Approaching the mysteries of faith: a contemplation on how to approach the mystery of the Incarnation.
Science researches, investigates, observes and concludes. If we want to plant, we start with a seed, place it in soil, water it, and wait for a period of time until a small plant emerges. Inside the seed, there is a tiny plant with its nutrition, and when this tiny plant grows, it breaks through the shell and latches onto the soil. It then receives nutrition and water from the soil, and finally grows into a full plant. We observe the process, and we might even say that we understand how it works, but we do not know why it works this way. We call this growth process germination. We accept it, and even modify it, but there are basic elements in this process that we can’t change. We simply have to accept them.
The same is true with the mysteries of faith. We learn them and observe them, but we have to accept them and submit our minds to them, because these mysteries will remain mysteries. During the Christmas season, we celebrate the Nativity of our Lord, which is the great mystery of Godliness. In the annunciation of Archangel Gabriel to the Theotokos, she asked, “How can this be, since I do not know man?” St. Mary was trying to understand how she could conceive and bring forth a Son while still a virgin. She was pondering a very difficult concept to grasp. Archangel Gabriel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God. Now indeed, Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren. For with God, nothing will be impossible.” Luke 1:37
Here we see Archangel Gabriel explaining to St. Mary how she will conceive, but it is still a mystery and a difficult matter to grasp, so he adds, “Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age.” For St. Mary, this isn’t an answer to the question of how, but it is another mystery for St. Mary to observe that will help her accept the mystery of her conception through the Holy Spirit. Going back to our introduction about planting, observing the germination process of roses and tulips, for example, can help us accept and expect the same process for lilies. The same is true of what is offered to St. Mary and to all of us; by seeing Elizabeth, who was barren and of old age, becoming pregnant, we come to accept the mystery of the conception by the Holy Spirit a bit more. Archangel Gabriel offered the Theotokos, and all of us, another wonder to contemplate, which can help us accept the mystery of the Immaculate Conception. Hence, we approach the mysteries of faith in faith. We approach the mystery of the Immaculate Conception with the help of other wonders and miracles, but we must accept it in faith. St. Elizabeth’s conception of St. John the Baptist at that time was miraculous. There was no other explanation, such as scientific intervention, except for true divine intervention. Based on the approach that the Archangel Gabriel used with St. Mary, urging her to contemplate and ponder on Elizabeth’s pregnancy, we too contemplate and ponder on other wonders around us to accept the mysteries of faith.
The mystery revealed
“And without controversy, great is the mystery of godliness, God was manifested in the flesh” 1 Tim 3:16. Here, St. Paul calls it a great mystery of godliness, that God was manifested in the flesh; however, the church fathers spoke of the revelation or the manifestation of the mystery. For example, we hear Theodoret of Cyrus saying, “The mystery is the sacred object of reverence, namely, that what was foreordained from the beginning and afterward became manifest”. We are not to understand the use of the words manifestation or revelation in the writing of St. Theodoret to mean that we came to understand the mystery of Incarnation or the Immaculate Conception; instead, we understand the word “manifest” in St. Theodoret to mean that what was promised came, in time.
Leo the Great also speaks about that revelation of the mystery being ‘augmented’:
“But the Wisdom and Goodness of God made us more receptive of His call by thus delaying the work which brought salvation: so that what through so many ages had been foretold by many signs, many utterances, and many mysteries, might not be doubtful in these days of the Gospel: and that the Savior's nativity, which was to exceed all wonders and all the measure of human knowledge, might engender in us a faith so much the firmer, as the foretelling of it had been ancient and often repeated. …For the grace of God, by which the whole body of the saints is ever justified, was augmented, not begun, when Christ was born….”
From the above, we can also conclude that the mystery, although augmented, is not understood, and remains a mystery. Although it was prefigured by many signs and foretold by many utterances, it remains a mystery. It is not random; it has been planned since the beginning of creation, yet remains a mystery.
Even more mysterious
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life— the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us” (1 John 1:1-3)
In defending Christianity against the Gnostic heresy, St. John the Beloved, in his first epistle, emphasized that he had heard, seen, and looked upon the Word of Life. St. John saw the need to mention that he bears witness to this mystery and that he declares this mystery to us.
The mystery of the Immaculate Conception and the mystery of the Incarnation are more mysterious by the Lord taking to Himself what is not according to His nature. That God was manifested in the flesh, that the light shone in the darkness, the Life tasted death and all such declarations which the apostles made. These increase the marvelous character of Him who manifested the super abundance of His power by means external to His own nature. By the Lord taking to Himself what is not according to His divine nature, the mystery of the Incarnation has become even more mysterious. Although the Son of God manifested Himself, was touched, heard and seen, grew tired, was hungry and thirsty, all of this made this mystery even more mysterious.
Even when we offer arguments and evidence that supports our claims about the mystery of the Incarnation and the Immaculate Conception, we still have to approach it with faith. It’s through that leap of faith that we complete our arguments, according to St. Gregory: “For faith is that which completes our argument.” (Third theological oration by St. Gregory of Nazianzus)
It’s Not Only a Mystery
How can we approach the mysteries?
If we go to the scene of the burning bush in Exodus 3, we see, in the words of Moses, “I will turn aside and see this great sight why the bush doesn’t burn”, the voice of one who is not only coming closer physically, but according to the church fathers, also moving upwards towards heaven. Turning aside, signifying turning away from where he is at; turning towards this divine revelation. The following words, “take your sandals off your feet”, emphasize this. These words combined mean that if you, Moses, want to approach divine sights, then you need to turn aside and leave worldly matters behind.
That is precisely my main point: if we want to approach the mysteries of faith, we can only approach them when we are ready to turn aside and take off our sandals, which means everything that may be corrupting our lives. Only then will our hearts open to understand those mysteries, not with our minds, but with our hearts. Only then will we join Moses in accepting the mystery of the burning bush. Only then will our concern not be about evidence, but about the indwelling of the Son of God in our hearts. The mysteries of faith will remain mysteries to our minds, but they will find their place in our hearts; our faith will be in confidence.
Conclusion and application
1-The mysteries of faith will remain mysteries; having evidence is a great support, but we must receive them through faith.
2-Other mysteries in our lives and in the lives of others give witness and help us to receive and accept the mysteries of faith and the mysteries in our lives.
3-For us to approach the mysteries of faith, we need to leave worldly matters behind.
4-This isn’t a matter of theology that is very distant from our lives, but rather an idea that will assist us every day. When we struggle to accept God’s will, we should look into our history with God, or rather, God’s history with us and His history with others. We should contemplate and ponder on His miraculous working in our lives and in the lives of others. We should pray to accept His will and expect a miracle that is specially designed, timed and planned for us. At that point, we might see that the miracle in our life was foretold by signs and wonders that we might have ignored or couldn’t understand at the time.