But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love Him,” (1 Corinthians 2:7-9)
Syriac Christian scholar Sebastian Brock comments on the notion of “mystery” in Christian theology:
A very important term, especially in the Syriac writers, is raza, ‘mystery, hidden secret, symbol’. In the plural, raze, the term is a standard one for the eucharistic Mysteries (as ta Mysteria in Greek), but in a biblical context the word is often most helpfully translated by ‘symbol’, that is, a pointer to a greater reality. It is important to realize, however, that ‘symbol’ is used here in a strong sense, in that the symbol actually participates in some sense in the reality: there is a ‘hidden power’, or ‘meaning’, that links the two. This is, of course, very different from the more widespread understanding of the term today, where a symbol is essentially something different from the reality it points to. For Syriac authors, and for the Fathers in general, it could be said that the symbol is enhanced and validated by the reality it points to. (TREASURE-HOUSE OF MYSTERIES, p 18)
Brock’s explanation of “symbol” is very similar to the ideas expressed by Fr Alexander Schmemann on the same topic. Schmemann continually pointed out a common modern misunderstanding of the idea of “symbol.” In his writings, he points out that “symbol” implies bringing two things together (the opposite being diabol – to tear things apart, also related to the term for devil, diabolos, diabolical). Modern understanding sees a symbol as simply pointing to an unrelated object, whereas ancients understood the symbol not only to point to another reality but that reality participates in some way in the symbol. Thus the Eucharist is a symbol of Christ, but Christ participates in that symbol and so we receive Christ in the Eucharist. God’s plan of salvation is a mystery in which both we and Christ participate. The Eucharist is a symbol, the sacraments are symbols, the Church is a symbol, but only because Christ participates in both, and we participate in Christ through these symbols. The Christian understanding of symbol and mystery is that they bring together heaven and earth, Creator and creation, the spiritual and the physical, the divine and the human, the living and the dead, saints and sinners. The mystery is a hidden knowledge which is to be revealed, another form of uniting heaven and earth.
Christ is all, and in all. (Colossians 3:11)
He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20)
For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (Ephesians 1:9-10)