From the Greek word, mysterion. Its root gives the clue to its original meaning: muein, meaning ‘to close the lips or eyes.’ Its Latin cognates include mutus, which gives us English ‘mute’. The key idea, then, is of secrecy and silence. The English word has now become almost entirely secularised in its meaning and can refer to almost any event for which there is no apparent explanation. In New Testament and early Christian times its meaning was predominantly religious. On the one hand it could refer to the religious ‘mysteries’ of the Hellenistic world, with their emphasis on secret knowledge to which access was gained only through closely guarded initiation rites. On the other, in New Testament and early Christian usage, it commonly referred to that which was once hidden in God but is being progressively disclosed, preeminently in the life and teaching of Jesus. Its disclosure does not necessarily lead to understanding, as is clear from Jesus’s words in Matt 13:1-23. The most frequent use of ‘mystery’ occurs in Paul’s epistles, and occurs in this morning’s reading from Romans 11 at v 25.
A Word in Season