into the human scene and became that partner himself. He brought his covenant-plan to completion and revealed it for our enlightenment. God’s will to save became manifest in sending his son into the world, a son whom he appointed as its savior.
By perfect obedience to God’s will, shown in his acceptance of an unjust death imposed by human wickedness, Jesus took away sin, healing our rebellion and restoring friendship again between the world and God. In raising Jesus from the dead by his own glory, the Father completed the reconciliation process ratified in his death and opened up a glorious future again for human beings. Jesus is humanity’s liberator from sin and death who reconciled the world to its creator.
Paul never taught that God had to be reconciled to us: on the contrary it was we who had to be reconciled to him. God is faithful, human beings so often unfaithful. Jesus, the son of God, rejected by his own and crucified by the Gentiles, was revealed through his resurrection as the Christ, the mystery hidden from endless ages but revealed by God in history at the appointed time. The mystery of Christ is the event through which God emerged from silence, unveiled himself and made himself known to us. The mystery is God-becoming-present in the flesh, blood, life, death, and resurrection of his only son, Jesus the Christ, Emmanuel, God-with-us.
According to Paul this mystery made known to us in Christ was a secret kept from eternity hidden deep within the heart of God’s silence. This hidden secret, nursed eternally in the divine heart, is the very thing God has chosen to reveal. But now that it has been revealed it is meant to be proclaimed to the whole world as good news, a salvation reaching far beyond (though always including) the people of Israel. Despite so much Christian misunderstanding of Judaism – and with such hideous consequences in history – there can be no question of God ever having broken his covenant with the Jews. They remain his first chosen people, the elder brothers and sisters of Christ and of Christians.
Yet the revelation of the mystery is God’s invitation to the whole human race, Gentiles included, to enter into this covenant relationship, which before had been offered uniquely to the people of Israel. Previously the Gentiles had not known God in this privileged way but in Christ, who gave up his life out of love for all, the covenant God first made with Israel was broken wide open, renewed and confirmed eternally, so that the blessings of God first conferred on Abraham might be extended to all peoples everywhere. That is the core of the message proclaimed by Paul: in the person of his son, God was reconciling the world to himself, not holding our offenses against us.
God has commanded this liberating message of reconciliation to be proclaimed so that his saving love might reach to the ends of the Earth. All nations and peoples, the entire human race, are invited to accept this good news and enter into the obedience of faith which will reconnect them with God. The Lord has made known his salvation, has unveiled himself and become present to us. He invites us to turn to him, believe in him, and open ourselves to his light. We are asked to respond by becoming present to God who renders himself present to us. We are invited to end the hostilities, sue for peace, and surrender to God, recognizing that his will is not a ruthless or relentless power but one of limitless love, which we should allow to shape our lives and guide us as he wishes.
The essence of the mystery is that of mutual self-presencing: our becoming present to God who first makes himself present to us in Christ. In Saint Luke’s Gospel, Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist, declared that such would be the blessing conferred by the coming Messiah on those who would put their trust in him:
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remember his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we,
being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days. (Luke 1:72-75)
Letting go of fear and giving way to God, learning to walk before him in faith is entirely reasonable for, as Paul says, God is the only wise one (sophios), the overflowing fountain of wisdom (sophia) who calls the whole world into communion with himself through the revelation of his mystery.
For Paul, therefore, Christianity is a deeply “objective” thing. It is not first and foremost a subjective personal experience; neither is it simple adherence to a set of moral regulations nor even sharing in a sacred tradition. None of those answers is false in itself. There is indeed a subjective spiritual experience of God that can be had in prayer. There is a Christian ethics that has to be lived out. There is also participation in ancient traditions of worship and adherence to bodies of doctrine. But they are the consequences of Christianity rather than its essence as such. Christianity as a living religious reality does not emerge in us by our own strength nor does it bubble up out of the depths of one’s own spirit. It cannot be fixed in rigid formulae or definitions. It is above all the gift of new, indestructible, divine life, life that comes to us from beyond ourselves as a pure gift from God in Christ: “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
God’s revelation of the mystery concealed eternally in him and revealed in time to us is like an explosion of light out of the dark depths of the infinitely mysterious God who far transcends all human imagining. In the words of the second-century martyr bishop, Ignatius of Antioch, it is a word coming forth from the silence of God, an echo of the inner recesses of the Father’s Heavenly heart. It is God’s Word which took flesh as Jesus of Nazareth and was acclaimed after his resurrection as the Christ, the Lord’s anointed and the Savior of humankind.