The Year of Saint Paul:
A 20-Part Series - Part 7: Mystery!
The First Preface for Advent (the introduction to the Eucharistic Prayer) contains a compact phrase which all but the most attentive worshipper is likely to miss.
Addressing God the Father, here is what it says: "When [Christ] humbled himself to come among us as a man, He fulfilled the plan you formed long ago and opened for us the way to salvation." Being trained as we are in the school of Saint Paul, we can see how this brief statement is saturated with Paul's theology.
Take the phrase, "When [Christ] humbled himself to come among us as a man... " This phrase itself refers to the Incarnation of the Son of God: His becoming man by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary and being born some 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem.
But if we look a bit deeper, we see a flash of the "kenotic" hymn in Saint Paul's letter to the Philippians: "Though He was in the form of God, He did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at. Rather, He emptied Himself (ekénosen) and took the form of a slave being born in the likeness of men... (2:6-7)." In this little liturgical phrase we can also find a trace of 2 Corinthians 8:9: "You are well aware of the favor shown you by our Lord Jesus Christ: how for your sake He made Himself poor though He was rich, so that you might become rich by His poverty." As the fourth-century bishop, Saint Gregory Nazianzen, said of those two passages:
"He who makes rich is made poor; he takes on the poverty of my flesh, that I may gain the riches of his divinity. He who is full is made empty; he is emptied for a brief space of his glory, that I may share in his fullness."
In the liturgical voice of the Church we thus hear strong echoes of the Apostle's proclamation of God's humble gift of self in the mystery of the Incarnation – to the Philippians, the Corinthians, to generations of Christians, and now to us.
Let's move on to the next phrase in our quote from the Advent Preface: "He [Christ] fulfilled the plan you [God the Father] formed long ago." The word I'd like to single out is "plan." That is not exclusively a Pauline word but it seems safe to say that this Preface is drawing on Saint Paul's teaching regarding God's mysterious plan for the salvation of the world.
Several quotes from Saint Paul that bring together the words "plan" and "mystery" come immediately to mind. The first is Ephesians 1:7-10: "It is in Christ and through His Blood that we have been redeemed and our sins forgiven, so immeasurably generous is God's favor to us. God has given us the wisdom to understand the mystery, the plan He was pleased to decree in Christ, to be carried out in the fullness of time... " A second text is from Colossians 1: 25-27: "I became a minister of this church through the commission God gave me to preach among you His word in its fullness, that mystery hidden for ages and generations past but now revealed to His holy ones. God has willed to make known to them the glory beyond price which this mystery brings to the Gentiles - the mystery of Christ in you, your hope of glory."
This text can be understood in light of the beautiful hymn a few verses earlier in Colossians that begins with the words, "Let us give thanks to the Father for having made you worthy to share the lot of the saints in light" (Colossians 1:12 ff). The remainder of the hymn, while not using either the word "plan" or "mystery," goes on to describe in sweeping terms God's hidden plan of redemption as it unfolded in salvation history, the very content of Paul's preaching to the Gentiles.
In fact, it is quite a revelation when we "look under the hood" of the liturgical prayers that we hear again and again. Far from taking them for granted, we can enrich our understanding of both the Bible and the liturgy by seeing how masterfully the liturgy intertwines biblical allusions into the prayers we offer. It is also important to consider why the liturgical prayers refer us to certain Scripture passages at specific times of the year. Our present study is a case in point.
Advent is the beginning of a new liturgical year. As we move through the seasons of the liturgical year – Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and Ordinary Time – we are celebrating the entirety of God's plan of redemption. In the light of Saint Paul's teaching, Advent gives us the panoramic view of what we're in for as a new liturgical year unfolds. Like Saint Paul, Advent presents the breathtaking scope of God's immeasurable love - from creation, to the dawn of human history, from God's covenant with the Chosen People confirmed through the Law and the Prophets to its fulfillment by the coming of Christ into human history: His Birth, His preaching and miracles, and, above all, by His Paschal Mystery, His passage from death on the Cross to the triumph of the Resurrection. From the vantage of Advent we, above all, look toward the ultimate fulfillment of God's plan, when Christ will come again in glory and "bring all things into one... in heaven and on earth" (Ephesians 1:10).
With the help of Saint Paul, we can see that Bible and Liturgy have a common root: the marvelous works of the Trinity, revealed "in the fullness of time" (Ephesians 1:10). Both are comprised of God's words and deeds revealed and accomplished by Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Scripture proclaims the words and events that we encounter, relive, and make our own in and through the liturgy. In fact, we arrive at the fullest understanding of salvation history, that is, God's mysterious plan of redemption as it unfolded in His saving words and deeds – only when we see how Scripture, doctrine, and worship fit together to form a unified picture.
As we know from previous columns, Saint Paul's letters contained the doctrinally rich hymns used in by the earliest Christians in their liturgies – the texts from Philippians, Ephesians, and Colossians that we are studying in this column. Conversely, the liturgical texts the Church employs are rich in biblical allusions and doctrinal expressions. And may I observe in passing that the long and difficult process of re-translating the liturgy from Latin to English has as a primary goal to help us see more clearly the rich and beautiful biblical, doctrinal, and patristic references that are embedded in the Church's liturgical prayers.
Let me also hasten to emphasize that the liturgy is more than a source of information or a means of synthesizing our knowledge; it is the privileged "place" where the words and deeds of God are summed up and made present to us for the sake of our redemption. When we speak of "celebrating the liturgy," we mean to say that we are truly encountering the saving events from salvation history that we are recalling in and through the liturgy; they are not merely represented to us, they are re-presented, that is, made present again. This is so because, through the action of the Holy Spirit, Christ and His saving deeds break into the "now" of our existence so that we can be immersed in them, transformed through them, and made one by our common encounter with Christ and His mysteries.
...we should place our hope in what God has planned for us...
If you don't mind, we need to keep going in the same direction, but now change gears. Let's focus again on the meaning of the word "plan" and "mystery" in Saint Paul. In the past, some scholars used to think that Saint Paul borrowed the word "mystery" from the pagan mystery cults that would have been familiar to him and to his converts in the Greek world. Today most scholars believe Paul fashioned and used the word "mystery" to describe what he knew best, first as a student of the Jewish Rabbi Gamaliel the Elder and then as an Apostle of the Risen Lord: how the hidden God revealed Himself in history.
In fact, Paul's use of the word "mystery" relates more surely to its use in the later Old Testament writings (see Daniel 2:19; Sirach 15:22; 48:25) and also to its use in the writings of the Qumran community, a Jewish monastic community, well-known to us through the Dead Sea Scrolls. In these texts we find references to "a providential plan for men, angels, and Israel" (see R. Brown, "The Semitic Background of the Term 'Mystery' in the New Testament," Facet Books, Biblical Series 21, 1968).
In five passages Saint Paul treats the mystery of Christ: 1 Corinthians 2:6-3; Romans 16:26-7; Ephesians 1:10 and 3:3; Colossians 1:26 and 2:2; and 1 Timothy 3:16. In all of these passages the word "mystery" indicates the plan of redemption that originated in the hidden counsels of God, a plan that hinges on the identity and saving work of Jesus Christ. Indeed, the word "mystery" properly belongs to God alone. It is the hidden wisdom of the Trinity in which the plan to redeem the world was conceived, designed, and executed.
This plan was announced by the prophets but revealed in the words and deeds of Christ (see II Vatican Council, Dei Verbum, 2), most especially His paschal mystery. The goal of this plan is redemption, but this means more than eking one's way into heaven. Rather, we are called "to share the lot of the saints in light" (Colossians 1:12); Christ in us is our "hope of glory" (Colossians 1:27). In other words, the goal of this plan is to glorify God, that is, for us as members of the Church to give God glory by reflecting His glory, a glory that ultimately will transform not only us but, indeed, all of creation. Because this plan of redemption reflects God's wisdom and love, it is to be encountered with living faith, celebrated with love, and pondered in wonder and awe.
If I could presume to say so, Saint Paul is urging us at the beginning of a new liturgical year to shed our resistance to the mystery. Instead of placing our hopes in our hidden ambitions and desires or, God forbid, cooperating with "the mystery of iniquity" (2 Thessalonians 2:7), we should place our hope in what God has planned for us, in the mystery of His divine mind and heart, for our salvation. When we surrender to what He has planned for us, then Bible, Doctrine, and Liturgy will come alive for us as we finally come to see ourselves as participants in the divine plan – called to glorify God by being glorified in all aspects of our lives "through Him, with Him, and in Him."
This Advent, with the help of Saint Paul's prayers, may our hearts awaken "in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ" (Roman Liturgy, Embolism; cf. Titus 3:6-7).