Q: Archbishop J, what are the sacred mysteries?
The Mass begins with the Sign of the Cross. Here, we are plunged into the mystery of the Trinity. God is one, yet God is three. The desire of this God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—is that we may have life and participate in His divine life.
Immediately after we sign ourselves, the priest says: “Let us acknowledge our sins, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries.”
Words matter! This opening line of the Mass reminds us that what we are celebrating are sacred mysteries. This is an ancient term with much meaning. An online etymology dictionary defines mystery as, “religious truth via divine revelation, hidden spiritual significance, mystical truth”.
St Paul, in his letters to the Corinthians and Ephesians, speaks about the hidden mystery: “Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly” (Eph 3:3–4).
The apostle, as we know, encountered Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus. In that meeting his life was transformed deeply, and he was given a different path. Remember, after the encounter he became blind. Only when Ananias prayed for him did the scales fall from his eyes and his sight return.
In Ephesians 3:6, St Paul lays bare the sacred mystery. He says: This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel—members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.
This is the heart of the mystery, we who were outside of God’s grace have received grace in abundance. We are invited to be children of God and partakers in the mysteries that were available only to the Jews. We are integrally connected to each other through Christ.
St Paul uses ‘mystery’ to refer to the whole message of salvation that is now revealed to the Gentiles—that is to us. We are now invited to participate fully in the divine life of grace.
Mystery and Sacrament
The Catechism of the Catholic Church 1131 defines a sacrament as an “efficacious sign of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us” through the work of the Holy Spirit. The sacraments (called ‘mysteries’ in the Eastern Churches) are seven in number.
But the ancient Church spoke about mysteries in a way that is different from the way we speak about sacrament today. For the modern mind, a sacrament is something we do, a religious rite we accomplish.
A mystery is something we enter into, through which we encounter the living God. It is pregnant with meaning and invites the person into the encounter with Christ. This is not something we do: it is a path to encounter God. It is to be plunged into something so big, our finite minds cannot contain it.
The Catholic Bible Dictionary notes:
Scripture does not use the word “sacrament.” Rather, the term was adopted by ancient theologians to describe the defining actions of Christian worship. In referring to a sacrament, the Western Church used the Latin term sacramentum, meaning “oath”, whereas the Eastern Church utilised the Greek term mysterion, meaning “mystery.” It is sometimes said that the Latin expression highlights the exterior dimension of a sacrament as a sign of grace, whereas the Greek expression stresses the hidden, interior action that takes place when a sacrament is administered.
This loss of understanding of the language has diminished the expectation of the Catholic, dulled the experience, and deadened the sensitivity of those leading the ritual and those participating in it.
In the ancient Church, the bishop and the priests were considered mystagogues, persons who initiated others into sacred mysteries. This older understanding of the sacrament as a sacred mystery, into which one needed to be initiated, is vital for our day.
When we consider the many people, who believe the Mass is an obligation or boring, we begin to understand what may be behind it. If we do not understand or expect the sacrament to yield to this sense of mystical encounter, we will not be prepared for, or expect the encounter with Christ as central to the celebration of all sacraments.
It is especially in, and through the homily, that the priest initiates the people into the sacred mystery.
In the early Church, people were not given the full understanding of the mystery of Christ until they were fully initiated, after they had been enlightened by mystagogical homilies. St Cyril of Jerusalem and St Ambrose were known for their mystagogical homilies.
Mystagogy is not an esoteric branch of Christianity reserved for the few. It is initiation into the mystery of Christ, which is open to all who desire to live their lives fully in Christ. This is what St Ignatius speaks about in his phrase, “finding God in all things”. This is not secret knowledge to which only a few will have access. It is about knowledge given to all for the sake of all, to bring broken humanity to encounter Christ, that we may be joined into Christ as a branch to a vine, or a member to its body.
This is not a competition between the heavenly or the earthly. It is rather about having the eyes to see the intersection of these two in every moment and every place. We come to Mass to enter into the sacred mystery, through which we encounter Christ who is present to His Church and in His world.
The Mass is a sacred mystery into which we must be initiated.
Next time you participate in Mass, be still and listen. Pray for the eyes to see Christ present in the priest, in the sacraments, in the Scriptures, in the people, and especially in the Eucharist.