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Mystery and Symbol

“The Greek word for “mystery” is derived from the sense of stopping the mouth or being silenced. The term implies that a mystery is a secret that is being kept until the proper time. Even then, it can only be disclosed by revelation and known by those whom the Spirit enlightens…The mind of the Almighty is inscrutable. His judgments and “ways are past finding out” (Romans 11:33). But in Christ and by the Holy Spirit, God has divulged the secrets of His heart. He has revealed, His secret plan for His creation (Ephesians 7:9).” (Fr. Basil)

“A very important term, especially in the Syriac writers, is raza, ‘mystery, hidden secret, symbol’. In the plural, raze, the term is a standard one for the eucharistic Mysteries (as ta Mysteria in Greek), but in a biblical context the word is often most helpfully translated by ‘symbol’, that is, a pointer to a greater reality. It is important to realize, however, that ‘symbol’ is used here in a strong sense, in that the symbol actually participates in some sense in the reality: there is a ‘hidden power’, or ‘meaning’, that links the two. This is, of course, very different from the more widespread understanding of the term today, where a symbol is essentially something different from the reality it points to. For Syriac authors, and for the Fathers in general, it could be said that the symbol is enhanced and validated by the reality it points to.” (Fr. Ted Bobosh)

“The use of symbols is a mode of revelation and communion which passes beyond that of mere verbal or intellectual communication. The death of symbols comes when they are artificially invented, rationally explained, or reduced to mere “illustrations” whose meaning is not immediately grasped by man on the level of his living spiritual vision and experience.” (Fr. Thomas Hopko)

“…“symbol” implies bringing two things together (the opposite being diabol – to tear things apart, also related to the term for devil, diabolos, diabolical). Modern understanding sees a symbol as simply pointing to an unrelated object, whereas ancients understood the symbol not only to point to another reality but that reality participates in some way in the symbol. Thus the Eucharist is a symbol of Christ, but Christ participates in that symbol and so we receive Christ in the Eucharist. God’s plan of salvation is a mystery in which both we and Christ participate. The Eucharist is a symbol, the sacraments are symbols, the Church is a symbol, but only because Christ participates in both, and we participate in Christ through these symbols. The Christian understanding of symbol and mystery is that they bring together heaven and earth, Creator and creation, the spiritual and the physical, the divine and the human, the living and the dead, saints and sinners. The mystery is a hidden knowledge which is to be revealed, another form of uniting heaven and earth.” (Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Fr. Ted Bobosh)

“The mystery of Christ’s birth (just as the mystery of His conception) is the mystery of God’s union of Himself with His creation: God became man. Some reduce this mystery to a necessary step towards the crucifixion, in which Christ “paid for our sins.” This is a thought that says too little, and so diminishes the event itself. In that the Child born at Christmas is God-made-man, His birth is also the birth into our world of the very meaning of the world itself. The meaning and purpose of everything and everyone, from human beings to the least sub-atomic particle, was already present in God from before creation. In Christ, the whole of that is born and comes among us. To honor Christ is to honor all.” (Father Stephen Freeman)


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