In his letter to the Colossians, Saint Paul writes about a ‘mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his saints’ (1:26), and then goes on to clarify the nature of this mystery by writing ‘to them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory’ (v.27). Clearly, the mystery that has been revealed is Christ Himself, and the work of reconciliation that He had effected in mankind, universalising the redemptive presence and power of God in His Church. This is given greater explication by Saint Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, where he writes:
‘In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us. For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and on earth’ (1:7-10)
Again, it is clear that something that was at the heart of God before all ages, the key to understanding ‘the mystery of his will’, has been revealed to us in Christ, and the core of that will is to redeem and to reconcile all things. However, this clarification does itself raise some questions, particularly about the nature of revelation. What has been revealed to us now in Christ is something that was decided ‘before the foundations of the world’ (v.4), and so was something that until now was kept from the world – the way Saint Paul speaks, it is as if a great divine secret has been disclosed.
This is made explicit in Romans 16, where we read ‘the mystery which was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed and through the prophetic writings is made known to all ages’ (vv.25-26). We can say that there was a need for God to hold back what was revealed in Christ for when the time was right, for when the world was ready to receive it, but is there in general something about revelation that implies hiddenness, so that what is revealed is always that which was already concealed? Some passages in the gospels give this impression:
‘And he said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a bushel, or under a bed, or under a stand? For there is nothing hid, except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. If any man has ears to hear, let him hear.”’ (Mark 4:21-23)
‘“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, utter in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim upon the housetops.”’ (Matthew 10:26-27)
In the first passage, Jesus is explaining to the disciples why it is that he speaks in parables, and in the second, explaining the rejection they will experience from many in the world because of His teaching. In both cases though, one gets the impression that everything He is revealing to them is something that in a sense has to come to light – they are truths that already exist, and once the lid has been lifted, the truth, as the saying goes, will out. Jesus even gives the impression that all will be revealed, which, if we take this in tandem with the writings of Saint Paul already cited, confirms that all there is that is worth knowing, the real essence of God’s will, is right there in Christ, and what He has ‘made manifest to his saints’.
So we see here that revelation is something that has, in a certain sense, always been there, at least implicitly, but has been hidden from our eyes. The unveiling of the mysteries of the New Covenant are just that – the removal of a veil, so that we can know what has always been the case, but which we previously could not see. But even more than that, the unveiling also creates further blindness to what has been revealed, as Jesus when He says ‘he who has ears to hear, let him hear’ echoing the passage in Isaiah 6 – ‘hear and hear but do not understand; see and see but do not perceive’ (v.9). Saint John provides further insight into this strange and disconcerting truth, when he says ‘this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil’ (3:19).
Yet, the mystery goes deeper still, for in what is perhaps the most significant moment of revelation in the gospels – the confession of Saint Peter – Jesus says to Peter that ‘flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven’ (Matthew 16:17). So, in this paramount moment of divine disclosure, it is not so much that reception of the revelation was due to the deeds of the one who received it, but was a pure gift of God. However, we could also reasonably suppose that Saint Peter was chosen to receive this great revelation precisely because his was the sort of character which would be able to. Similarly, in the case of Our Blessed Mother, the honour of being Mother of God was a pure gift, but it is also true that God chose Mary in particular because she was pure of heart and faithful enough to receive the gift.
This is the great mystery of Providence, and I will venture no further into it. But, we can perhaps still say something about what it is about the revelation in Christ that makes it so hard for us to accept, that requires a prior concealment and causes such division upon its unveiling. In Ephesians 3, Saint Paul gives us a wondrous description of what it is that is so astounding about this new revelation:
‘For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.’ (vv.14-19)
It is one of those passages that, when it has not become over familiar and is returned to after a long period, has the power to take one’s breath away. In Christ, we are told, nothing less than ‘all the fullness of God’ will come to dwell in our hearts, so that we may be ‘rooted and grounded in love’ – as a plant drinks its nutrients and takes its life from the soil that it is rooted and grounded in, we will gain our strength directly from God Himself, who is Love. This is a phenomenal privilege, and one which, if embraced fully, will turn lives upside down – no wonder then that many shy away from it, or that its light had to be hidden from us for so long!
An interesting point may also be drawn from Saint Paul’s use of dimensions in this passage, where he speaks of ‘the breadth and length and height and depth’ of Christ’s love. Length and breadth are two separate dimensions of space, but height and depth are both part of the same dimension – why has Paul used both? One possible reason could to emphasise just how firmly we are ‘in’ the love of Christ. By citing just length, breadth and height, we would be standing in God’s love as we do in the midst of ordinary space, observing and being observed, but ‘depth’ indicates a further dimension, that of interiority, or ‘within-ness’, stressing that in Christ we are taken right into the life of God. We are no longer objective observers and observed, but we are part of the very rhythm of existence – Love.
This is all very much supposition of course, and I would not want to claim that this is definitely what Saint Paul meant (although it does make some sense of his use of two terms for the same spatial dimension – something he would have known about). But, regardless of its exegetical validity, this interpretation does serve to emphasise just how radical and overwhelming is what we have been given to know in Jesus Christ. The mystery of who receives this life-changing knowledge remains just that, a mystery, but it does seem that these are mysteries that are written into the very fabric of reality, and are only concealed from us for a time because their light is so very, very bright.