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What are the Mysteries?

Entering the Mystery

1. Introduction: What are the mysteries?

Welcome! We advertised this terms course as exploring the mysteries I must admit for many of you this has been a mystery itself! What do we mean by ‘mysteries’? (open up… mysteries = sacraments)

Well, I’m going to start my talk by considering what the Mysteries are – some basic definitions. Then I’m going to explain their importance and how they invite God into our lives and how we are transformed by them. To do this, I have to first go over some basics of the Orthodox Faith. I’m going to talk about how our relationship with God got broken, and how we can be made whole again in the mysteries of the Church. Finally, I’m going to get you thinking about what the mysteries might mean in practical terms in our everyday lives.

So, what are the mysteries and why are they important?

A. Seven Mysteries?

The dictionary defines a mystery as ‘something that is not fully understood or that baffles or eludes the understanding; an enigma”

Yet the Orthodox Church uses the term Mystery where the Western Church speaks of sacraments. I can see a light bulb pop up with some of you … “Oh yes, the sacraments… there are seven aren’t there?”

Well, before we start, let me baffle you further. The Orthodox Church has never really counted the sacraments. It is actually a Roman Catholic idea invented by Western Latin philosophers called “scholastics”, given great prominence by a chap called Thomas Aquinas. Nevertheless, you do find many Orthodox books that mention the seven sacraments, although this was never the case before the 17th and 18th Centuries.  In fact, Orthodox writers over the centuries have varied greatly on the number. St John the Damascene speaks of two; St. Dionysius the Areopagite of six; Joasaph, Metropolitan of Ephesus (fifteenth century), of ten; and those who do speak of seven sacraments include and exclude different things.

There is no real importance to the number seven, nevertheless in the past few centuries they have been used as a guide in Orthodox teaching, and we will concentrate on these over the next few weeks. These are the sacraments, however, that are mentioned directly or indirectly in the New Testament.

B. The Church as Mystery

In fact, there is really only one mystery… the Church. As St. Nicholas Cabasilas says “All the manifestations of Church are seen in the mysteries” Everything is a mystery from a simple blessing that a priest can give up to the ordination of a Bishop. The Divine liturgy is a mystery. Blessing our bread is a mystery. The consecration of a church is a mystery.

Moreover, a mystery does not mean something strange, something secretive; it is not some magical ceremony where the priest is some kind of magician, who makes some strange incantations, transforming things that didn’t exist into something that does i.e.“the unmarried become married, water becomes holy water (αγιασμός), oil becomes holy oil (ευχέλαιο), bread becomes the body of Christ and so on»[1] like it’s some magic trick!

Before we go on let us look at the Greek word: mysterion, mystery. As Bishop Kallistos points out: “This has a whole range of associations that the Latin word sacramentum doesn’t have. A mystery, in the true religious sense, is not simply an enigma, an unexplained problem. A mystery is something which is revealed for our understanding, yet never totally revealed because it reaches into the infinity of God.”[2]. The word mystery originally came from the idea of initiation. This comes from the verb μυειν which means ‘to close the eyes and the mouth”[3] Bishop Kallistos explains that the “candidate for initiation into certain of the pagan mystery religions was first blindfolded and led through a maze of passages; then his eyes were uncovered and he saw, displayed all around him, the secret emblems of the cult. So in the Christian context, we do not mean by a mystery that which is baffling and mysterious, an enigma or an insoluble problem. A mystery is, on the contrary something that is revealed for our understanding, but which we never understand exhaustively because it leads into the depth or the darkness of God. The eyes are closed, but they are also opened.”[4] In many ways, the mysteries open our eyes to the reality of God. In the mysteries our awareness of God’s presence is intensified and celebrated. God is ‘everywhere present and fills all things” and the sacraments lead us to this awareness.

So, Mystery is something deeper. As Fr. Meletios Webber explains the word ‘mystery’ “describes those actions of God which have a specific, decisive and eternal significance in the lives of those who take part in them. Everyday substances – oil, water, bread, wine – together with simple actions – offering, blessing, washing, anointing – become the means by which God intervenes in our lives. These interventions – in which God does all the work, and our only contribution is to be prepared and present – color and shape our lives beyond the extent that would be possible through any human encounter. However, unlike most human interactions, they do not take us from a place of ignorance to a place of knowledge. Rather, the Mysteries lead us deeper and deeper into the Mystery – the Mystery which is the presence of God Himself.”[5]

A mystery is something that takes us from our own fallen created state to the uncreated reality of God. The sacraments are outward signs of inward realities. At Baptism we are washed in water and at the same time cleansed inwardly from sins; at the Eucharist we receives what appears to be bread and wine, but in reality we eat the Body and Blood of Christ. The profoundest mystery of the Church is the Incarnation of Christ, and all mysteries are based upon this.

The important thing about the Mysteries, especially the ones we are going to concentrate on over the next few weeks is that the life in Christ is here and now – not some future reality.

So: The main mysteries are Baptism and Chrismation; The Eucharist (communion), Matrimony (marriage), Holy Orders (ordination to the priesthood – bishop, priest, deacon), Confession and Holy Unction.

C. The Life in Christ:

All these mysteries lead us to the Life in Christ in a practical way, in the here and now, not in some future reality.

When the Fathers of the Church talk about the life in Christ one expects a moralising talk about the how to behave, what you should and should not do. However, when you actually read the the Fathers talking about the Life in Christ, they are actually talking about practical things, about physical things bringing us to communion with God. For example, St. Nicholas Cabasilas wrote a book called the Life in Christ, but he actually talks about the mysteries of the Church in a practical way. These are not obscure theories; they are things the saints have practised themselves, and have learnt from the saints before them – a tradition handed down, an inheritance.

“In the mysteries God reveals Himself through the prayers and actions of His people. Not only do the Sacraments disclose and reveal God to us, but also they serve to make us receptive to God. All the Sacraments affect our personal relationship to God and to one another. The Holy Spirit works through the Sacraments. He leads us to Christ who unites us with the Father. By participating in the Sacraments, we grow closer to God and to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit. This process of deification, or theosis, as it is known by Orthodoxy, takes place not in isolation from others, but within the context of a believing community. Although the Sacraments are addressed to each of us by name, they are experiences which involve the entire Church.”[6]

There is a whole theological background to the mysteries that I’m going to attempt to unpack today. (I’m certainly going to explain deification and theosis)

2. Man’s natural state Image and Likeness

“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” Genesis 1:26

Let’s begin at the very beginning – with the book of Genesis. Take a good look at Genesis, the first book of the Bible. This holy Scripture inspired by God and about life with him doesn’t start with teachings on how to behave. It begins with Genesis (birth) with the Creation of human beings and the World they live in. Now be careful, the book of Genesis was not written as a science manual. Is someone reads it with that sort of scientific mindset they miss the point entirely.

You have to read it with an awareness of its purpose and intention.  Sometimes people read it and compare it to other Creation “myths” of the time – again they miss the point entirely. They are looking at it through secular, worldly lenses. You have to remember the Bible is not a science manual, or a text book to be studied, pulled apart, questioned and mangled. It has to be understood by and through the Holy Spirit.

It is not attempting to explain science, but talks about God and His relationship with Human beings. It explains our calling and purpose. It talks about the Deification of human beings: the idea of Theosis. So, when the Bible mentions the Creation of the World, it is pointing out God’s creative act from nothing, ex nihilo. Genesis also tells us that Man is created in the Image and according to likeness of God. It tells us that human beings were created by God in a special way; that God himself personally created man – gave him the breath of life and a living soul.

Aside: It is interesting to not that the name Adam literally means “mankind” in Hebrew. It is related to the word adamah meaning ground or earth (Genesis makes a pun saying he was called Adam because he came from adamah – the earth). Eve means life, and in the Greek Bible is translated as Zoe.

So, we are made in according to the image of God. Christ is the image of God and we are made according to that Image. What do we mean when we say image? Isn’t it interesting that the Greek uses the word eikona – icon. Simply a picture… could be a photo… could be a portrait. God made an image of himself, but he made it alive (not lifeless like a photo). He took this clay sculpture and gave it the breath of life, and thus living like God Himself the Author of Life.

Another part of being in the image of God is that we have  – freewill. We have this freedom of choice, this ability to decide, to accept or to reject, even to reject God Himself. In Genesis human beings are seen as the pinnacle of creation – we are the Kings of Creation. We are in the image of God and can grow in His likeness, and ultimately we are led to Theosis, deification.

Man’s natural state is that God made us free our only aim is to have the mind (nous) in the heart leading us to God. We are a unity of soul and body, originally created without passion, sinless.

So what went wrong?

3. The Fall and fragmentation

“We are not bad people needing to be made good – we are sick people needing to be made whole.” Fr. Raphael Armour

We are now going to talk about something commonly known as the Fall.  Things start to get broken. They break the commandment not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. They disobey, break the rules, break their obedience and ultimately this breaks off human beings’ relationship with God’s grace.

“The story of Adam and Eve is, at its heart, a story of disintegration, fragmentation, and estrangement. The man and the woman – and the world in which they lived – were torn apart by their behavior, and vast gaps came to exist between God and man, between heaven and earth, between one person and another, between the genders, and finally even within the human personality itself. Each and every person in internally fragmented and externally isolated from the outside world, right down to the ultimate depths of his or her being. Fragmentation within the human personality is observed essentially as the division between the mind and the nous or heart.”[7] We are even divided from ourselves. Our mind is cut off from the heart. This is really evident in the West where we are all concentrated on understanding things with our reason, with our intellect and are cut off from our heart.

Our mind and heart became separated and now we are bombarded by logismoi. The stream of thoughts in your head that have nothing to do with you making things happen We are dominated by our minds, and live by our thoughts. Logismoi, notes Fr. Meletios, are those thoughts that buzz around in your head, the kind you get at 4 in the morning[8]. They mainly have two themes – fear and desire.  In fact you should observe those thoughts and put them on your spiritual recovery list. As followers of Christ we should live without fear. Christ has trampled down death by death, why are we afraid of it? This is why we need to be in the Church partaking of the sacraments to cleanse ourselves of these fears and desires.

So, we all inherit the sickness of the ancestral sin. This is a sickness of our nature. It is inherited by us all. Let’s be clear we are not paying off the guilt of Adam and Eve. God is not some  bad man with a grudge, holding this disobedience against us from that time till this. He doesn’t then insist that we have to be purged to get rid of this sin. This is a Western idea.

Original sin, more accurately translated, ancestral sin,\ is just a way of describing our fragmentation, our spiritual sickness.

This is why Christ did not have original sin, because he was from the Holy Spirit and broke of this inheritance of the sin, this fragmentation, this corruption he became the New Adam. His DNA, if you like was pure, there were no distorted, diseased genes.

Christ was as man was intended to be. He came in our natural pre-fallen state. He is Adam before the photo God took of himself became crumpled.

In fact, Christ is not just man in his natural state, but in his supra- natural state. He came down to our level so that we can be raised up to his.

4. Salvation, sanctification and the Church as a place of healing

“God became man that we might become God” Saint Athanasius

Then God-man Christ is supranatural. I want you to sit back and think a minute about this great event, the Incarnation. I mean it’s so great the whole of history is dated by it (BC/AD). That’s the great divide in history!

Jesus didn’t just come to deliver some teachings about how to behave in a special book. (If that was the case we’d be no different from the Muslims). While the scriptures are inspired they are not the reason why Christ came to the world. If he just came to deliver a message (as the Muslims view him) there would be no need for him to come and become human and be crucified. There would also be no reason for so many Christian martyrs – most in the past century. If Jesus just came to give a moral message there would be no need for all that.

Christ came to heal and mend a broken world. Christ came to give himself as 100% Man and 100% God. As the Theanthropos as the God-Man He stays in the world and is present in the Church.  The Church is the Body of Christ. Christ is the head of the Church. All the members of the Church make up the body of Christ. If he came it was to give this Body to us as a gift. Our journey following Christ, our journey to Christlikeness, takes place in the Church where we have the person of Christ before us leading us in this life.

It’s not simply about following his teaching; it’s about having a living relationship. All religions, all thought systems even atheist celebrate the ideas of love, equality, freedom and so on.

The Church is different. It is not just a worthy organisation of good people doing good works. We are not a charity, like the Red Cross. Of course, a Christian helps others, visits the sick, feeds the hungry, gives comfort to the lonely, but that is not the only thing the Church is about. If it’s seen like that as an organisation then the Church would be no different from a charity. People start thinking well I’m a good person, I help others, I give things to charity, I don’t need to go to Church; I don’t need to pray, and again they miss the point entirely

Even this study circle leads to something else. It is not about helping us to study to become better persons. It is about leading us to a life in Christ, a living relationship with Christ.  Of course, if you have a living relationship with Christ you will become a better person, but this is not the reason we come.

If we get stuck on just knowing the teaching or doing good deeds we miss the point. These are just tools – leading to a higher purpose. That purpose is union with Christ, having the Holy Spirit rule in our heart. It is about entering the Kingdom – the Reign of God.

Church should be a ‘ιατρεῖο’ a place of healing not a ‘σχολεῖο’ a place of learning. As fallen human beings we have all various passions, fears, hatreds, uncomfortable with the people and things around us, our heart does not operate in the way it did when we were at peace with the world around us.

If I’m drawn to the life of the Church it is because there is some brokenness within me that needs to be healed. It’s interesting that the Greek word for salvation is “σωτηρία” which literally means “wholeness”.

So, what is the Church and how do the mysteries help us?

It is a living organism, not an organisation. It is a gathering of people who believe rightly according to Christ. It is a way of healing, a therapeutic method. One of the hymns of the Church says that our mind (nous) is a mirror covered in dust. This dust is  cleansed by prayer and eventually comes to reflect the glory of the presence of God. The Church helps us to do this – through the mysteries. As I said, Christ is the head – we are the Body of the Church. This means that if we want to be members of Christ, we can just be there as separate, disconnected individuals. We are not here to our own thing and achieve just our own individual healing regardless of others. This way of healing must take place within the Church. Individualised acts, acts that are outside this body of believers, things we do that separate us from other, come from that great divider of people, the enemy of us all. The Church takes you as an individual (something separate from others) makes you into a person (restoring your relationship with others). The Church creates a way so that you can commune with God and through God you can commune with all your brothers and sisters and the whole of Creation. A Christian is someone who is alive in relationship with God, with his fellows and with the environment, the world around us.

The life of the Church, prayer, fasting, participating in the mysteries are ways in which we start to be healed. The  Commandments of Christ are the antidotes to brokenness, the medicine against sin, they’re like being given an injection or cough syrup. Depending on how severe our sickness is.


The whole point of the mysteries is that we are healed and made whole. Everything in the Church leads to SALVATION… even marriage… the first aim of Marriage is the salvation of human beings. Everything all mysteries are for man’s salvation, man’s union with God, given to human beings as gifts from God.

We are baptized, whether we want it or not. We also receive all the gifts from the Holy Spirit, do we make use of them. However, We also are bombarded by demonic influence. So the power of the Church within her mysteries is especially important the fact of. Summing up:

We are called to the live the life in Christ. We are fallen, broken human beings in need of salvation, of wholeness. The mysteries lead us to this.

M. Robb 24/4/2009

[1] Bishop Athanasios of Limassol


[3] The Orthodox Way p.15

[4] Ibid.

[5] Fr. Meletios

[6] Fr. Thomas Fitgerald

[7] Archimandrite Meletios Webber, op.cit.

[8] Archimandrite Meletios Webber talk

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