Entering the Mystery of Christmas

Orthodox Christianity is deeply associated with the word “mystery.”  Its theological hymns are replete with paradox, repeatedly affirming two things to be true that are seemingly contradictory. Most of these things are associated with what is called “apophatic” theology, or a theology that is “unspeakable.” This same theological approach is sometimes called the Via Negativa. This is easily misunderstood in common conversation. An Orthodox discussion takes place and reaches an impasse. Inevitably, someone will remind us that some things are simply a “mystery,” etc. But this “unknowableness” is actually a misuse of mystery and its place in the Church’s life. For though mystery, paradox, and contradiction frame something as “unknowable,” they do so for the purpose of knowing.

To know is not the equivalent of mastering facts. Knowledge, in the New Testament, is equated with salvation itself (Jn. 17:3). But what kind of knowing is itself salvific? In the simplest terms, it is knowledge as participation.

Then they said to Him, “Where is Your Father?” Jesus answered, “You know neither Me nor My Father. If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also.” (Joh 8:19)


O righteous Father! The world has not known You, but I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me. And I have declared to them Your name, and will declare it, that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them. (Joh 17:25-26)

Christ is by no means speaking of knowledge as information. Instead, it is knowledge that “dwells” in them. Such knowledge cannot be gained by the simple sharing of information nor by the acquisition of a system of ideas. It is experiential, on the one hand, but in a manner that is itself transformative.

We experience things all the time. It is possible to say that we are changed by experience. But it is another thing to say that the experience itself now dwells in you and communicates a new life to you. At its very heart, this is the nature of revelation. And this is key within the life of Orthodoxy. What dwells in us as “knowledge,” is, in fact, Christ Himself as knowledge. Christ Himself is the revealer, the revealing and what is revealed.

It would be possible to “master” Orthodoxy as a system of thought. One could know a set of doctrines and teachings, and even be able to enter into discussion and argument. But this in no way actually constitutes true knowledge of Orthodoxy, much less Orthodoxy as saving knowledge.

The Orthodox faith is a making-known-of-the-mystery. And this is utterly essential. However, the Orthodox faith is not static content, but the dynamic reality of the living Christ. It is, properly, a revealed faith, and cannot be had in any other manner. And strangely, the mystery is as essential as the knowing. Only that which is hidden can be revealed.

It is a common mistake to treat the New Testament itself as the revelation of God, or the collection of the information newly revealed through Christ. We historicize Christ’s work as a set of teachings, an assemblage of theological information that we may now discuss, dissect and comprehend, rendering into nothing more than religion. However, the New Testament (and the fullness of the Church) have the mystery within them, and must be encountered first as mystery before they can be acquired as knowledge.

Paradox and contradiction, hiddenness and mystery are all inherent means of saving knowledge. Their presence within Scripture and the liturgical tradition are not mere styles of communication. They provide an access into a form a knowledge that cannot be communicated in any other manner. They are not mere screens shielding wonderful knowledge from our view, a knowledge that once revealed can then be shared without reference to the mystery. Because the kind of knowledge that is saving knowledge both causes and requires an inner transformation, it cannot be shared in a manner other than that through which it was first acquired. The single most important means of saving knowledge in the Tradition is the liturgical life of the Church. It is there that we sing the mystery. The hymns of the Church delight in paradox and contradiction. They urge the heart to enter into this mystical bounty. Those who have no experience of Orthodox liturgical worship can only wonder at this. Those who do, I daresay, understand exactly what I am saying.

We can say that it is not merely the rationalization of Christian teaching that is problematic, but even the efforts to make plain and straightforward and easily accessible what can only be known through mystery, paradox and contradiction. For this reason, it is true that most engagement in theological speech is done by those who don’t know what they are talking about. What passes for “theology” can easily be little more than one swine discussing pearls with another.

True theology is as much a matter of how we know as it is what we know. Further, everything about our own condition also matters in both what we may know and how we may know it. Saving knowledge cannot be isolated from the whole of who we are and how we are. The experience encountered in paradox and mystery is frequently a necessary condition for knowing the truth. We may very well come away with knowledge, and yet be speechless.

I studied Orthodoxy and the Fathers for over 20 years before I was received into the Church. But there were some things that I only began to know on the day of my reception. More than that, a slow process began in which everything I thought I knew was changed. The manner of knowing the faith as a communicant made the content of faith something other than what I thought I knew. Christ is quite clear that purity of heart is essential in the knowledge of God. St. Silouan says that we only know God to the extent that we love our enemies. So it is always right to ask of ourselves, “What is the state of my heart as I approach this mystery?”

We are now in the Feast of Christ’s Nativity, His birth as a child and entrance into the human condition. That event is among the greatest mysteries of the faith, surrounded by paradox and contradiction. It can (as so much else) be reduced to a greeting card or a doctrinal fact. But such a reduction cannot save. “Peace on earth, goodwill among men,” is a greeting of paradox and contradiction.

If you would enter into the mystery, then, like Christ Himself, you must become small, weak, poor, misunderstood, and willing to be broken. You cannot know Him if you refuse to be like Him. This is the only path that is truly Christian. Outside the mystery, there is nothing to be known, nothing that will save.


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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30 responses to “Entering the Mystery of Christmas”

  1. Joshua Avatar

    Those last two paragraphs struck me to the core, especially the very last. I find that one of my greatest stumbling blocks is when I think that by studying theology I can begin to know God. Nothing could be further from the truth. It often becomes something I use to distract myself from the real work of salvation: knowing God by becoming like him.

  2. Paul Avatar

    “You cannot know Him if you refuse to be like Him.” That’s it. That’s the challenge.

  3. Justin Kolodziej Sr. Avatar
    Justin Kolodziej Sr.

    I was chrismated almost 3 years ago but certain events had me running back to the apparent certainty of the Pope. Only to find out that for me pride and arrogance came with the package somehow and for the good of my soul I had to return to the life of the Orthodox Church and this time not to look into things beyond my own concern but stick to the Liturgy and what can be found in the standard prayer book. Even things like the Ladder or the Sayings of the Desert Fathers may be beyond me, come to think of it. Better to admit that I really don’t understand hardly anything.

    Pray for me the prodigal and sinner.

  4. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Freeman,
    Wonderful! I have a reformed friend. His knowledge is head knowledge, doctrine, crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s. I was exactly the same for much of my Christian life. Now, after liturgy, I most often feel “born again.” I don’t think I could articulate exactly why I experience this, but it’s true. The liturgy is transformative for the heart in a deep way; it cuts to the core of who we are and there, operates its change. Glory to God!

  5. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Ah, I have this problem. By rejecting one form of knowledge, I find the temptation to pride in speaking of another form.

    Jesus was not like that. He and His Father are one.

  6. Ted Sherman Avatar
    Ted Sherman

    My wife and I were chrismated on Dec. 19, 1993; I used to say I became Orthodox then. However, what I now tell others is that that was when I began becoming Orthodox, for the longer I am in the Church, the more I know less and less and the wider and deeper and more mysterious (in the real meaning of the word) the liturgical life of the Church becomes. Like the stable leading into the real Narnia, Orthodoxy is so much bigger, greater, more real on the inside than on the outside. And it can only be experienced from the inside, from within. It is not a set of doctrines, beliefs, and ideas; it is only the experience of the Real.

  7. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Justin, I was received into the Church over thirty years ago. I have a similar reaction to the writings of the Fathers as you. Only St. Athanasius On the Incarnation has been different.

    Our mystical union with Christ is quite real and more often than not defies description.

    I think of one of the encounters that in Soviet prisons that Richard Wurmbrand reported. There was a anti- communist non-believer who was imprisoned with some faithful one of whom was a simple peasant. The talk turned to a Jesus with the intellectual saying there was no proof. The peasant said. “I have seen Him”. The intellectual demanded to know what He looked like. The peasant went quite, reflecting in the demand. As he did his face was transformed. Everyone in the common cell including the intellectual knee what Jesus looked like.

  8. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dear Fr Stephen,
    This article points to the issue I encountered when I have read particular theological writings of current- western religion-trained theologians. Rather than describing an approach characterizing east vs west, you have eloquently described the difference and the difficulty in ‘the how’ in these approaches.

    I don’t remember where I read this or who said it, but I’ve heard it said that someone who is a ‘real’ theologian is someone who ‘authentically’ prays. Indeed scriptures were formed out of the Liturgical experience of the Church. It was my confessor who taught me early on in my catechism, when I asked him how I was to understand the scriptures, he said (paraphrasing) ‘understand it as Liturgy’. And from experience, as you describe, the only way to ‘understand’ Liturgy is to participate in it. Such participation is indeed an expression and experience of love. —Love of one’s neighbors and enemies—not what I would call an easy feat.

  9. Aaron Avatar

    Reminds me of Adam and Eve. Like them, we have abandoned eternal wisdom for earthly knowledge. We have given up that life-giving experiential union for knowledge that separates and fractures not only ourselves, but the entire creation. Salvation and knowledge aren’t so different, but rather are inextricably linked. It’s a process that unites us once again with wisdom. It’s a return to the Garden and that great Tree of Life, union via true knowledge – Wisdom.

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Here’s an example to “chew” on. Imagine that you have been served some wonderful roast beef for dinner. It’s the best you’ve ever had. It is so good, you want to eat slowly so that each bit can be savored and enjoyed. (I’m using this example because that’s what my wife made for Christmas dinner!).

    So, you’re enjoying this lovely dish, and someone says, “Can you explain the roast beef?”

    This, I think, is the failure in much of theology. Many things can/could be said about the roast beef, the best of which would be, “Would you like me to serve you some?”

    Come and eat.

  11. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Wow! Come and eat, indeed! I like this saying better than ‘come and see’. ‘Seeing is often interpreted as intellectual understanding. Eating— necessity for life. And the heart and necessity of our lives is communion with Christ, physically, tangibly eating His Body and Blood in the Eucharist. No symbolism nor metaphor, but the best Food you’ve ever eaten.

    Thank you for this analogy.

  12. Brandon Avatar

    Thank you, Father.

    “ Saving knowledge cannot be isolated from the whole of who we are and how we are.” Gabriel Marcel describes mystery as a problem that encroaches upon its own data. For example, we who question something are already in the world to question it. To me, this description, as you say, helps explain mystery as a form of knowing.

    However, what would you say about those who might be “transformed” by eastern religious practices such as zen yoga or mindfulness meditation? How could It be shown that such practice is pseudo, and not true mystery that gives us true knowledge?

  13. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    “Can you explain the roast beef?”
    Great example Father!
    Well, let’s see…the roast beef is a section of meat from a cow, cooked in the oven, and…oh never mind! Please, come and eat…!
    I can’t help but associate this with receiving the Eucharist, the Holy Meal…and its utterly full participation, as we receive Christ Himself. An offering ‘on behalf of all and for all’; and we in turn do the same.
    Yet it is a loose association. Because before you partake of this particular Meal, you must be prepared. Not through ‘rote’ memorization of the tenants of the Faith, but by, precisely by, the mysteries of the Church. That an infant once received into the Church through the sacraments of Baptism and Chrismation can partake of the Holy Meal, speaks to this truth.

    Another observation, Father: only you could get away with saying this…” it is true that most engagement in theological speech is done by those who don’t know what they are talking about. What passes for “theology” can easily be little more than one swine discussing pearls with another.” !! Now that kind of straightforwardness speaks loud and clear. I like that. I need clarity! But I can’t seem to get away with that! Maybe because most of the time when I say something straightforward, it would most likely be said in contempt. But you are simply stating the truth. I believe you do this with purity of heart. Even when you know that you are going to hear about it. But it is as you say: “If you would enter into the mystery, then, like Christ Himself, you must become small, weak, poor, misunderstood, and willing to be broken.”
    I often try to imagine what it is like to be at that ‘dashboard’. God gives you a lot of grace, does’t He.
    I believe He does that for all of us. It the the ‘trying in the Fire’. Another thing that is near impossible to explain, except to those who ‘know’.

    “We may very well come away with knowledge, and yet be speechless.”
    Very very true. Very true! It is not unusual to just come to tears….

    Great piece Father. Been mulling over it for hours! Thank you!!!

  14. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Indeed that part about about the likeness of Christ is often overlooked and even more rarely embraced, when it comes to writing theology. ‘Pearls before swine’ sounds rough, but unfortunately seems accurate.

    ‘Missing the boat’ might sound softer, but in regards to life and death, ‘missing the boat’ is tragic.

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I would think the answer is quite straightforward: “transformed into what?”

  16. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Most agreed! ‘Pearls before swine’ is anything but soft. But it’s like this…if words in our culture go beyond soft, some people get really bent out of shape. Even the ‘not so soft’ words of Christ are ‘hard to swallow’. But there they are.
    But here’s the difference…and which were my thoughts when I said I can’t get away with very much straightforwardness (though that does not keep me from doing so!). I remember Father saying that to justify our ‘sinful’ anger by comparing it to Christ’s display of anger (the big one being the overturning of the tables, and the ‘whip’) is not to be compared! For Christ’s anger, without sin, is indeed righteous indignation. Ours…well, not so much!
    And too, Dee…I set the standards high for myself. Thus, I am hard on myself. And I tend to be the same towards others. I know this and I don’t like it. Because that is not in the least how God is with me. He has been over the top patient. So when I am chastised, in need, really, of a touch of humiliation…He gives me the very amount to shake me to my senses…enough to the extent that I can bear. I’ve hung my head many times! Does it have to be repeated? Yep. Sooner or later, yes. Now go figure. I keep on turning to Him though. He knows my heart. He knows…
    So that’s why I said Father can get away with that, and I can’t! But oh yeah, I agree…coming from one with the right heart, it needs to be said! Its like in another post where you said ‘missing the mark’ is too truncated. (I smile!) Well yeah, let’s call it what it is. Sin! A turning away from God. Missing the mark sounds so much better to ‘soft’ ears!

  17. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, sin is often described as “missing the mark” because the Latin word from which it is derived is an archery term. Sounds soft, yet in modern day Olympic archery, missing the center of the target by the merest fraction of an inch on one arrow can mean the difference in winning a tournament in which the archer shot hundreds of arrows over days of competition. Even worse it can mean qualifying or not for the Olympic games — a life time of striving and effort. As little as 1/64 of an inch. Or even a millemeter in the metric system.

  18. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    You’re missing the….point, Michael! ( 🙂 )
    I’m thinking Dee knows that already.

  19. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Yes I do know the usual translation for sin, but I was using a phrase (perhaps antiquated and showing my age) that is usually applied to a missed opportunity to truly learn or to understand. This condition is usually self inflicted when the focus is misplaced and indeed ‘misses the mark’. The focus I refer to (what I have observed in ‘academic theology’ on occasion) is the focus on demonstrating intellectual prowess — a who’s who in intellectual pecking order, based on a societal rubric of ‘five star reviews’ by colleagues and similar criteria.

    I can’t help encouraging and stating the importance of reading what one’s priest or similar spiritual elder, who knows you, might suggest. As a point of reference, for example, I’ve been encouraged to read St Siluoan for edification. (And Fr Stephen’s blog! 😊)

  20. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Paula you muster and demonstrate far more compassion and love on this blog than I. I’m grateful for your insights in your comments.

    Michael, my younger brother is a competitive archer. Indeed the smallest fraction makes a huge difference as you describe. It works as a good analogy. It takes almost ‘nerves of steel’ to consistently hit the mark.

    And he also puts a bandaid on his nose.

  21. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    You are very kind. Thank you.

    I must say… of all the things, your brother is an archer! Who knew!!!

  22. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    When Father’s post arrived yesterday I was reading a piece on St Maximus the Confessor … his excerpts from the Philokalia. The content of both pieces, I thought, greatly complement each other. I’d like to share the link:

  23. Harold Avatar

    Dear Fr Stephen,

    You wrote “Only that which is hidden can be revealed.” This helps me understand verses like Luke 18:34 “…This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.” Perhaps this is an instance of Proverbs 25:2 “It is the glory of God to conceal things…” Thank you for your writing!

  24. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Well, if I miss one every once in awhile, I am thankful to be corrected by both of you Dee and Paula.

  25. Nicole from VA Avatar
    Nicole from VA

    Father, a few months ago you mentioned with excitement that you were going to reflect on the phrase ‘taste and see.’

    I think your analogy ‘come and eat’ gets at it well. In the Christology class I took at Catholic they emphasized 3 elements: Christ’s teachings, miracles and ‘table fellowship.’ I love that last one, which I had’t thought of before. My favorite line from the Bible is ‘Jesus was eating at the house of Simon the leper’

    Also learned at CUA, the first known poem in the English language is ‘The Dream of the Rood,’ which starts with the Old English word


    Which has a sense of ‘listen deeply’ similar to Hark

    and the poem is about a dream, ‘the best of dreams’ where the Cross speaks, and tells of wanting to bow down to Christ but obeys Christ. And it may be a good example of knowlege as participation. I think now of the wood of the manger, holding up the sweet Baby.

    Does Bethlehem mean ‘house of bread?’

  26. Mark M. Avatar
    Mark M.

    Nicole from VA, yes, it does. Bread: לֶחֶם and House: בֵּית – and I and forgiveness and refer you to extensive discussions of Barfield if those colons seem too direct or confining…

  27. Mark M. Avatar
    Mark M.

    *Ask* – forgive me again for the typo!

  28. Byron Avatar

    I don’t remember where I read this or who said it, but I’ve heard it said that someone who is a ‘real’ theologian is someone who ‘authentically’ prays.

    Dee, as many here know, I lost my brother over the Christmas holiday. When we were with him, with the hospital staff gathered around, as he passed, my mother asked me to come pray. I had intended to pray a Prayer for the Dead silently from the pocket Orthodox Prayer book I have. Instead, I read the prayer aloud. My mother has since then commented on how beautiful that prayer is and we are placing, in writing, it on the back of the program for my brother’s service.

    I think that one thing that has not been directly mentioned yet is how we know the Truth in the mystery as He is revealed. If “we cannot know Him if we refuse to be like Him”, then we must pray. The prayers of the Church, full of liturgical significance and glorification of God, reveal Him. And we naturally respond to that revealing, even if we do not understand it fully. As Father has pointed out before, we naturally seek God, even if we don’t realize it. In Him we have our Being; our lives are, on some level, always a participation in God and His revealing.

  29. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Bryon thank you for this beautiful comment. May the good Lord shower your family with love and peace.

    Memory Eternal, Dean.

  30. Lina Avatar

    Just interesting to note that in some languages there are two words for the English KNOW. Spanish uses two words. One is conocer, which means to know someone, the other is saber to know facts. We are called to conocer a Dios.

    Another word I enjoyed while living in a Spanish speaking country was carne, meat, flesh. This is the root of the word incarnation Many times when I went to the meat market and asked for carne I would think of our word incarnation, their word encarnacion (with an accent on the o)

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