I often wonder what people understand by the word “mystery.” In the wide world, I suspect that the term only comes up in connection with novels, where the “mystery,” that is, the initially unexplained murder, has to be figured out, deciphered, accounted for, by a brilliant detective, who, as we say, “solves the mystery.” In this way, the term means exclusively a set of circumstances that are temporarily obscure due to lack of data and intellectual acumen. It is something that can be solved—the mystery is something you intend to get rid of. Another place where you find the word in common use is the David Attenborough-type nature programs, whose narrator will say: “The brown-crested billy-bong bird’s predilection for a diet of poisonous purple fungus is a mystery to ornithologists to this day”—implying that they just haven’t figured out the answer yet.
I sometimes ask my students in theology class what we mean when we say that, for example, the Blessed Trinity or the Incarnation of the Word is a mystery, and they usually say: “A mystery is something you can’t understand, something you don’t see and can’t explain, a secret or a puzzle or a paradox. But maybe it will all get cleared up in the next life: God’s a mystery to us here below, but surely, He’s plain as day in the world to come?”
It is a moment of special joy to be able to say in response: “Actually, no—God is an infinite mystery that can never be fathomed or comprehended. He will be a mystery to us forever in heaven, indeed more than he is now.” But this response nearly compels one to say more in order not to be a tease. Fortunately, the heavy lifting has been done by one of the most brilliant theologians of modern times, Matthias Scheeben, whose masterpiece The Mysteries of Christianity is a must-read for anyone eager to do a serious study of the Catholic Faith.
As we celebrate the great feast of the Epiphany or Theophany, we can profit from reflecting on a few choice excerpts from this book’s introduction, where Scheeben is taking up precisely the question at hand.
Christianity entered the world as a religion replete with mysteries. It was proclaimed as the mystery of Christ (Rom 16:25-27, Col 1:25-27), as the “mystery of the kingdom of God” (Mk 4:11; Lk 8:10). Its ideas and doctrines were unknown, unprecedented; and they were to remain inscrutable and unfathomable. The mysterious character of Christianity, which was sufficiently intelligible in its simplest fundamentals, was foolishness to the Gentiles and a stumbling block to the Jews; and since Christianity in the course of time never relinquished and could never relinquish this character of mystery without belying its nature, it remained ever a foolishness, a stumbling block to all those who, like the Gentiles, looked upon it with unconsecrated eyes or, like the Jews, encountered it with uncircumcised heart.
The greater, the more sublime, and the more divine Christianity is, the more inexhaustible, inscrutable, unfathomable, and mysterious its subject matter must be. If its teaching is worthy of the only-begotten Son of God, if the Son of God had to descend from the bosom of His Father to initiate us into this teaching, could we expect anything else than the revelation of the deepest mysteries locked up in God’s heart? Could we expect anything else than disclosures concerning a higher, invisible world, about divine and heavenly things, which “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard,” and which could not enter into the heart of any man (cf. 1 Cor 2:9)?
Mysteries must in themselves be lucid, glorious truths. The darkness can be only on our side, so far as our eyes are turned away from the mysteries, or at any rate are not keen enough to confront them and see through them. There must be truths that baffle our scrutiny not because of their intrinsic darkness and confusion, but because of their excessive brilliance, sublimity, and beauty, which not even the sturdiest human eye can encounter without going blind.
Only God’s cognition excludes all mysteries, because it springs from an infinite Light which with infinite power penetrates and illuminates the innermost depths of everything that exists.
Mysteries become luminous and appear in their true nature, their entire grandeur and beauty, only when we definitely recognize that they are mysteries, and clearly perceive how high they stand above our own orbit, how completely they are distinct from all objects within our natural ken. And when, supported by the all-powerful word of divine revelation, we soar upon the wings of faith over the chasm dividing us from them and mount up to them, they temper themselves to our eyes in the light of faith which is supernatural, as they themselves are; then they display themselves to us in their true form, in their heavenly, divine nature. The moment we perceive the depth of the darkness with which heaven veils its mysteries from our minds, they will shine over us in the light of faith like brilliant stars mutually illuminating, supporting, and emphasizing one another; like stars that form themselves into a marvelous system and that can be known in their full power and magnificence only in this system.