Letter to Verne A. Kiular continued
We are coming into the home stretch. You will notice that “Let us proclaim the mystery of faith is now just “the mystery of faith.” And there is one whole Memorial Acclamation missing!
Perhaps this is an opportune moment to discuss the idea of “mystery.” In modern English, mystery is, according to Webster (the dictionary, not the short, strange comedian from television) 1) a religious truth that one can know only by revelation and cannot fully understand, and 2) something not understood or beyond understanding, a piece of fiction dealing usually with the solution of a mysterious crime. 3) secretive quality or character as in “the mystery of her smile.”
When I was a little boy of six years, every time the beleaguered nun would try to explain a great truth of the faith, our fresh little faces would register all the understanding of medium sized blocks of wood. She would end the lesson by saying “It’s a mystery!” By this she meant “Trust me you little cretins. It’s an important truth of the faith but no one, including me, understands it.” After the Vatican Council, that particular nun ran off with the circus (as it were) and eventually ended up working in a juvenile detention center, having found her niche.
In ancient Greek (you knew this was coming, didn’t you?) the word is “mysterion.” It means a secret, or a secret ritual. It has to do with the word “mys,” a thing whispered. Webster also mentions that a mystery can refer to “a secret religious rite believed (as in Eleusinian and Mithraic cults) to impart enduring bliss to the initiate.”
In the ancient world, the public religion was a pretty silly affair. There were gods who chased around with mortals, had great wars and were sometimes part animal, but the public officials kept the gods happy with sacrifices and used the gods to insure the status quo. The gods were immoral by our standards and morality, in most cases, had nothing to do with religion. In fact, if you offered the right sacrifice and said the right incantation, the gods might just help you lie, cheat, steal, murder and seduce your neighbor’s wife. After all, they were adept at it themselves. It is questionable how many of the well educated believed that such beings existed.
Philosophers like Socrates were occasionally executed for publicly saying the whole thing was a bunch of hooey, and other philosophers tried to mythologize the gods saying they were symbolic of philosophical truths. Others, like Lucretius, were materialist atheists who said that what you see is what you get. In this climate the essential religious questions were not getting answered, questions like “What happens when we die?” and “What’s the purpose of life, anyway?”and “Where did all this stuff come from?” and “Why is there evil and sadness?” And the really big one: “If god or the gods are so perfect, why is the world they created such a wreck?”
Enter the mystery religions, which claimed to have a secret revelation (usually some weird speculation by some odd guru who claimed to have had the revelation). The mystery religions tried to answer these questions with a kind of philosophy dressed up in ritual; they developed a complicated theology that people were gradually let in on and those people who were initiated into the secrets of the group swore a solemn oath never to reveal what they had heard. It was all very cozy and gave the initiates a feeling that they knew something no one else knew and that they were somehow better and part of the “in crowd” philosophically. Sounds a little like the Freemasons or Star Trek fans.
Enter Christianity, which as I have already explained, didn’t let everybody in to the Mass. It isn’t that they were trying to keep it all secret. They were an evangelistic religion. They wanted everyone to hear what they had to say. Jesus told them “What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the rooftops!” (Matt. 10:27) The theological content was no more secret than that of Judaism.
The rituals were secret for very practical reasons. The first Christians didn’t want their most cherished beliefs held up to derision, and they didn’t want everyone knowing who the Christians were. Everybody knew who the clergy and leaders were, but the rank and file Christian had a certain anonymity. That’s because Christianity was illegal and every once in a while, the Romans would decide to exterminate the Church. Best not to let everyone know your name and address.
This element of secrecy led the ancients to believe that Christianity was just another wacky mystery religion. Not so! Members of mystery religions didn’t produce a lot of martyrs and they had nothing against putting a pinch of incense on the sacrificial fire in front of the emperor’s statue. (The emperors were considered gods, that is until the army killed the divine emperor and got a new divine, immortal emperor.)
A good way to understand the Christian meaning of “mystery” is to understand the so-called mysteries of the Rosary. In the events of the life of our Lord and His blessed Mother, we see the invisible realities of heaven made visible. There’s nothing much to understand something like the second Joyful Mystery, “Our blessed Mother visits St. Elizabeth.” We see something more. John the Baptist in his mother’s room acknowledges the Messiah in the Blessed Mother’s womb, something unseen, yet wonderfully near and human. Christianity was a mystery religion that didn’t hide the nature of its secrets, but revealed them to anyone who was interested. Jesus said to the disciples that “"The mystery of the kingdom of God has been given to you.” (Mark 4:11) And what is the mystery, the secret of the kingdom?
Once Jesus said, “Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matt. 11:11) As a Catholic, I believe that by my baptism I am born into the kingdom of God. In what possible way am I greater than John the Baptist? Simple! I know something that John didn’t know. John didn’t remain in this world long enough to see the cross! That’s the mystery, the secret of the kingdom that has been given to me and you, if you will have it: “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son!”
The greatness of God was hidden in the meekness of Christ, hidden in the baby in Mary’s arms, hidden in the carpenter of Nazareth, hidden in the crucified rabbi from Galilee, hidden in what looks like bread and wine held up by the priest. All the love that ever was, all the truth that ever was, all the power that ever was became vulnerable in Jesus of Nazareth and is placed in the care of sinners like me in the form of a wafer of bread and a sip of wine. The invisible becomes visible, the infinite can be embraced God can be held in the palm of your hand!!! This is the secret of the kingdom of God, and it can only be received by trust in Him, and of course, trust is what faith really means.
After the Holy Spirit, the very breath of God, transforms bread and wine into the flesh and blood of God, the priest says “The Mystery of Faith!” We were saying, “Let us proclaim the mystery of faith.” Now we are going to say what the text originally said, simply “the Mystery of Faith.” We are not proclaiming it. We are defining it. In other words, if Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God, all the questions the gnostics and the ancient mystery cultists asked are answered in Him. The Christian gospel is that you can get to know the Creator of the universe by getting to know a Jewish carpenter who died 2000 years ago, but who came back from the dead and is accessible in the form of bread and wine we have just seen. The memorial acclamation defines the mystery. Mass, if entered into with trust, can answer all the questions we ask because Jesus is still the visible image of the invisible God. I see Him every time I hold up the consecrated host at Mass. What wondrous love is this, oh my soul?
We old fellows were absolutely mystified by this introduction into the Mass. It was added after the council was well over and no one explained why, if I recall the times, it probably had something to do with the ecumenism of the time. The Lutherans, Methodists and Episcopalians all have the memorial acclamations right after the words of the Last Supper in their communion services. In fact, the first acclamation “Christ has died, etc. was lifted pretty directly from the Episcopalians. It was only part of the liturgy in America and, not being part of the Church universal, it has disappeared altogether. (Though one hears that Rome is thinking about it.)