Meaning of mystery

Francis Gardom looks at the Christian meaning of the word ‘mystery’ and explains why it is dangerous to ignore this element of our faith

Like the word imagination which we considered in October, mystery has been hijacked in popular speech to mean something very different from what Christians understand by it/Mystery' today means 'something difficult or impossible to explain,' like: Who really was Jack the Ripper? or: What happened aboard the Marie Celeste7. Unanswered, maybe unanswerable, questions.

Christians use ‘mystery' in a different sense - one which we should be vigorously recapturing. To Christians, mysteries are truths about God which we can only know because God has revealed them.

He reveals himself in different ways: through creation (which tells us much less about God than is commonly supposed); through holy Scripture he has revealed considerably more to the Prophets and other holy people. Supremely, God reveals himself perfectly to us in the Person of Jesus Christ, God the Son, true God and true man, born of Mary - living, dying, risen, ascending.

Mysteries, then, describe how God enables human beings to know the him-they-cannot-see-or-understand, by things they can both see and understand. Jesus, by his words and actions, and (and most critically) by who he was (and is!) reveals to us the truth about God’s nature.

But Mystery means more than this. It describes the Sacraments, the means of grace: actions which enable us to ‘dwell in him and he in us.' Actions using water, bread and wine are called the Sacred Mysteries. In revealing himself God engages both our minds and bodies, doing and thinking.

Our beliefs, both true and false, have consequences. People today try to ‘de-mystify' the Mysteries of God, supposing them of-putting to the man-in-the-pew However, by trying not to put people off something which is essentially a mystery, they succeed in eliminating or distorting some vital element of our Faith, something God purposely ordained about these mysteries in the first place. Popular appeal is not a reliable guide to how, when, and where we can approach our Creator!

Now look at the consequences of humans abandoning the search for truth in favour of what ‘feels good' to them:

  1. They abandon public worship. Why bother about an anodyne God-without-mystery when there are more rewarding objects (car? sport? bed?) to worship on a Sunday?
  2. The Church will be progressively run according to the principles currently embraced by secular society: foremost among them fairness, inclusiveness and being non-judgemental. 'Let's try it and see if it works’ is their motto. If it works, it means that the Holy Spirit has (at last) caught up with the times - and if it doesn’t work, let’s try something else.
  3. Moral relativism has a field-day. If things are only right or wrong because ‘that’s the way you feel,' then there’s no reason for preferring one action to another. Personal responsibility is eliminated by the view that everyone’s moral code derives from their upbringing, or economic and personal circumstances.
  4. The Church’s beliefs about the indissolubility of marriage, the humanity of the unborn, or the nature of the Sacred Ministry get ‘rethought' by preachers and teachers in the light of today’s understandings. Hence, in due course, they may well discover that Jesus was mistaken about a whole raft of his beliefs, not least his own unique relationship to his heavenly Father.

Imagery and mystery are indispensable to discovering God. Banish mystery from our dealings with God, or worse, equate it with what is arcane, and we shall find that we have created a god who is an image of ourselves - and a faulty image at that.

Many Anglicans are a long way down this road. They wonder why their churches continue to decline. Some cases are terminal. If so, their faithful remnant have no alternative but to meet regularly in twos and threes as and when they can to celebrate the Sacred Mysteries, to study the Scriptures, to pray for the whole state of Christ’s Church and, not least, to encourage each other.

It has happened before but we have his word that when they gather together he will be there with them.

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