Mystery ≠ Secret

Gnosticism is a heresy, or a group of heresies, that has been around since the beginnings of the church. That is because the ideas that motivate gnosticism predate the church. Gnosticism, if you are unfamiliar with the term, is the idea that there is a division between mind and body and the only thing that really matters is the mind. This is then coupled with the idea that this knowledge is only available to the initiated or those smart enough to figure it out.

Unfortunately, gnostic thinking has never fully been driven out of the church. This is true in part because there are Scriptures that can give rise to a gnostic interpretation. Paul writes about “the flesh” at times in what can be seen as gnostic terms. But he also writes against such thoughts in other places. His emphasis on bodily resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 is one powerful example.

All of that is background to get to my point. We must be careful in our worship to not conflate mystery with secret. Part of the beauty of orthodox liturgical worship is its transcendence. We are reminded that there is more to life than merely the material world. We are ushered into the spiritual realm in worship, but through the use of the material. We employ bread, wine, music, incense, and vestments. We stand, sit, and kneel. It is a very sensory-rich experience because there is so much going on with material stuff.

We reach the transcendent — that is, we are given opportunity to reflect on and receive Christ — through the use of matter. This is not gnostic; it is sacramental. Sacramentalism stands in contrast to gnosticism in that it teaches that matter is important. Matter should be seen as a gift of God and as a means of his grace. While our bodies and their desires may cause us struggle, they are ultimately created by God and exist in order that we may have being.

With all of this in place, we must be careful not to take the mysteries of the faith, such as the Eucharist and baptism, and make them into secrets. Yes, they are sacraments, but in any sacrament there is an element of mystery. We don’t completely understand the how. God chose to use wine, bread, and water to aid in our sanctification. Much thought and argument has gone into trying to figure out exactly how it works. It works because God makes it so. It is a mystery, because we don’t fully “get it.”

This is not because we are stupid or because God is being evasive. It is by design. Only by being a multifaceted mystery can the sacraments be a source of inspiration, contemplation, and instruction for our whole lives.

Once you learned the trick behind how your uncle seemingly pulled a penny out of your ear as a child, you quit contemplating how he did it. Not so with the sacraments. We come to some understanding, but that tends to lead to more questions. Secrets push us out, while mystery draws us in.

We should seek to understand. We must also seek to believe. There will always be more for us to learn, more to contemplate, more to reflect on. But there is also much for us to do. Our goal as Christians is not to know everything about God, but to be obedient to what we do know.


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