A few years ago, my husband and I decided to go back to school to study theology. Attending graduate school is a challenge at any age and being a student at midlife was no exception.

My husband was struggling in a theology class taught by the renowned Jesuit scholar, Don Gelpi, S.J. He studied for hours to prepare for the oral exam. The stress was apparent.

As he left for class, I wished him luck. On the way out the door, I smiled and said: “If he asks you a question and you don’t know the answer, simply say it’s a mystery.”

While he didn’t completely understand my Catholic sense of humor, ingrained at an early age and nearly perfected over time, some of us can identify with the Baltimore Catechism and using mystery as our “go to” answer.

As I reflect on this season of Advent, I am always humbled by the mystery of the Child. We are called to behold the mystery of a Child, a Child born to earthly parents who is the Son of God, a Child who enters the world humbly, a Child who rests in a manger in rural anonymity.

The great mystery is that Jesus shows up naked, vulnerable and defenseless. He comes to us without fanfare. He comes to us hidden in plain sight. While it’s a glorious revelation; it’s also a great mystery.

While God could have sent His Son with a majestic flourish, there was no pretense in His arrival. Even though God chose the humblest setting, the birth is accompanied by the attention of the heavenly hosts as well as the shepherds. This is a story of wonder and mystery.

We are given a sign: “For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” Luke 2:10-11.

We are called to behold this Child and we are reminded that we always become what we behold. This mystery, this sign in Luke’s account, combines praise and simplicity. Jesus’ birth is shared as a divine activity that invites joy and reflection.

We often think of mystery as something we cannot understand. Our traditional definition is something that is difficult or impossible to explain.

We are perplexed, puzzled, and stumped by this conundrum or secret that we cannot explain or solve. We are also told that mystery is unknowable except by divine revelation. While all of this may be true, we all seem to love a good mystery.

Franciscan priest Richard Rohr invites us to view mystery from another perspective. He reframes it in this way: “…mystery isn’t something that you cannot understand – it is something that you can endlessly understand! There is no point at which you can say, ‘I’ve got it.’ Always and forever, mystery gets you!”

During the season of Advent, we are reminded of the Great Mystery as we view the nativity scene. In 1223, on Christmas Eve in the village of Greccio, St. Francis of Assisi created a scene to connect everyone to this mystery and to recall how “…simplicity was honored and poverty was exalted.”

During the time of St. Francis, mystery and miracle plays were popular forms of entertainment and education. These portrayals were originally performed in churches and later in public arenas. This was the way people learned scripture, as Latin was the language of Mass and very few people understood it.

St. Francis’ nativity scene helped people understand and emotionally engage with the mystery. Within a couple of centuries, St. Francis’ nativity scenes spread throughout Europe. Today, they continue to remind us of the Great Mystery.

We are also reminded: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” John 3:17. Salvation is about readiness; it is the capacity and the willingness to stay in relationship. God is absolute readiness. As long as you show up, the Spirit keeps working.

Regardless of our beliefs, we are invited to enter into the Great Mystery revealed yet hidden in plain sight, a mystery that begets all mysteries. We reflect: “God is love.” John 4:8-16. This is a mystery we don’t have to get – it gets us.

While Professor Gelpi wouldn’t accept “mystery” as an answer in the oral exam, it caused him to smile and my husband passed the test.

Teresa Nizza Schulz is a spiritual director, author, retreat facilitator and health care chaplain. She is the founder of Tools for Intentional Living and Transformation and co-founder of MaineSpiritus. She can be reached by email at: [email protected]; blog: mainespiritus.com.

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