Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
Everybody loves a good mystery. Teasing out a riddle, figuring out how all the pieces go together: it’s one of the great pleasures of life. We love being tantalized and confronted with question marks that lead suggestively away into shadows and half-darkness where things don’t quite add up. To be sure, we don’t like blank confusion. But we do love it so when some things come to make sense and elusively lead us on with the promise that more things will make sense as we press on.
The reason we respond this way to mystery is because we live in a mysterious world and much of our lives as human beings involves teasing out the Mystery and trying to make sense of it all. Of course, it can sometimes be frustrating. Some people respond to the Mystery of the world the way some audience members respond to LOST. Enough with the riddles already! Every time one question gets answered, ten more pop up! Let’s just finish the puzzle and be done with it! There can be an impatience with mystery as well as a love of it. Some people want the universe to be a place where finite little mysteries (basically, merely puzzles) happen (why does water boil at 212 degree at sea level but at lower temperatures on a mountain?), but they emphatically do not want it to be a universe of Mystery. They seek a universe that is more or less a vast collection of math story problems—all soluble, but in the end hardly worth solving. In a word, they demand a universe completely explicable by reason. Still others acknowledge the Mystery, but abandon all hope of penetrating it, and so simply declare life incomprehensible and the attempt to know the Mystery a fool’s errand. The former commit the sin of presumption by trying to make themselves bigger than the Mystery, treating it as so many pieces of chewing gum to be used, worn out, and disposed of. The latter commit the sin of despair by refusing the hope that the Mystery, while certainly not fully comprehensible, is still knowable.
The reason the Mystery is knowable, says our Tradition, is because the Mystery is not a thing, but is instead personal. The Mystery is the Triune God, who has revealed himself to us in a gradual revelation that ultimately culminates in the person of Jesus Christ and his relationship with his Body, the Church. That’s what Paul is getting at when he tells the Ephesians:
When you read this you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to His holy Apostles and prophets by the Spirit; that is, how the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel. (Ephesians 3:3-6)
The Church’s Eucharistic celebration is called the “Sacred Mysteries” because in the Body of Christ the mystery of Christ is made manifest and all people, Gentile and Jew alike, are made “fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.” What’s so mysterious about that? Nothing—it would seem, because we tend to take revelation for granted and forget that it is revelation. But for the Apostles who knew the score, this mystery was known for what it was: a truth hidden in the deepest counsels of God for ages until Christ made it known. Because Christ made it known, people from anywhere in the world can have access to the very same God who once revealed Himself only to Israel and can participate in His divine nature in a way that the Old Testament prophets and seers could only dream of.
That this is old hat for us is only a sign of our dullness, not a sign of the dullness of the Christian revelation. Not for nothing did Jesus tell his disciples:
Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it. (Matthew 13:16-17).
All the fathomless ages of the human race before Jesus Christ strained to get a glimpse of the One who stood right in front of the apostles. The Gentiles, said St. Paul, had been “feeling after” him during the long tragic history of our sad race, scarcely even knowing who are what they sought. Thick clouds covered the peoples, as Isaiah put it. And even to his Chosen People, the prophets often spoke in oracles that centuries of pondering could not crack open to reveal the mind of the Hidden God. Even when it was proclaimed to them by the apostles, the notion that the Gentiles might actually become one with them in the Messiah was more than many could see. When Paul declared it, the mob at Jerusalem shouted that he was unfit to live. And yet, the Mystery was revealed. The Gentiles who have been invited to participate in the Sacred Mysteries are now members of Him who is the Mystery—a mystery now fully revealed and yet never “soluble” like a puzzle or a magic trick. It is a Mystery that is bright, like the sun, not dark like the night. And though we will never get to the end of it in all the endless ages of eternal life that God has won for us, it will be our unending joy and glory to try.
And the way in to all our pondering on the Mystery will always be the same: Jesus Christ, fully present in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, the living heart of the Sacred Mysteries.