I love quotes. There is no mystery there. In fact, I spend a ton of time trying to find just the right quote to share in whatever I am doing—blogs, sermons, talks, or everyday conversations. And I love origin stories, from how the Hekawi Indian tribe got their name (as they migrated west from Massachusetts, the medicine man said: “I think we lost. Where the heck are we?”) to how I came to love quotes. Years ago (and years and years), I used to read a humor column in the newspaper (something like a news website, but on paper that was delivered to your house). One week, there was a story in that column about a guy who found an intriguing quote and memorized it. He thought it was funny and figured, one day, it would come in handy. Years past and he had never once found the opportunity to use the quote, but then one day a friend told him he was being blackmailed. He turned to him and quoted the line he had been saving for all those years. “There are three things you can do when you are being blackmailed,” he said. “You can pay ‘em. You can ignore ‘em and let the pieces fall where they may. Or you can kill ‘em.” That is the first quote I remember memorizing, and it started my love of quotes (And that is not a bad thing! Churchill said: “It is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations!”). And this particular quote (from a long-forgotten source) was probably spurred on by my love of the mystery genre.
It is strange, then, to admit that, when it comes to theology, I have a strong aversion to mystery. I like to have answers. I get paid to explain things. I work hard to make murky and difficult things clear. And just look at my anti-mystery degrees. I have studied Old Testament, New Testament, philosophy, Biblical theology, psychology, education . . . and I have coached hockey! I am clearly an anti-obscurity advocate and very much in favor of making the unknown known. But I am trying to change because mystery is at the heart of our faith (and honestly, it hurts me to say that!).
To prove the essential nature of mystery in our doctrine, all I have to do is name five incomprehensible truths of Christianity. For instance, the incarnation (how did that even happen?), the trinity (please explain how God could be three-in-one), resurrection (how does a dead body become alive again?), virgin birth (how?), original sin (how is sin transmitted to us?) and substitutionary atonement (how does Jesus’ death atone for our sin?). If your answer to any of these questions does not involve the word mystery, you do not completely understand the issues. I’ll give you partial credit if you try to explain everything and, then, as a concluding statement assert that the real explanation is wrapped up in mystery (I’ll only give you partial credit because you should have started with mystery).
But I can also argue for the priority of mystery by quoting someone much wiser than I am. Here are some quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer (You will recall we are using his quotes compiled in the devotional book, God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas; and this week, we are examining the second section, “Mystery”).
- “The lack of mystery in our modern life is our downfall and our poverty. A human life is worth as much as the respect it holds for the mystery.”
- “[Children] don’t know how to avoid the mystery, as we do. We destroy the mystery because we want to be lord over everything and have it at our disposal. . . . [Avoiding the mystery] means remaining on the surface, taking the world seriously only to the extent that it can be calculated and exploited.”
- “The greatest mystery is not the most distant star; on the contrary, the closer something comes to us and the better we know it, then the more mysterious it becomes for us. The greatest mystery to us is not the most distant person, but the one next to us. And the final depth of all mystery is when two people come so close to each other that they love each other. And the more they love each other and know about each other in love, the more deeply they know the mystery of their love.”
- “Only the humble believe and rejoice that God is so free and so marvelous that he does wonders where people despair, that he takes what is little and lowly and makes it marvelous. And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly. . . . God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in. He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would least expect them. God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.”
- “Who among us will celebrate Christmas correctly? Whoever finally lays down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger; whoever remains lowly and lets God alone be high; whoever looks at the child in the manger and sees the glory of God precisely in his lowliness.”
There are times when we find our sin, and there are times when our sin finds us. When I read these quotes, I am stunned by my sin—stunned at how much I long for control, how much I want certainty, how much I want to be the one who is glorified for figuring these “mysteries” out and how much I want to be acknowledged as right. I am truly a modern person: arrogant, self-reliant, rational beyond all reason and power-hungry. Worse, I have this innate desire to want to be the one who teaches all these backward people who elevate mystery over rational thought the truth about how this makes perfectly good sense. When Bonhoeffer asks, “Who among us will celebrate Christmas correctly?” I fear he is speaking to me directly and that he is informing me that I am missing the point of Christmas completely. Why? Because I am unwilling to lay down “all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger.” I am unwilling to strip away my pride and become lowly and let God alone be on high. In short, I am a modern hot mess.
Who knew that Christmas was so tied to repentance and humility and confession of sin? I thought it was just a celebration of the birth of Jesus, not the death of my sin. But the mystery of the incarnation, God-with-us, calls us to fall down before the manger and surrender ourselves to the mystery of God’s love and grace.
Here is the bottom line: Mystery is that which is found in the heart of those who have humbled themselves before God’s incarnate son and worship him as Lord of all even though they cannot grasp how they could possibly be the recipients of God’s unfailing love.
Mystery is also found in those who humble themselves and pray: “Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer: Proper 18).