There are three key mysteries in the life of Jesus, according to St. Ignatius of Antioch, in an intriguing line from one of the letters of this early Church Father.
The three mysteries are: the virginity of Mary, the birth of Christ, and His death. What is intriguing is how St. Ignatius describes them. He calls them ‘mysteries of the cry.’
What is a ‘mystery of the cry’?
Most translators drain this phrase of its enigmatic richness and try to guess what the saint meant.
Here’s how the entire passage, which is from Chapter 19 in the Letter to the Ephesians, reads in one classic Church Fathers series: “Now the virginity of Mary was hidden from the prince of this world, as was also her offspring, and the death of the Lord; three mysteries of renown, which were wrought in silence by God.” Another translator prefers ‘three mysteries to be cried aloud.’ A third puts it as ‘three mysteries to be loudly proclaimed.’
But Catholic theologian Gregory Vall, whose book, Learning Christ: Ignatius of Antioch and the Mystery of Redemption, is the source of my literal translation of the Greek, understands Ignatius in a different direction. For Vall, the main point is not so much that these mysteries need to be proclaimed or cried out by Christians and the Church. Instead, the great martyr is saying that these three mysteries themselves cry out to us from the silence of God.
For Vall, these deeds of God transcend what can be said through ordinary human words.
As he puts it: “Human words, to be sure, play an indispensable part in expounding the mystery of God, but as the latter is ineffable it cannot be communicated in words alone. Ignatius apparently finds great significant in the fact that the central moments in the Christ event are essentially nonverbal. … The events themselves ‘cry out’ a truth that transcends human language.”
For Ignatius, Jesus is the ultimate mystery in the sense that He is the Word of God spoken from silence—the interval between the end of the era of the prophets and the Incarnation event. That means that Jesus speaks to us even in His silence. As Ignatius writes earlier in his Letter to the Ephesians, “He who possesses the word of Jesus is truly able to hear even His very silence, that he may be perfect, and may both act as he speaks, and be recognized by his silence.”
This listening to the silence of Jesus, Vall writes, has implications for our interior spiritual life.
“In fact, if the silent mysteries of the life of the incarnate Logos manifest the eternal ‘silence’ from which the Logos has come forth, the believer finds a sort of access to this divine silence through prayerful meditation on the mysteria vitae Iesu (the mysteries of the life of Jesus),” Vall concludes.
As St. John of the Cross put it, the Word of God is truly heard in silence by the soul.
This insight has two interrelated implications for us today. On a basic level, we must listen to the words of Jesus—both spoken and unspoken—in silence, by removing the distractions and noises that crowd our lives and minds.
This is all also very comforting for those of us who experience ‘dryness’ in our devotions—those times when it seems like God has gone silent in our lives. The prayers or Scriptures that once moved us so deeply seem strangely—perhaps scandalously—stale to us. Ignatius seems to be saying that far from a spiritual setback these moments of gaping silence are actually a good thing—for it is precisely in silence that God reveals Himself most profoundly.
This brings us back to the three mysteries listed by Ignatius. Why these three? Certainly there were many more in the gospels. Thanks to the rosary, we can think of at least 20 such mysteries right off the tops of our heads.
But take a moment to think through all the mysteries of the rosary. (Here is a handy concise list if needed.) Just about all them involve public events or private events where the words of the person are recorded. Some examples from the Joyful Mysteries: the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Presentation in the Temple, and the Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple. All are public events or private ones where the words of the main characters are recorded.
But Ignatius’ list consists of events that were largely hidden from view. The first one, the perpetual virginity of Mary, is self-evidently a mystery that is concealed. Even the birth of Jesus—the moment itself—has no witnesses. Remember, it is only afterwards that the shepherds arrive and see Jesus wrapped in the manger.
Now the third mystery, the death of Christ, was a public event. But there was also a sense in which it is among the most hidden. When the Word of God dies and effectively goes silent, God perhaps for a moment seems more remote from us than ever. Of course, the moment after His death, Christ descended to hell, where He rescued the holy fathers in limbo, wrought the final defeat of the devil, and rendered hell powerless to keep saints from heaven.
Think about that—in moment of greatest silence God achieved such great things.
Let us then pray that God gives us the courage to not only not fear, but even to embrace those moments of silence, knowing that it is through such silence that we draw close to God in ways we cannot put into human speech.