From Meeting Christ in His Mysteries
It is important to be aware of the difference between the word mystery as it is used in the New Testament, the liturgy, and theology, and the meaning it tends to have in contemporary culture. When, for example, we speak of reading a “murder mystery,” our natural assumption is that at the end of the book the complexities of the plot will be resolved and we will discover who committed the murder and why they did it. All obscurity will be ended and the mystery will disappear in the clear light of knowledge. Nothing could be less true of mystery as that word is used in the Bible and in Christian worship. A text from Christmas which we sing in our monastery liturgy illustrates this well: “The mystery, which was hidden from earlier ages, is now made clear.”
This does not mean, “Now there is no longer any mystery.” It means rather that what has been made clear is the mystery itself, the fact that there is one. It is the mystery itself that has been revealed. Growing in knowledge of the mystery does not, therefore, make it less mysterious. On the contrary, it becomes even more so for the mystery is God revealing himself as the Trinity in his saving love for the world. Yet the forms God adopts in his self-revelation certainly do manifest him, otherwise they would be pointless. There is here a tremendous and spiritually important paradox because while the transcendent, invisible God has to use words and visible forms to appear – yet because he remains always transcendent, even in the act of disclosing himself – those media simultaneously hide him in the very moment in which they reveal him. That is inevitable. God in his inscrutable, infinite mystery is always radically “other” and can never be fully represented by any symbolic medium he chooses to employ.
The mystery of God’s own being and life will never be fully penetrated by human understanding, either in this world or in the next. Even at the end, in the light of the Beatific Vision in Heaven, when God’s glory will shine on us as light (1 Timothy 6:14-16; Revelation 22:3-5), he will remain infinitely unknown in his innermost being. God is absolutely unfathomable to all created understanding, whether human or angelic: we will know him but not exhaustively. He does really give himself, does really radiate out towards us, but his innermost center remains a secret known only to his own tri-personal self.
That is why there will never be any boredom or satiety in Heaven. Since God is infinite and eternal, he is infinitely attractive and eternally fascinating. God’s self-revelation comes to us like rays of light flowing out from an inexhaustible Sun. God is an unstoppable source pouring himself out in manifestations of goodness, truth, and beauty, yet the source itself is so limitless that it can never be fathomed or drained dry. God descends to us in energies of love but his innermost essence and the ultimate secret of his heart lie always beyond our comprehension.
We must now clarify what is meant by God’s “becoming present” in revealing the mystery of Christ. He does not do this as if for the first time, as if he were not already at all times and in all places present to the universe as its endlessly creative source (Acts 17:24-29). God the transcendent one is also the immanent ground of all that is, present in all things. God is the soil in which all beings are rooted and the source which gives them life. The universe in all its magnificent variety is already the manifestation and expression of his creative will, a kind of sacrament of divine presence. According to the traditional wisdom of all the ancient cultures of the world, reaching from the plains of North America to the deserts of Australia, present also in South America, Africa, and ancient Ireland, the secret of life was to recognize the divine, present in the cosmos and the rhythms of nature. Nature was a temple filled with divinity, of which the temples made by human hands were only images.
Ancient paganism was at heart deeply spiritual, attuned to the divine reality underpinning the world even if, bearing the inevitable scars of sin, it often contained within it elements of vice and brutality such as human sacrifice; and in the developed religious philosophies the sense that God’s mighty presence is running through everything, yet not contained by anything, reached levels of astonishing profundity. The greatest of the Greek philosophers such as Plotinus (c. 204-207) saw nature as the fringe of a mighty depth of being cascading endlessly from its hidden divine source.
Indian and Chinese sages broke through the veil of appearances to discover the secret, silent invisible divine presence lying at the heart of everything. An Indian religious text, to select only one from the countless possibilities available, gives splendid expression to that intuition, seeing in nature a kind of sacrament of the invisible divine presence which embodies and images God’s creative self-manifestation:
In the beginning all was Brahman, ONE and infinite. He is beyond north and south, and east and west, and beyond what is above and below. His infinity is everywhere. In him, there is neither above, nor across, nor below; and in him there is neither east or west.
The Spirit supreme is immeasurable, inapprehensible, beyond conception, never-born, beyond reasoning, beyond thought. His vastness is the vastness of space.
At the end of the world, all things sleep; he alone is awake in eternity. Then from his infinite space new worlds arise, a universe which is the vastness of thought. In the consciousness of Brahman the universe is, and into him it returns.
He is seen in the radiance of the sun in the sky, in the brightness of fire on Earth, and in the fire of life. Therefore it has been said:
“He who is in the sun, and in the fire and in the heart of man in ONE. He who knows this is one with the ONE.
But this was neither mere speculation nor arid intellectualism. On the contrary, it was opening up a spiritual path, a way of return to God from whose presence we, and the whole of nature, have issued forth. Indian spirituality was and still is intensely practical. Its greatest representatives were not content simply to contemplate the world as God’s self-manifestation: they sought return to him through the sacramental world of nature he has given us. An essential prerequisite for that return was inner purification, the rectification of desire and the stilling of the tumult of thoughts. Therefore the same text goes on to teach:
When a wise man has withdrawn his mind from all things without, and when his spirit of life has peacefully left inner sensations, let him rest in peace, free from the movements of will and desire. For it has been said:
“There is something beyond our mind which abides in silence without our mind. It is the supreme mystery beyond thought. Let one’s mind and one’s subtle body rest upon that and not rest on anything else.”
Eventually Indian religious tradition developed the idea that God periodically takes on human form, appearing on Earth when the human race is in dire need of support and redemption. Thus India knows many “incarnations” of the divine.
The Jews, too, experienced that Heaven and Earth are filled with the glory of the Lord (Isaiah 6:3; Psalm 18(19):1-6). But they held that God had uniquely spoken to them and established a covenant with them, choosing them to be his special people. In the later prophets, that originally rather limited and exclusive conception opened out into a more universal perspective: they were to be bearers of the light to the whole world (Isaiah 49:6-7). God, it was believed, had indeed set up his tent in Zion and established his special dwelling place in the temple at Jerusalem (Psalm 131(132):13-18; Psalm 98(99):1-5). He would appear there in a numinous cloud filling the Holy of Holies (1 Kings 8:10-13). Yet they always acknowledged that the Lord who transcended all things could never be captured or held in one place. Jewish spirituality, reflected in the traditions of the temple and especially in the psalms, knew of God’s presence in the whole cosmos and praised him with the three young men in the fiery furnace of Babylon as the source of all being (Deutero-canonical insertions between Daniel 3:23 and 3:24).
However, in making himself known through Christ’s death and resurrection, Christians believe that God intensified his presence to a degree previously unimaginable to us. God’s eternal Son became human and offered his life for the salvation of the entire cosmos. The life of the incarnate Son of God was thus a new mode of presence assumed by God in relation to his creation when the Word became flesh and lived among us (John 1:14). Still more, through his resurrection from the dead and ascension into Heaven, the risen Christ filled the entire universe with his glorified presence (Ephesians 4:7-11). That is the deepest meaning of the statement in the Christian Credo that he is “seated at the right hand of the Father.” It is a metaphorical way of saying that since God the Father is present everywhere so the risen Christ is present everywhere as well.
Yet there is a further extension of presence no less remarkable than that. Thanks to the sending of the Holy Spirit by the Father and Son after Christ’s resurrection from the dead (Acts 2:33), God the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life, takes up a new way of dwelling in human beings. The Spirit comes to live in human hearts as in a temple (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). God, who is the source of being for all creation and dwells in it from the beginning, becomes the source of a new and indestructible eternal life for his creatures which begins here through faith and grace but is brought to perfection in the vision of God’s glory in eternity.
All these modes of God’s presence to us, in creation as discovered by traditional wisdom and philosophy, in the Jerusalem temple as revealed to the Jews and finally and most effectively in Christ the incarnate Word, come to completion in the presence of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of believers. Yet the revealed mystery is neither vague nor amorphous. It has name and form and definite content. It is a human being whom Christians recognize as the incarnate God – Jesus of Nazareth, the prophetic wandering Jewish teacher of wisdom who proclaimed the in-breaking of God’s kingdom and died rejected by the Jewish religious establishment and the Roman authorities.
Jesus is the human embodiment of God’s saving mystery: in him the manifold modes of divine self-presencing come to perfection. As the one whom God raised from death and exalted to his own right hand in glory, making him the source of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is the perfect place of manifestation, the final temple through which God becomes present in the world (John 2:21). He has become par excellence the place of divine epiphany. He is God’s eschatological Word – literally the “last” and final word spoken by God. Both Meister Eckhart and Saint John of the Cross asserted that in truth God only ever speaks one word but in that single word all things are contained and all things revealed to us: it is Jesus, the Word incarnate.
It is wrong to imagine Christian faith as some timeless “system” of thought or as an edifying mythology embodying eternal ideas divorced from space and time. A sentimental song popular in Ireland a few years ago contained the lines, “God is watching us, God is watching us, God is watching us – from a distance.” Yet nothing could be less true about the God revealed in Jesus Christ. God is not watching us from a distance, hovering like some benign but ultimately uninvolved fairy godmother above our heads.
In Christ, God bridged the distance, came down to us, and shared our human situation. Jesus is the living embodiment of God, his decision to share the lot of creatures. He is not a Hindu avatar, one of the divine manifestations or incarnations which are not ultimately real incarnations in the fullest sense but merely temporary appearances. Nor is he a kind of cosmic security blanket projected out of our deepest needs, a Jesus who appears at times to make us feel good, dropping down from the sky like a divine Mary Poppins to fix things when they are broken.
Jesus is the revelation of the true God in the flesh, blood, tears, suffering and sweat of a real human being who can be dated historically and located easily on a map (1 John 1:1-7). Christianity is not just spirituality, “chicken soup for the soul,” or a nice message about a well-disposed ultimate source of being that smiles occasionally on us. Nor is it about human beings bettering themselves so much that they become quasi-angelic by realizing their deepest inner potential. That kind of bourgeois spirituality hardly does justice either to the harsh reality of life for the majority of people on this planet, or to the mind-blowing wickedness of which human beings are so capable and which reveals just how unangelic and badly in need of redemption we really are. Nor indeed does it correspond to the covenant-faithfulness of the God displayed in the history of Israel who cannot be so easily controlled or manipulated.
The New Testament witness keeps before our eyes the hard face of suffering. The very one whom the apostles acclaimed after his resurrection as God’s Son and anointed Messiah was not some demigod or mythological being. He was truly human and really suffered under Pontius Pilate, a real Roman governor in real time. He died the most shameful death imaginable among Jews and Gentiles in the ancient world – condemned as a criminal by Roman law and cursed by Jewish law because he had been hanged on a tree (Galatians 3:10, echoing Deuteronomy 27:26). He did not proclaim a “spirituality,” or gnosis, one of the enlightening systems of doctrine so readily available from many other religious teachers in the ancient world. He did not proclaim himself primarily, but God’s kingdom and himself as its harbinger.
Above all, as the First Letter of Saint John puts it, he came with “water and with blood, his own blood shed on the hard wood of the cross. Christ was not an enlightened guru basking blissfully in the light of contemplation, nor a teacher of meditation breaking through to enlightenment, nor a military conqueror. He was a savior who gave his life, dying rejected and in agony for his flock and for the whole world. The gospel of the revelation of God’s mystery proclaimed by Paul and the other apostles is anything but an ethereal and nebulous “spirituality.” There was and will always be an element of scandal in him, an irreducible and immovable stumbling block. It is called the cross.
It is hardly surprising that in speaking about the revealed mystery, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote starkly of Christ as God’s crucified wisdom, declaring that God’s making his will known through the cross was a scandal in which wisdom seems more like folly and strength more like weakness. Yet in the powerlessness and apparent futility of the cross the most remarkable truth of all has been revealed: the astonishing depths of foolishness to which the all-wise God was prepared to descend so as to subvert our human “wisdom” and break down our self-erected barriers, revealing in his apparent “foolishness,” the depth of divine love for us.
No wonder that the Jews, with their long developed awareness of God’s power and majesty as the King of Israel and their hope of a glorious savior, would find it scandalous; or that the Greeks with their fatalistic and deterministic philosophical worldviews and hyper-transcendent (or Stoically immanent) ideas about God would find it foolish. The scandal of the cross deconstructs all our carefully erected and edifying spiritualities, reminding us that, as Rowan Williams once put it, “Christ remains a question to all human answers and to all attempts at metaphysical or theological closure.” A Lutheran writer, Carl E. Braaten, highlights the scandalous nature of how the mystery has been revealed and the challenge it directs at all our deepest religious assumptions:
We do not by nature – our fallen nature – wish to accept God in the humble place where he graciously has chosen to disclose himself. We expect to find God in a sacred temple or royal castle, not in a barn or on a cross. Our religious expectations are frustrated and reversed by the gospel.
The cross of Christ has been raised up before us by God as the authentic litmus test for what is “spiritual,” the objectively revealed benchmark against which all lovers of “wisdom” ought to assess their “spirituality.” Only in the light of the crucified, incarnate God are we enabled to assess the world objectively; only in the power-renouncing Messiah hanging on the cross are we given true power to unlock the agonizing mystery of human sin and suffering; only in the transfiguring light of infinite love revealed at Calvary can we be transformed into people who really love, not in self-seeking – however refined or subtle that may be – but in the genuine giving or self for others. As Luther loved to say, “Crux probat omnia,” the cross tests everything.