by Father Mike Stubbs
Occasionally, a priest will begin the penitential rite at Mass with the words, “Let us prepare ourselves to celebrate these sacred mysteries by calling to mind our sins.”
The word “mysteries” should ring a bell. We have heard it recently, usually in its singular form, several times in the second reading at Sunday Mass in our continuous reading of St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. This Sunday it will occur in the very first sentence of the reading:
“Thus should one regard us: as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.”
“Mystery” is a loaded word. In ancient Greece, certain religious groups held secret ceremonies, in which they initiated new members. Those ceremonies were called the “mysteries.” Some scholars even claim that those Greek mysteries influenced the way that the sacraments eventually took shape in Christianity.
There is little evidence to support that view, although it is true that, in the Greek language, the word “mystery” became the equivalent of the word “sacrament.” Consequently, in Greek one may speak of the mystery of baptism, the mystery of the Eucharist, and so on. Our word “sacrament” derives from Latin and does not exist in Greek.
Does that mean that when St. Paul writes about himself and the other apostles as “stewards of the mysteries of God,” he is describing them as caretakers of the sacraments, much as pastors function in modern churches? Is St. Paul referring to the responsibilities of ensuring that religious ceremonies are properly carried out? Or does he have something broader in mind?
We know that St. Paul did administer the sacrament of baptism. He reports on that earlier in the same letter: “I baptized the household of Stephanas; also, beyond that I do not know whether I baptized anyone else” (1 Cor 1: 16).
At the same time, St. Paul stresses that he does not regard his sacramental duties as primary, but rather as belonging to a larger mission. That is why he adds: “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the Gospel” (1 Cor 1:17). He further explains: “When I came to you, brothers, proclaiming the mystery of God, I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom” (1 Cor 2:1). Here, the mystery of God is a message to be proclaimed, not a ceremony to be performed.
On the other hand, St. Paul clearly recognized the importance of baptism and the Eucharist — those events in the life of the church which eventually were called the mysteries in Greek; the sacraments in Latin. In this same letter, he will discuss the Eucharist at length. He includes significant teachings about baptism in his Letter to the Romans, among others. He does not ignore those events which eventually would come to be known as the sacraments.
At the same time, St. Paul probably did not make some of the distinctions to which we have grown accustomed. For him, the term “mysteries of God” included both the salvation that comes from Jesus Christ and the baptism which brings the believer to that salvation; both the grace which comes from God and the Eucharist which nourishes us with that grace. It is all part of the package.