Secrets and Mysteries
‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but to others I speak in parables, so that “looking they may not perceive, and listening they may not understand.”
|Van Gogh, The Sower (from The Bible Odyssey)|
The word translated here as “secrets” is actually something more profound than the sort of thing you are missing out on for these few minutes of not following James Comey’s testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee; no, the kingdom of God has neither the banality nor the viciousness of what may or may not have been recorded in White House conversations earlier this year, but that is not the only difference.
These so-called “secrets” of the kingdom are actually musteria, mysteries. Musterion is the word that in the Greek tradition comes to describe what in the West are called “sacraments.” These are not just the alternative facts of the kingdom. A mystery is not just a secret.
Being given the musteria of the kingdom, as Jesus indicates to the apostles they have been, does not actually amount to something as obvious as being given a knowledge which, now fully revealed and explained, was merely a “secret.” After all we have no reason to think, given how the Gospel narrative unfolds, that these original hearers actually understood these musteria, even when they were not only given but explained. But this is what that musterion is about; not the sharing of a secret, but participation in a mystery.
The musterion, the deep mystery which is the Gospel of the kingdom, has been given to us not as an object for our manipulation or as treasure to hoard or even merely to distribute as though readily available for us to do as its brokers. Rather when we are initiated into the mystery, we become available to it.
This is what a musterion, a sacrament is. It requires our speech, but does not bow to it. Each act of explanation and proclamation is the scattering of a seed that has its own fate, and the next act, the next sowing, already and still awaits. Yes, it demands words from us; we can and must use words to expound it and proclaim it - “woe to me if I do not proclaim the Gospel!", but the fact we have been entrusted with it does not mean we can explain it, in any definitive way.
If the mystery is not constituted by the words spoken about it,neither however is it constituted by its own obscurity, but rather by its incomprehensible transparency, the transparency of love.
Roland Allen whom we commemorate today put it this way, of proclaiming the Gospel: "Missionary zeal does not grow out of intellectual beliefs, nor out of theological arguments, but out of love.” Indeed. And yet these words also constitute a theological argument.
This primacy of love over understanding is I think part of the nature of the sacraments, including the two great musteria of baptism and eucharist. The Church is sustained and formed by these actions; the Church has however entertained wildly varying theologies of these, and they have survived the worst our theology has thrown at them. They do not depend on our theology.
Our greatest temptation may be to confuse our theologies with the things themselves, as though the words created the mystery and not vice-versa - this is where the priest or scholar may need again to be reminded that a sacrament is not merely a secret, nor even a mere sign, which typically points to one thing (which tends to be our own theology of the sacrament). As musterion the sacrament is capable of yielding different things - as the scholar-priest Gregory the Great says of Scripture, itself a great mystery, is I think true of these others also, that it “is like a river... broad and deep, shallow enough here for the lamb to go wading, but deep enough there for the elephant to swim” (Moralia on Job, Ep. 4)
Priesthood is itself also a musterion related to and deriving from that great musterion of the kingdom. It has meaning, but its meaning cannot be exhausted by our understanding or even by our embodiment of it. The Church and its priests have often sought to express understandings of themselves with greater and lesser adequacy, and we must; we fail at this task not by offering inadequate renderings of mystery, but by failing to acknowledge that inadequacy.
You will have heard before that the English word priest derives from one word but translates another. With the help of centuries of Anglo-Saxon slurring, induced by anxiety over the Normans or just by barrels of ale, presbyteros or elder became priest; but “priest” translates hiereus or sacerdos, words referring not to eldership or authority but to cult and sacrifice. This very indeterminacy may be helpful as a reminder that ministry is not the successful pursuit of one single function.
The catechism says: "The ministry of a priest is to represent Christ and his Church, particularly as pastor to the people; to share with the bishop in the overseeing of the Church; to proclaim the Gospel; to administer the sacraments; and to bless and declare pardon in the name of God.”
This is a worthy statement of the ministry of a priest, but in its functional emphasis on prerogatives avoids the question of who a priest is.
The same catechism - and the baptismal rite - actually describes the whole Church as a “royal priesthood” - the only time the word “priesthood” actually occurs in the Catechism. The Church is the most fundamental priesthood among us. We believe that in the creation of the musterion that is Church as royal priesthood, the Spirit has also fulfilled that for which Moses longed - "Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!’” (Num 11:29).
So the ministries of deacon, priest and bishop have been understood variously over time, and have survived bad theology and good; yet these remain as musteria - sacramental signs to the whole Church of what the whole Church is, less well understood by distinctive prerogatives than by their witness to something common to that whole and prior priesthood, derived from that great high priest.
As a musterion the presbyter in the Church (as well as the deacon and the bishop) does not exhaust or define the priestly character of the Church - but she is a sign of it, a fleeting glimpse of glory, a curiously thrown seed called to grow along varied paths, an embodied word whose whole reality including words is again that thing at once inadequate, inevitable, and oddly blessed.
"To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God"; not you clergy, that is, but you Christians. The priest is priest, musterion, only because he gives the Church a glimpse into itself, and of what the whole Church similarly reveals to the world. So we are teachers, not first and foremost because we have received gnosis in seminary but because have made this promise to God in the Church to be signs, inadequate ones, no doubt, of what it means not to know more than others but to be fully known.
It is not just that we have received the musteria; we have been grasped by the musterion of the Gospel, its effable love. We cannot speak adequately of this mystery, but woe to us if we do not speak; and as we ponder our inadequate words, cast freely by the wayside, and in the furrow, as seed, let us pray and love, and thus show forth the musterion of kingdom.
[Sermon at Christ Church Cathedral, Hartford, for the ECCT Clergy Day and Society of Scholar Priests Conference, June 8 2017]