Unfolding the Mystery

The Church is both divine and human. Being both human and divine is tough. It means the Church is the custodian of a Mystery none of its members really grasp fully and never will. 2000 years ago, Jesus came to earth and did something that could almost be described as an odd joke: he picked as the leaders of his Church a bunch of dweebs who were not at all raised by their mommas to think of themselves as The Twelve Apostles. They thought they were normal guys. Then, God handed over to them this massive and mystifying surprise of a man who did miracle after miracle and, for a finale, rose from the dead and poured his Spirit out on their astonished heads. Then, just when they were catching their breath from this roller coaster they had never in a million years dreamt of and trying to sort it all out, the man who could have given them the 1-2-3 EZ Guide to Systematic Christian Theology Explained instead ascended into heaven, leaving them to put it all together themselves!

If you think for one minute the apostles, on Pentecost, had Figured it All Out, you’re dreaming. They were as flabbergasted by it all as you would be if it had happened to you. And so, they marched off into the world, not Having All the Answers, but carrying a Mystery that they barely understood, but knew in their gut they could trust.

As they carried the Mystery through the world, they periodically got mysterious guidance from the Holy Spirit (Himself rather mysterious): go here, do this, talk to this guy, don’t go there, this guy’s lying, you can trust her, this teaching is false, etc. Now and then, somebody would ask what the apostles meant when they said stuff like, “You are not under law, but under grace”. And frequently, the apostles, when they came right down to it, weren’t sure. So, for instance, some people took the idea of “not being under law” to mean you could pretty much do anything. Others pointed to Jesus’ saying that he “did not come to abolish the law” to mean that any man who wanted to be Christian had to be circumcised according to the law. Interestingly, the Church didn’t have a snappy answer for these conflicting schools of thought. Why? Because the early Christians had to find out what they themselves meant. They weren’t sure. So they met in council and trusted the Holy Spirit to make it clear. And he did (Acts 15).

This is not to say they were babbling incoherently. It is to say that the Church then, like today, is the custodian of a Mystery it doesn’t fully comprehend. It spends history unpacking truths revealed to it and allows those truths to put down roots and throw out unexpected branches.

Why does all this matter? Because the Church, being fully human, is like family. To be family is also to be custodian of a Mystery you don’t really understand. This is supremely true for parents. You don’t know your kids. They don’t come with instruction books describing what a fully built adult Sean Michael or a Betsy Sue is going to look like. Your kids unfold. The seed who is your kid is a mystery who must show himself to you over time. Your task is to weed and water and provide God nutrition for body, soul, and spirit, but it is God’s business to slowly make clear to you who it is you have brought into the world.

Indeed, even with ourselves, we don’t know what we’re made of. Exhibit A: St. Peter. As one Catholic observed, Simon could have practiced self-examination his whole life and never discovered Peter there. It had to be revealed to him by Christ. Likewise, the weakness that was there had to also be revealed to the one who confidently promised that he would never betray his Master. We don’t know ourselves, we don’t know our families, and we don’t know God.

That would be a formula for despair, except for this: God knows all these things and it is his business to reveal them to us. That’s partly what families do: there’s nothing like being surrounded by the lumpy beautiful mess of the family to unfold for you who you are, who those you love are, and who the God of the whole lumpy beautiful glorious mess is.

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