The Mystery, Upborne, Fulfilled

greatfastOrthodoxy has a number of “favorite” words – all of which fall outside the bounds of normal speech. Though we commonly use the word “mystery” (for example), popular speech never uses it in the manner of the Church. I cannot remember using the word “fullness,” or even “fulfilled,” in normal speech. More contemporary words have come to replace these expressions. This doesn’t mean that an English speaker has no idea of what the words mean – but, again, they do not understand these words in the manner of the Church. There is a reality to which words such as mystery and fullness refer – a reality that carries the very heart of the Orthodox understanding of the world and its relation to God.

In popular usage, the word mystery has become synonymous with puzzle. Thus a mystery is something we do not know, but something that, with careful investigation is likely to be revealed. In the Church, mystery is something which by its very nature is unknown, and can only be known in a manner unlike anything else.

Words such as fullness and fulfilled are equally important and specialized in the language of the Church, but whose meanings bear little resemblance to popular speech.  Fullness (pleroma), occurs a number of times in the New Testament. It was also a favorite word in the writings of the gnostics. In Christian usage, it refers to a spiritual wholeness or completeness that is being manifested or revealed in some way. It is more than a Divine act – it carries with it something of the Divine itself (God Himself is the Fullness). It is not simply the action of God, but is itself God. Prior actions and words may have hinted at the fullness, but in the revelation of the fullness all hints will have passed away and been replaced by the fullness itself.

The core understanding of words such as mystery and fullness is the belief that our world has a relationship beyond itself, or beyond what seems obvious. The world is symbol, icon and sacrament. Mystery and fullness reference the reality that is carried as symbol, icon and sacrament.

Many people read the frequent statement in the gospels: “This was done so that the prophecy of Isaiah (or one of the other prophets) might be fulfilled….” What many people think this means is that the prophet made a prediction and it came true. Biblical prophecy (in a proper Christian understanding) has little or nothing to do with prediction. The prophets do not see the future – they see the fullness. What comes to pass is the fullness breaking into our world such that the prophecy “has been fulfilled.”

This same fullness is referenced in Ephesians:

And He [the Father] put all things under His [Christ’s] feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all (1:22-23).

This description of the Church as the “fullness,” is among the most startling statements in Scripture. The phrase, “the fullness of Him that fills all in all,” is an early version of “God became man so that man might become god” (St. Athanasius, 4th century). God is the one who fills, and we are what is filled (or even the “filling”). At least as striking is a kindred passage in Colossians (the two letters have many similarities):

For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power (2:9-10).

The English disguises the wordplay within the verse. We are told that “in Christ dwells all the fullness (pleroma) of the Godhead (or deity) bodily, and you are the ones who have been made full (pepleromenoi) in Him…” Again, this time Christ is described as the fullness, but we have also been made the fullness (pleroma) in Him. His life is our life, and this life or fullness is precisely that which is important about us.

The idea is not dissimilar to Christ’s statements in St. John’s gospel:

I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me (17:20-23).

In John, Christ has given us “his glory,” just as the Father gave Him glory. Glory is not praise or reputation, but rather something substantial (as I search for words). In Hebrew, glory (Kavod) is precisely something substantial, the weight of something. God’s kavod pushes the priests to the ground at the consecration of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 8:11). But glory is not simply an effect of God, it is, somehow, God’s presence itself.

Fullness has a relation to glory, in this substantial sense.

… we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full [pleres] of grace and truth…. And of His fullness [pleroma] we have all received, and grace for grace (Jn. 1:14 and 16).

The glory of the only begotten is full of grace and truth and it is of this fullness that we have all received.

I am sure that this excursion through Scripture may be somewhat tedious for readers – but it is an excursion through unknown territory for many. Mystery, fullness, glory and the like are largely neglected in many of the doctrinal structures of the West. Where they are not neglected they are stripped of mystical content and morphed into more rational systems.

Within the Orthodox East, the mystical content is allowed to shine forth – particularly within the liturgical life and prayers of the Church (this is also true of the ascetical tradition of the Church). One place where language and reality are deeply united is in the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts (celebrated on the weekdays of Great Lent and Holy Week). The Eucharist is not celebrated on these days, but communion is given from the gifts consecrated on the Sunday previous – thus the Liturgy of the “Pre-Sanctified” Gifts.

It is a very solemn service, with a liturgical “climax” when the Pre-Sanctified Gifts are brought out of the Altar and processed through the congregation in silence. The congregation is prostrate during this procession with faces to the floor. Thus the procession occurs in silence and “invisibly.”

Just before the entrance, the choir sings, “Now the powers of heaven do serve invisibly with us. Lo, the King of glory enters. Lo, the mystical sacrifice is upborne, fulfilled.” The Gifts of Christ’s Body and Blood are indeed the “mystical sacrifice,” the very mystery hidden from the ages made manifest and present in the midst of the Church. This same mystery is also the fullness – its presence is fulfilled.

The Christian life lived within the mystery is a life in which God is hidden, made known, revealed, perceived. It is a life in which the Kingdom of God is breaking forth, not destroying nature but fulfilling it. In the same manner, we are not destroyed by our union with Christ but rather fulfilled. We become what we were created to be – the fullness of that life and more is made manifest within our own lives.

It is this same fullness that describes the lives of saints. Saints are more than moral exemplars to be copied – they have the quality of life-fulfilled. In them, the fullness that is ours in Christ is made manifest.

The mystical life marks the whole of Orthodox Christianity. Its doctrines are replete with references to the mystery and speak of matters such as the atonement in a manner that is consistent with the revelation of this mystery. The Conciliar definitions, from first to last, are rooted in this language and presuppose its grammar within every aspect of the life of the Church.

Upborne, fulfilled.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.


18 responses to “The Mystery, Upborne, Fulfilled”

  1. George Engelhard Avatar
    George Engelhard

    I highly recommend purchasing/listening to a absolutely wonderful recording ‘The Hymn of Great Entrance’ by the liturgical choir “CHERUBIKA”. I was reminded of this recording by the words in the title of this post. They are found in their recording of ‘Now the Powers’, from the Liturgy of the Presancified Gifts which contains one of the most beautiful tenor solos I have ever heard.

  2. George Engelhard Avatar
    George Engelhard

    Can it also be said that fullfilled means filled full of the Glory of God?

  3. […] Two words, fullness and mystery. […]

  4. Rhonda Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    As I read the title of this one I had a feeling you were going to elaborate on the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts. I love the Divine Liturgy & Vesperal Liturgy, but the tember & tone of the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts, especially the entrance you mention, is extremely moving.

    Also thank you for the elaboration on prophecy, glory, mystery & fullness as understood by the Church. I have been in several discussions this week that dealed with how certain words are understood by different groups vs. the Church. Your article here will be most useful.

  5. benmarston Avatar

    Fr. When Daniel saw from Jeremiah’s prophetic writings that 70 years was accomplished on Israel, was he not responding to something predictive? When Daniel foresaw the coming Kingdoms and the time when Messiah would be cut off, was that not startlingly predictive, announcing the beginning points for the times of fulfillment, ‘from the going forth of the decree to rebuild the Temple.’ When Daniel interpreted the ‘mene, mene, tekel, upharsin’ on Belshazzar’s wall, and the next day Darius marches under the walls of Babylon and takes them out, was that not predictive? It is perhaps fulness to say now that we are in a mene mene tekel upharsin scenario with the world economy.
    My experience has been that the argument against predictive prophecy has been forged in higher critical circles who don’t accept for example, the ‘after the exile’ time of the writing of Daniel, because, of course, miracle can’t happen (two storey universe), and so the predictions of Daniel didn’t (happen), and prophecy is, after all, not predictive, but perceptive or, the declaration of mystery.
    I do not deny that ‘fullness and mystery’ are much more in the mix of prophecy than I had thought prior to Orthodoxy, but there is some clearly predictive elements, that are worth taking note of, and were given to us by a merciful God, to those for whom such things would help. Also, it is likely that I do not know much what I am rattling on about, and so I cease …..!

  6. Lasseter Avatar

    I think that when we say that prophecy should not be understood as mere prediction (or, as Father Stephen somewhat artfully phrases it in his essay, “has little to nothing to do with prediction,” although my remarks here of course should not be taken to speak for him), it is not meant to say that the prophesied events did not later take place: what it means, rather, is that the prophet sees them outside the constraints of moving through time. That is, when he sees them, they have already happened and are happening and have happened, because the prophecy exists independent from our manner of passing through time in this life.

    When a scientists expects with good reason that a certain outcome will result from his experiment, he predicts it. Then, if all works out, it happens. When, on the other hand, a prophet sees something, he sees the result itself in some fashion (rather than extrapolating or “predicting” the outcome). Of course this is a kind of prediction too, especially from our perspective of moving through time as we do and only seeing what takes place in the present, but the prophecy is not speculative or dependent on experimental factors. The later experience of the event prophesied is the the fulfillment, a much better word for it than, say, “results.”

  7. Dino Avatar

    What a Mystagogy!

  8. drewster2000 Avatar

    in reference to benmarston’s comment….

    Lately I was researching the word “forgiveness” and was surprised to discover that the etymology of it breaks down into “for” & “give” – and “for” means completely. When we forgive someone, in a sense we are giving back to them completely the potential of who God made them to be, not limiting them by their past actions.

    In the same sense to foretell means to tell completely. A prophecy addresses a specific event or people but does so to a certain fullness – which sometimes includes future events. So the purpose of prophecy is to speak the fulness, but sometimes it inevitably predicts in the process.

    my 2 cents

  9. dino Avatar

    George, I haven’t come across that, although there are a few examples (spanning quite a stylistic range) of the ancient Hymn: “Now the powers of heaven do serve invisibly with us”…

    From Russian:

    To Byzantine:

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    It could carry such a meaning in a dynamic translation – but it would be more “filled full of the Glory of God in the manner in which it was always intended to be.” Thus nothing is fulfilled unless it was always meant to be so. In that sense, things that are fulfilled are also being revealed for what they truly are.

    Christ, as the fulfillment of the Divine Purpose, means that the purpose has never changed, but that until His coming, it was not clear. We could even say that Pentecost is the fulfillment of Christ’s coming, etc.

  11. PJ Avatar

    My wife and I attended this liturgy last night into a little Antiochian church. There were perhaps a dozen other worshipers, plus a three-person choir, and the priest. It was a truly awesome experience. By the end, the church was dark save the area behind the iconostasis, which was lit up with dozens of candles. Obviously, my wife and I didn’t receive communion, but we did eat of the “bread of fellowship” (I forget the technical name) given to us by the priest’s wife, and we kissed the cross and reverenced the icons. Even this morning, I awoke with a deep sadness for my sins, yet a deep comfort in the saving power and presence of God.

    I noticed this very phrase. My mind chewed on it for hours afterwards. I also savored the bit about “lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.” Also, singing “O Gladsome Light” — as the sun set!

    Praise the True God!

  12. Dino Avatar

    it is called “Antidoron” (meaning instead of Gifts).
    May the Lord always be with you and your family!

  13. Warren Aldrich Avatar
    Warren Aldrich

    I get goosebumps reading this blog. It’s earthy and transcendent. Complex and simple.
    Thank you.

  14. George Engelhard Avatar
    George Engelhard

    Thank you, Father

  15. Jane Avatar

    Dear Father, I don’t find the discussion of Greek words at all tedious, but rather exciting! It does make me a little sad that I never learnt more than a bare minimum of Greek and now am too old to be starting a new language …
    Thanks also to Dino for the gorgeous Byzantine rendering of Now the Powers of heaven. In our parish we also serve the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy on Wednesdays during Lent, the one last night was lovely.

  16. RVW Avatar


    Yes and amen! I’ve found that understanding fullness in this way is the only way to overcome the destructive Law/Gospel distinction of the West. Christ came not to abolish, but to bring to its fullness, that is, as a witness to compassion, mercy, justice, and faithfulness (the ‘weightier matters of the Law’ as our Lord styles them).


  17. […] As Father Stephen Freeman put it, “In popular usage, the word mystery has become synonymous with puzzle. Thus a mystery is something we do not know, but something that, with careful investigation is likely to be revealed. In the Church, mystery is something which by its very nature is unknown, and can only be known in a manner unlike anything else.” […]

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