Our first reading and gospel reading both refer to ceremonies performed by priests. Thank God, none of us suffer from leprosy. But, nonetheless, we go to church to participate in a ceremony performed by a priest, to take part in the “sacred mysteries” of the Mass.
Remember our friend the atheist debater, whom I mentioned last week? I said I have a list of words which the atheist used in order to score his rhetorical points in his college-campus debate with my priest friend. One more word the atheist used and abused: Mystery.
Ok. God gave us eyes. He gave us ears. He gave us minds. He wants us to use them. Healthy skepticism can keep a person out of trouble. “Uh, you want to sell me the Brooklyn Bridge? Are you sure you own it?”
Skepticism makes a good ground rule for any important discussion. Young minds reasonably resent it when an honest question about religion gets an answer like, “It’s a mystery. Just believe it.” Why do they ring bells during Mass? Why can’t women be priests? Why are we Catholic instead of Baptist? Why is it immoral to use artificial contraception? “It’s a sacred mystery. Just be quiet.” Not a good answer.
Nonetheless: “Mystery” cannot be dismissed as a bad word. Let’s take the most common use. In a mystery novel, the pivotal action lays hidden until the end. Clues get revealed. So-and-so had a good motive. So-and-so was in the area at the time. So-and-so knew that the victim was involved in such-and-such. Etc.
This style of literature obviously involves the intentional hiding of information from the reader. When it comes to religion, the atheist debater legitimately objected to the intentional hiding of information from anyone. The atheist used the phrase “mystery-mongering” to suggest that anyone who calls something a “mystery” is actually either ignorant or a liar. Using the word “mystery” in religion puts you in the same category as the masquerading “wizard” in Oz, all smoke and no substance.
But: let’s focus back on what the word really means. A mystery novel does not entice the mind because the hidden part is just a bunch of lies. To the contrary, a mystery novel or movie is interesting for the very reason that the facts which lay hidden form a coherent story. In a mystery, what is hidden is not falsehood but the truth. Mysteries are fun precisely because they involve an adventure that, in the end, arrives at the truth.
Dorothy was supposed to ignore the man behind the curtain because the wizard was a fake.
But in the case of the Holy Mass, or of our faith as a whole, something remains mysterious not because there’s nothing to it, but because there is too much to it.
The truth in question is so simple, so pure, so clear, and so grand that we cannot yet grasp it. But it is nonetheless magnificently true.
True religion focuses on the most fundamental of all facts: Why there is something rather than nothing?
I do not mean why there is coffee rather than tea. Or why there are deciduous trees in this climate rather than coconut trees. Or why the Giants won the Super Bowl rather than the Patriots.
Inquiring minds can reach satisfactory explanations for all these facts. No big mysteries. But what I mean is this: Why is there anything at all, rather than absolutely nothing at all? It could be the case that there would be nothing. Fft. But instead there are dogs, cars, basketballs, clouds, people, deep-sea anemones, planets, horses, bananas, bushes, cornfields etc. How can we explain this?
We can’t! We cannot explain it. Only the greater One–the One Whose genius, will, and power has made the difference between there being something and there being nothing—only He knows how and why.
This transcendent genius, this almighty power would remain an impenetrable mystery to us—we would probably have insane stories about Him and perform all kinds of weird sacrifices to Him—had He not freely chosen to reveal Himself.
He revealed Himself by becoming man. By dying for us. By rising again from the dead. By giving us the Mass, all the sacraments, His holy Word.
So, yes: God is a mystery—the great mystery, the mystery Who will fascinate us for all eternity, like a gripping novel that never ends.
But our Catholic beliefs and practices are not vague. Our faith grasps precise facts, based on careful records which have been passed down to us in the Scriptures.
Actually, the atheist debater’s own insistence on skepticism will turn around and bite him. When we systematically apply the rules of skepticism which the atheist debater insisted on—when we apply these rules to all the proposals out there which offer an explanation as to why there is something rather than nothing—when we scientifically critique every account—what remains?
The Big Bang theory? No. Different scientists have different ideas about it. And none of them claim to explain why the Big Bang occurred, if it did.
No. I think we can say with perfect confidence that the most solid explanation out there—for why there is something rather than nothing—is…the Nicene Creed.