Entering into the MysteryDecember 19th, 2023
As a preacher, teacher and seminary president, I have spent most of my life proclaiming, teaching and explaining various aspects of the Christian faith. But, at this time of the year especially, it is important to recall that the Christian faith is explainable – even to a child – yet also beyond explanation, because God’s word is both inscrutable and inexplicable. There is an ancient theological phrase for this in the church: “mysterium fidei” or “mystery of the faith.” We encounter this phrase in the Eucharist liturgy where the celebrant declares, “As we proclaim the mystery of the faith.” Today, the congregation responds with the threefold declaration: Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again. However, those more definitive declarations, while wonderful and powerful, were not added to the Eucharistic liturgy until the 1960s. In its original form, the church embraced and affirmed the mystery of the faith without further delineation. It is not that those three affirmations are not true and beautiful; it is that like 30 more affirmations could have been mentioned, but only three were. There is an expansive, grand “mystery of the faith” that can never be fully summarized. Surely the mystery of the gospel is fully Trinitarian. For example, what about the mystery of how God the Father answers prayer? What of the mystery of the second Person of the Trinity who became incarnate as a human? What about the mystery of how the Holy Spirit convicts the world of sin? You get the point.
One of the best ways to enter and embrace the mystery of the faith is to read hymns from previous centuries, which often enshrined the mystery of the faith in beautiful ways. What a treasure it is at Christmas to sing “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” from the fourth century. How sublime are those opening lines:
Of the Father’s love begotten, ere the worlds began to be;
He is Alpha and Omega, He the Source, the ending he.
This line is intended to prepare us for the Incarnation by first inviting us into the mystery of the Godhead. In a similar way, another fourth century hymn, “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” declares,
King of Kings, yet born of Mary, as of old on earth He stood;
Lord of Lords, in human vesture, in the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful His own self for heav’nly food.
This line is about the Incarnation, yet it connects it with the mystery of creation, the Crucifixion and the Eucharist in a way that helps us to resonate with the mystery of the gospel.
The “mysterium fidei” was central to many of Charles Wesley’s lesser-known Christmas hymns. For example, Wesley’s “Glory be to God on High” beautifully links the Incarnation with the majesty of the preincarnate Son:
Him the angels all adored, their Maker and their King;
tidings of their humbled Lord they now to mortals bring.
Emptied of his majesty, of his dazzling glories shorn;
Beings source begins to be, and God Himself is born.
Another Christmas hymn of Charles Wesley is called “Celebrate Immanuel’s Name.” In the hymn, Wesley declares,
Fulness of the Deity in Jesus’ body dwells –
Dwells in all his saints and me when God His Son reveals.
Father, manifest Thy Son; breathe the Incarnate Word.
In our inmost souls make known the presence of the Lord.
The power of linking the Incarnation with our union with Christ and the ultimate vision of the full marriage of heaven and earth is one of the great mysteries we cherish at Christmas. I will close with another Christmas hymn, this one from Latin in the 19th century, which has been rendered into beautiful English and is sung regularly in the church. “O Come All Ye Faithful” draws from the language of the Nicene creed, linking the good news of the Incarnation with the external preexistence and deity of the Son.
God of God and Light of Light begotten,
Lo He abhors not the Virgin’s womb;
Very God, begotten not created:
O come let us adore Him, O come let us adore Him;
O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!
So, this Christmas, let us enter afresh into the mystery of the faith!
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