New Revised Standard Version
25 Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26 but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— 27 to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.
Everyone loves a mystery. Mystery novels have been published for decades and continue to be popular fodder for reading. When it comes to the things of God, well there’s mystery there as well. After the age of Enlightenment dawned many sought to establish a more rational version of the Christian faith. Thus, John Locke and others spoke of a “Reasonable Christianity.” With this emphasis on reason, mystery was deemphasized, at least in mainstream Protestantism. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that with this proclamation of a reasonable Christianity, the divinity of Christ and the teaching of the doctrine of the Trinity became problematic.
Mystical theology, of course, continued to be promulgated in some sectors of the Church, especially in the Eastern Church. Therefore, in this postmodern world, it’s not surprising that Eastern Christianity has begun to attract the attention of many who find that a rationalistic version of the faith leaves one cold. Sometimes the attraction to the mystical theology of Eastern Christianity is experiential, at other times it is the theological side of things that has proven attractive because it provides a way of embracing divine realities that lie beyond our ability to fully comprehend or explain. This is especially true for those of us who embrace doctrines like the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. But, as the late Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky writes regarding the relationship of theology and mysticism: “There is, therefore, no Christian mysticism without theology; but, above all, there is no theology without mysticism.” In fact, Lossky calls mysticism “theology par excellence” [The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, p. 9]. While I embrace the place of reason in religion, I must confess that I’m beginning to agree with Lossky.
With the arrival of the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we reach a pivotal moment in the Advent/Christmas season. The lighting of the fourth candle invites us to enter into the mystery that is the incarnation. The season invites us to ask the question: who is this Jesus who the Gospels proclaim to have been born in Bethlehem? This is the final Sunday before we light the Christ Candle on Christmas Eve to signal the arrival of Emmanuel, “God with us.” The message of the incarnation is that in this person as Jesus the “only wise God” whose presence has been shrouded in mystery has been revealed to us. Regarding the mystery of the incarnation, Gregory of Nazianzus, a leading fourth-century theologian, proclaims that “this is the feast we celebrate today, in which God comes to live with human beings, that we may journey toward God, or return—for to speak thus is more exact—that laying aside the old human being we may be clothed with the new, and that is in Adam we have died so we may live in Christ, born with Christ and crucified with him, buried with him and rising with him.” [Festal Orations, p. 63].
This reflection on the mystery of God, as revealed in this final stage of our Advent journey is rooted in the reading from Romans 16 as stipulated for this day by the Revised Common Lectionary. This brief doxology, which closes out the letter to the Romans, may or may not be Paul’s work. Although the doxology is absent from some ancient manuscripts or appears elsewhere in the letter in still other manuscripts the doxology speaks to the good news Paul and others have proclaimed through the ages. Therefore, whether or not Paul wrote these words, they celebrate the work of God that brings salvation to Jew and Gentile.
According to the letter, God has strengthened the readers through Paul’s proclamation of the Gospel. In preaching about Jesus, Paul has made known the “revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages” to the Gentiles. He has done so at the command of the eternal God so that Gentiles might be brought to “the obedience of faith.” Something similar is revealed in two other letters that may be post-Pauline—Ephesians and Colossians. In Ephesians, we read that “In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 3:5-6, see also Col. 1:6-7).
For Paul, God is the one who is at work to bring about this mystery. At the beginning of the letter, Paul offers a prayer of thanksgiving to God for having been given the opportunity to announce the Gospel of God’s son (Rom. 1:8-9). Now, he closes the letter with a word of thanksgiving to God for having the opportunity to proclaim the Gospel. As Paul makes clear, he does this as a servant of God, who strengthens those who receive the Gospel.
Returning to the mystery of God that has been revealed through Paul. The word revelation there is in Greek apokalypsin. That word should look familiar because it is the foundation for words like apocalyptic. That is the kind of vision that Paul pursues. For him, the day of the Lord was close at hand (remember that Advent envisions two advents, one in the past and one yet to come). We may be getting ready for Christmas, but that’s not what Paul has in mind here. After all, Paul never speaks of Jesus’ birth. Instead, he’s focused on the mystery that impacts the future, and which has finally been revealed. This is the mystery (mysterion) that has been disclosed/revealed after long ages through the prophetic writings to the Gentiles. This is important to Paul because he saw himself as the Apostle to the Gentiles. It was his mission to bring the word of Jesus to people outside the Jewish community. He didn’t deny the revelation made known to the Jews, but now what was known to Jews could now be extended to Gentiles through the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus. Now they too could prepare for the coming of the Lord.
The call given to Paul is to “bring about the obedience of faith” in the Gentiles, and all of this is for the Glory of the only Wise God. The glory that emerges out of the revealing of the mystery of God to the Gentiles has eternal ramifications. That is the mystery that has been under wraps until the coming of Jesus and the proclamation of the Gospel to the Gentiles. Therefore, we can sing:
All earth is waiting to see the Promised One,
and open furrows, the sowing of our God.
All the world, bound and struggling, seeks true liberty;
it cries out for justice and searches for the truth.
[“All Earth Is Waiting,” Alberto Taulé]