From Meeting Christ in His Mysteries
Still greater depths are contained in the revealed mystery of Christ but to sound them one must turn to later New Testament letters such as Ephesians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus. Although as we have seen, they are probably not directly from Paul’s hand they do represent the expansion and consolidation of his teaching within the wider circle of his disciples and have always been recognized by the churches as authentically “Pauline” in the sense that their authors deepened and developed his ideas. Since we are not concerned with the process by which the New Testament reached its final form but with how the finished product operates in the church, I shall follow the convention of referring to their author in the traditional manner as “Paul.” The same will be true of other New Testament writers cited here, such as “John.”
At the beginning of Ephesians, Paul set out a magnificent hymn celebrating how God chose us in Christ before time began so that his freely-given grace might be praised, declaring that God’s purpose was to gather all things together into one through Christ. (Ephesians 1:3-14) He went on to sound the same note as we heard at the end of the Letter to the Romans, though it plays a much greater role in the theology of this letter. The Christian gospel is the message of the revelation of God’s glory made known for our enlightenment:
I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you. (Ephesians 1:16-18a)
As in Romans, Paul insists that it is all exclusively God’s work, to which we can initially contribute nothing but the obedience of faith. As the revelation of salvation it is pure grace: God’s stooping down in love and mercy to rescue the human race which had wandered far from him. (Ephesians 2:8-10) In Chapter 3 Paul makes the content of this proclamation much more precise. It is the mystery of Christ, made known to the apostle by grace and revelation, which he proclaims everywhere. (Ephesians 3:1-3) Previously it was God’s own jealously guarded secret, hidden within his inscrutable depths, unknown even to the angels. But now it has been unveiled for our faith to accept and gradually to penetrate with comprehension:
In former generations, this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. (Ephesians 3:5)
The apostles whom Jesus chose and to whom he appeared after his resurrection were constituted by the Holy Spirit as privileged eye-witnesses to his triumph over death. Christ’s community is, therefore, always apostolic since it was founded on these witnesses to the activity of Jesus. But the “prophets” too, most likely inspired Christian teachers who declared God’s truth and interpreted his will in their communities, were also recipients of revelation. Christianity was more than just a past event. It was a living, present reality. Speaking and acting in and through them all was the Holy Spirit, God’s pneuma or breath, his power released into the world through Jesus after his return to the Father in his ascension. The early church gradually came to differentiate this Holy Spirit from Christ himself (the first “paraclete,” meaning consoler, comforter, counselor, and advocate for the defense). Hence in John’s gospel Jesus calls him/her “another paraclete.” (John 14:15-17) In the coming of the Spirit they experienced the return of Jesus. (John 14:18)
As the Christian community grew in its understanding of what God has done, it became more and more aware that this Holy Spirit is also divine, just as Jesus also had to be recognized as somehow one with God. Only God can testify to God in an absolute sense and sanctify believers, just as only God can save and redeem. Yet like Christ, the Holy Spirit normally chooses not to operate without the mediating action of others. God takes up and uses created things, filling them with the breath of his Spirit. He used the witness of the apostles and prophets, proclaiming the word of the gospel through them and, by means of the church’s proclamation, he continues to make his wisdom known to the world. (Matthew 28:18-20)
Paul goes on to repeat what was said in the conclusion to Romans. The mystery consists in the fact that through the revelation brought by Jesus, God opened a way for all people to enter into living contact with him, extending the covenant he had made with the Jewish people to the whole of humanity. He has flung his arms open to everyone in the world in an inclusive gesture that kindles the light of saving hope for all people. The message proclaimed to the shepherds on Christmas night triumphantly summarized this all-embracing revelation: “Today a savior has been born to you: he is Christ the Lord!” (Luke 2:10-11) In the light of Christ’s coming no human being can ever be imagined as excluded from God’s loving plan. All are called to the banquet of life in the kingdom of the Father’s love:
The Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (Ephesians 3:6)
Paul’s commission as an apostle was to bring others to know the plan of this mystery:
This grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the Heavenly places. (Ephesians 3:8b-11)
This was so that God’s will to unite all people in love might be accomplished. Destroying the enmity between Israel and the nations through the death of his only Son, God tore down the wall that divided them, (Ephesians 2:14) – most likely a reference to the banning of non-Jews from entering into the heart of the Jerusalem temple. In so doing God united Jews and Gentiles in one body.
Once again the Holy Spirit is mentioned (Ephesians 3:5) for it is by the Spirit that we are brought together through Christ into a living relationship with God the Father. The Spirit is God’s personal breath and the one who fully discloses the divine presence to us. The church, the community of all who through baptism are incorporated into Christ, becomes through the Spirit’s action the true temple in which God can dwell, a temple not made out of stones but built from living people united with one another and with God. Proclaiming this mystery of the gospel is so urgent that Paul cries out in words possibly sung in early Christian worship:
Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.
The bringing about of peace – between God and the human race as a whole and between the chosen people and the rest of humanity whose election is revealed through Christ – lies at the very heart of the mystery. The God of Jesus Christ is a bridge builder whose secret plan revealed in Christ is to save all people by uniting everyone and all things in him. This is the revealed truth of the Christian gospel, God’s gift offered to the world. Reconciliation, peacemaking, and the creation of harmony lie at its heart.
Drawing on ideas about God’s creative word and wisdom in Jewish tradition, the Letter to the Colossians helps us to understand this reconciling work of Christ in its cosmic dimensions by describing him as God’s icon or image, the original template according to which all things have been made:
He is the image (eikon) of the invisible God, the first born of all creation; for in him all things in Heaven and on Earth were created, things visible and invisible. All things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things and in him all things hold together. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on Earth or in Heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20)
For Paul and the early church, as they reflected on the person of Jesus as God’s anointed messenger whom he had raised from death and exalted into glory, and as they worshiped him as the Savior of the world, it became ever more clear that such a remarkable divine intervention in human history could not have begun only with Jesus’s birth in time. Guided by the light of the Holy Spirit whom Jesus had promised, and pondering God’s plan as revealed in the Jewish scriptures, the church came to understand that Christ’s origin goes back much further – or, to be more precise, that he had always existed beyond the spatial and temporal boundaries of this world.
Gradually it became evident that Jesus is eternally one with the Father as the perfect image, idea, and instrument by means of which God imagines, thinks, and carries out all things. (1 Corinthians 8:6) Christians found a useful means to express this notion ready at hand for Jewish thinkers had already speculated much on the presence within God of various creative emanations, such as his word or wisdom, by means of which God connects with creation. Rigorously faithful, however, to their monotheist inheritance, they did not imagine them as distinct persons within the Godhead but included them in the worship of the one God whose attributes they were. Paul and other New Testament writers took up such ideas and pressed them into service in their attempts to expound the mystery of Christ.
As pre-existent, Christ was understood to be God’s wisdom (Sophia) and Word (the Logos of the fourth gospel), his image (eikon) which had been revealed in human form. (Colossians 1:15) This “cosmic Christ” is simultaneously the means by which God calls everything into union with himself and God’s original blueprint for the created world. The Book of Revelation accordingly has the glorified Jesus refer to himself as the beginning (protos) and the end (eschatos). He is the Heavenly Lamb, destined to be slain from before the foundation of the world and duly revealed in time. In Genesis it had already been taught that God created human beings according to his own image and likeness but for Christians God’s primordial image was the Son in whom he reveals his true face.
Christian tradition in the following centuries drew the obvious conclusions from this understanding of pre-existence, about the divinity of Jesus and his equality with the Father – with far-reaching consequences for both theology and anthropology: not only does Jesus reveal what God is like but also what human beings are called to become by grace. He is the image both of God and of perfect humanity, for as the pre-existent Son and Logos, he is the pattern according to which we have been made. Human beings are images of the one great Image. No wonder Paul in the First Letter to Timothy could exclaim:
Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great:
God (following the variant reading) was revealed in flesh,
vindicated in spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among Gentiles,
believed in throughout the world,
taken up in glory.
(1 Timothy 3:16)
Jesus was recognized to have been more than just another divinely guided messenger or inspired prophet: he was God’s very presence made manifest among us. As Paul put it in the Second Letter to the Corinthians:
God was in Christ (variant reading) reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:19-20)
Through the manifestation of Christ and the drama of his death and resurrection the God who is perpetually present to the world as its creator, showed his ability to enter and embrace it in a new way. Many other New Testament texts indicate the church’s growing understanding of Jesus’s deepest identity as being one with God.
The second chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians contains a text about Christ, possibly a hymn (the famous carmen Christi) either written by Paul himself or borrowed from the church’s worship, which tells how Jesus was in the form (morphe) of God yet, “emptied himself” to assume the form of a slave, becoming obedient not just to death but to the most ignominious form of it imaginable in that culture. For that very reason God exalted him to his own right hand, conferring on him the supreme name of Lord (Kyrios), the name of God himself. That text has given us the word kenosis which has become a technical term in theology to describe the self-emptying, the voluntary self-limitation Jesus accepted in coming to redeem us. I will use the word often in this book. By means of it, God has opened a door for us through the revelation of the mystery of Christ and given us access to the heart of what later tradition called, “the Holy Trinity.” Kenosis is one of the most valuable ideas available for articulating a Christian vision of reality.
In its turn the anonymous Letter to the Hebrews, one of the New Testament’s most polished and sophisticated theological treatises, calls Christ God’s appointed heir to all things, through whom the universe has been created:
He is reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. (Hebrews 1:1-4)
Hebrews insists that Jesus is higher than the angels, even though for a short while during his life on Earth, he consented to be made lower than them.
But it is certainly in the fourth gospel, (stemming from the circle around the mysterious “beloved disciple”) and in the First Letter of St. John, that we find the culmination of this exalted understanding of Christ. The prologue to the gospel describes him as the Word (Logos) – a complex Greek term with connotations of word, reason, discourse, thought, speech, and intelligence – through whom all things were made. The Word is with (or more precisely pros, i.e., “towards”) God the Father and is itself God. This Logos is the life of all people, the true light that enlightens everyone coming into the world.
Yet, as Saint Augustine later observed, this idea which was present both in Greek philosophy and Jewish speculation, was taken to an unexpectedly new stage of development as John announced the astounding message:
The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
The Greek word used (skenao, to encamp or dwell) speaks literally to the Word pitching his tent or tabernacle among us, a reference to God’s presence among the chosen people in the Ark of the Covenant during their wandering in the wilderness and to his presence in the Holy of Holies in the temple at Jerusalem. The prologue concludes with a massive paradox: “No one has ever seen God,” but goes on to say about the Word made flesh, “It is God the only Son who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” (John 1:18) As Augustine pointed out, Greek philosophers had broken through to the idea of an eternal Logos but no one had ever ventured to say that that exalted being had become “flesh,” still less that it had been crucified.
The same gospel concludes with the apostle Thomas adoring the risen Christ with the words, “My Lord and my God,” the most explicit confession of Christ’s divinity in the entire New Testament. In the light of all this it should be evident that the Christian understanding of God as a Trinity of persons, a doctrine thrashed out during long centuries of bitter and divisive disputes in the church, was more than just a luxurious speculation indulged in by scholars or advanced by ecclesiastical politicians.
The development of the doctrine of the Trinity was forced on the church if it wished to make sense of the records bequeathed to it by the original witnesses and of its own experience of Jesus and the Holy Spirit in prayer and worship. Some coherent account had to be developed if the church were to witness to the radical nature of God’s self-opening to the world and his becoming present in it in a new and unprecedented way through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
John’s First Letter poetically captures the paradoxical character of the apostles’ experience of Jesus:
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testified to it, and declare to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was revealed to us. (1 John 1:1-3)
Although, as Louis Bouyer observed, the word mystery is not actually used in the works traditionally attributed to “John,” the basic sense of the idea is present everywhere. Jesus is described as the Word (Logos), in terms which suggest that he comes forth eternally from the Father as God’s perfect self-expression and is the medium through which he created all things. The “flesh” (sarx) assumed by the Logos in the incarnation expresses both natural fragility and humanity’s estrangement from God. Yet in the incarnation it becomes the very medium which manifests God and through which the Father makes his will known to us. By his death and resurrection this en-fleshed Word revealed God’s glory in the world and after his exaltation and return to the Father’s side sent the Holy Spirit to continue his work on Earth.
For John, Jesus the Word-made-flesh is like a kind of sacrament manifesting and actualizing the invisible God and rendering him present to us. Not only is there no contradiction between Paul and John on this crucial point but, notwithstanding the differences in language, a striking agreement is evident. That correspondence is made even clearer when John speaks of the wonders wrought by Jesus as “signs.”
Through such signs as healing, feeding a hungry crowd, giving sight to a man born blind, and raising the dead, the glory (doxa) of God was manifested, calling those who witnessed it to believe. As the fourth gospel says about the transformation of water into wine at the wedding banquet at Cana:
Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. (John 2:11)
As the mystery in person, Christ’s “flesh” (meaning his entire existence culminating in death and resurrection) manifests God’s presence to us. He is the great sign raised up by God which fulfills the hopes and yearnings of all peoples of all times and places. Jesus is the perfect gift given us by God to enable us to share his life. Christ the en-fleshed Word, has made known an essential truth.
God shows himself and reveals his will through created agencies, first of all his own humanity, but also his “signs”: the glory of the presence is always a mediated one. God is the absolute, the wholly other who is high above all beings in this world or the next, invisible, intangible, impenetrable, and immeasurable, “a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:29) The unveiled vision of his face would simply burn up the one admitted directly to his presence.
If, therefore, God is to draw near to us, he has to employ some kind of medium as the filter of his presence and the means to manifest his glory. In the Old Testament he did that both through the medium of angels and through manifestations such as the hovering luminous cloud of presence with which he filled the temple and which even today, according to Orthodox Jews, is believed to hover over the heads of worshipers in the synagogue.
According to John, the en-fleshed Word – the embodied mystery – is the perfect sign of God’s glory, the tabernacle, and the revelation of his nature. Liturgically, this has found magnificent expression in the Roman tradition in the first Preface of the Mass for Christmas, a text traditionally attributed to Pope Saint Leo the Great. This majestic poem, sung to introduce the recital of God’s saving deeds in the Eucharistic Prayer, summarizes the Johannine vision of how God chose to emerge from his transcendent invisibility and become both visible and tangible in the body of Christ:
In the mystery of the Word incarnate,
there appeared to the eyes of our mind
the new light of your splendor.
For knowing God visibly,
by means of him,
we are caught up
to the love of invisible realities.
The revelation of the mystery through the incarnation of the Word is the fundamental Christian truth. Yet it in turn establishes what John Henry Newman called the sacramental principle. The fact that the absolute transcendent God comes to dwell with us in Christ enlightens us to see that God always deals with his creatures by way of sacramental mediation. Created by the Father in and through Christ, the eternally pre-existent Word, the universe is already potentially “flesh and blood” for Christ. All its beauty is a proleptic prefiguration of the radiance to be revealed in his incarnation. There is, as Saint Maximum the Confessor taught, a kind of partial and provisional incarnation of God always taking place in the created world since it manifests God’s plan and embodies his creative ideas. It is a beautiful and ordered world because it is the product of divine words (logos), ideas and images grounded in Christ the Logos.
The light of the incarnate Word reveals not only who God is but also, in the words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Because of the flesh assumed by Christ, we know that God’s presence to the world is always a mediated one. Seeing his full and final revelation in the incarnate Word, we know that wherever we encounter beauty, goodness, and truth, we encounter rays from the splendor of God’s glory. Christ is the beacon which gives light to the whole universe. Because of that, Christians can acknowledge the ongoing manifestation of God in the created world and in the great religions and philosophies as well as in the inner sanctum of the conscience: wherever truth is found it consists in sparks and rays exploding out of the burning furnace of the incarnate Word. Yet as Christians we are also committed to the uniqueness and specificity of Christ, God’s most full and final revelation, the incarnate Logos who gathers to himself and redeems the logoi (words) of God scattered throughout the world.
Saint John Chrysostom (quoted by the Second Vatican Council) spoke of this humble self-limitation as God’s accommodation of himself to our human limitations so as to communicate with us, his coming near to us by using created media in such a way that we are not destroyed by his overwhelming magnificence. Russian theologians of the 20th century even daringly suggested that the world itself is actually the creative fruit of an original kenotic choice made by the Holy Trinity. The Absolute voluntarily limits itself, accommodating itself thereby to our limitations, so that relative being – the world – may emerge and stand before its maker. It is a magnificent vision of God as one who withdraws his boundless self in divine humility so as to grant his creatures time and space to be.
Yet we know this not just from human intuition alone, for our eyes are blinded by sin, but because the rays of light disclosed in the incarnation of Christ and ever flowing from their source can pierce our darkness – even where the name of Christ has never been heard. He is already there as the pre-existent Logos, the divine creative ground of the world. Jesus, whether acknowledged or not as having received the “name above all names,” is the anonymous light enlightening all who gaze upon the world and who discern within it and discover through it the mystery of divine presence, giving rise to the million and one names people have used to call on God in very age and culture.
Even if unknown to themselves, guided by this light, all people are illumined by the undying Sun of Justice and Shepherd of Beings, God’s all embracing cosmic Logos, who holds all things in being and gathers them to himself. By means of his anonymous hidden presence, through the secret effulgence of his gracious light, he has always enlightened and saved all who are born into this world – whenever and wherever they respond to the mystery sensed within the world and open their hearts to truth and love.
Yet, thanks to the fall of humankind, the world has to a great extent lost its transparency to divine light. It has become opaque through sin and evil so that many not only fail to recognize the light but actively deny its very existence. Unfortunately the world is not simply peopled by well-meaning spiritual seekers but by us: fallen human beings prone to egoism and the desire to dominate and even consume our fellow human beings. For that reason, incarnation alone did not suffice to gather all things back to God. The Son of God took flesh and died in order to punch a hole in the hard wall surrounding the heart and call us to conversion. He came to lift us up and redirect us to the transcendent goal God has set for us: undying life together, in the communion of the Holy Trinity. But for that to come about, Christ had to embrace the mystery of the cross.