On Trinity Sunday, Fr. Paul’s homily was a meditation on the Trinity as a mystery. On a recent Sunday, our reading from Colossians (1:26) spoke of “the mystery hidden from ages and generations past” and of “the mystery of Christ in you, your hope of glory.” I would like to explore the idea of mystery for a moment, since mystery is ultimately what we bring to church and what we celebrate in church. Mysteries are often connected to rituals, which are what we do not only in church, but as part of our lives. I suspect that some of our traditional rituals have become less transparent in our 21st-century culture, even though we still have a deep longing for ritual in our lives. All of this impacts why we do what we do in church, and even whether we decide to bring the realities of our lives to church at all.
We are all familiar with mystery novels, movies and TV shows like “CSI.” (Actually, every story is a mystery, including the author’s purpose in telling it.) The word comes from the Greek mysterion, one meaning of which was a battle plan which became evident as the battle unfolded. And that is the way mysteries unfold: we have to piece the clues together and even follow some false leads until everything finally falls into place and hidden motives are revealed. In the Old Testament, mysterion refers to God’s plan of creation and its purpose, and God’s process of revelation. St. Paul and his followers apply mysterion to the life and person of Christ. In Lumen Gentium, the major document of Vatican II, the Church is described as the mystery and sacrament of the union with God and unity with all of humanity.
How does mystery touch our own lives? There is a saying: “Yesterday is history and tomorrow’s a mystery; today is a gift, and that’s why we call it the present.” Actually, our entire life story is a mystery. The longer we live, the more we can begin to discern God’s purpose in our lives. Why did I take this road and not another? What if . . .? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do good things happen to bad people? How did the challenges of life early on prepare me for even greater challenges later? All of these questions lead ultimately to the meaning of life. Growth is a mystery. Love is a mystery, particularly between “incompatible” persons, or between parents and their teenage children! Birth is a mystery. Death is a mystery, particularly the death of a relative, a close friend, or someone who dies unexpectedly or prematurely. All of these experiences are encounters with something or someone bigger than we are. We connect these experiences to the cosmos with rituals, which are actions and signs of a spiritual reality. Birthdays, graduations, weddings, anniversaries, and funerals all have their rituals. So do the events in our spiritual journeys: conversion, initiation, baptism, Eucharist, marriage, ordination.
The early Church Fathers translated mysterion into Latin as sacramentum. Sacramentum was the oath of loyalty that soldiers took; the oath was their initiation, an outward sign of inner loyalty. St. Augustine defined a sacrament as the visible sign of invisible grace. We can see the mysterious nature of these signs: flowing water washing away sin, bread and wine becoming Body and Blood; hands and oils bringing the power of the Holy Spirit. But the sacraments are also mysteries in the way they play themselves out in our lives. How has the grace of baptism (or eucharist, or confirmation, or marriage) unfolded in your life? How is grace at work in the life of a baby who is baptized, and then not catechized? Of someone who is confirmed, and then claims to be an atheist? Of someone who leaves the priesthood? Of someone who is divorced? Each person’s encounter with Christ in a sacrament is certainly an unfolding mystery, and there is no map or GPS for that journey except prayer.