The term sacred mysteries generally denotes the area of supernatural phenomena associated with a divinity or a religious ideology.
Pre-Christian religious mysteries
Religious mysteries formed an important part of the worship of a number of pre-Christian religions, including the Eleusinian Mysteries, Mithraism, the Cult of Isis, and the Cult of Sol Invictus. Dedicated devotees of the religion would be inducted into the mysteries by receiving special instruction. Due to the secrecy surrounding this special instruction, very little is now known about what was included in the mysteries.
Mystery traditions were popular in ancient Greece and during the height of the Roman Empire, and may have influenced the introduction of sacred mysteries in Christianity.
The term is used in Eastern Christianity to refer to what the Western Church currently calls Sacraments and Sacramentals. In the Early Church they were kept hidden from the pagans — the so-called Disciplina arcani — lest they become objects of ridicule. As the Age of Persecution ended, the secrecy was gradually relaxed. But the term continued to be used. Originally the term "Mystery" was used in both the East and the West, as shown from the "Mystagogical Homilies" of St. Cyril of Jerusalem and the work, "On the Mysteries" by St. Ambrose of Milan.
The terms Sacrament and Sacramental are terms which the Western Church has carefully defined in Canon Law. Thus, for instance, the Council of Trent declared there to be exactly seven sacraments. The Eastern Churches, in contrast, have never defined the Mysteries in such precise terms. And, though the Western Church teaches that the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist are one Sacrament, the Divine Liturgy refers to the Eucharist as the Mysteries, in the plural. Orthodox Christians have always received Holy Communion in both species (both the Body and the Blood), and even reserve both in the tabernacle.
The word mysterion (μυστήριον) is used 27 times in the New Testament. It denotes not so much the meaning of the modern English term mystery, but rather something that is mystical. In the biblical Greek, the term refers to "that which, being outside the unassisted natural apprehension, can be made known only by divine revelation."
For the Eastern Orthodox, Christian life is centered in the Mystery of the Incarnation of Christ, the union of God and man. However, the redemption of man is not considered to have taken place only in the past, but continues to this day through theosis. The Sacraments, or Sacred Mysteries are the most important means by which the faithful may obtain union with God, provided they are received with faith after appropriate preparation. Orthodox Christians believe that God is present everywhere and fills all things by his Divine grace, and that all of creation is, in some sense, a "sacrament." However, they believe that "He is more specifically and intensively present in [those] particular and reliable manners which He Himself has established," i.e., in the Sacred Mysteries.
Though Orthodox instructional materials may list seven Sacred Mysteries (Baptism, Chrismation, Confession, Holy Communion, Marriage, Ordination, and Unction), it must be understood that the term is not limited to these seven. The Sacred Mysteries can be defined as "those holy acts through which the Holy Spirit mysteriously and invisibly confers Grace (the saving power of God) upon man."
- Strong, James, The New Strong's Expanded Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN, 2001, ISBN 0-7852-4539-1), p. 168.
- The Sacramental Life: An Orthodox Christian Perspective, (St. John of Kronstadt Press, Liberty, TN, 1986), p. 6.
- Ibid, p. 7.
- Archpriest Seraphim Slobodskoy, The Law of God (Printshop of St. Job of Pochaev, Jordanville, NY, 1996, ISBN 0-88465-044-8), p. 471.
- Discipline of the Secret article in Catholic Encyclopedia
- On the Mysteries by St. Ambrose of Milan
- Mystagogical Lectures St. Cyril of Jerusalem
- "Mystery". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)/Mystery.