From Pope St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Pænitentia (1984):
It is profoundly significant that when Paul presents this mysterium pietatis he simply transcribes, without making a grammatical link with what he has just written,105 three lines of a Christological hymn which—in the opinion of authoritative scholars—was used in the Greek-speaking Christian communities.
In the words of that hymn, full of theological content and rich in noble beauty, those first-century believers professed their faith in the mystery of Christ, whereby:
- He was made manifest in the reality of human flesh and was constituted by the Holy Spirit as the Just One who offers himself for the unjust.
- He appeared to the angels, having been made greater than them, and he was preached to the nations as the bearer of salvation.
- He was believed in, in the world, as the one sent by the Father, and by the same Father assumed into heaven as Lord.106
The mystery or sacrament of pietas, therefore, is the very mystery of Christ. It is, in a striking summary, the mystery of the incarnation and redemption, of the full passover of Jesus, the Son of God and son of Mary: the mystery of his passion and death, of his resurrection and glorification. What St. Paul in quoting the phrases of the hymn wished to emphasize was that this mystery is the hidden vital principle which makes the church the house of God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth. Following the Pauline teaching, we can affirm that this same mystery of God’s infinite loving kindness toward us is capable of penetrating to the hidden roots of our iniquity in order to evoke in the soul a movement of conversion, in order to redeem it and set it on course toward reconciliation.
St. John too undoubtedly referring to this mystery, but in his own characteristic language which differs from St. Paul’s, was able to write that “anyone born of God does not sin, but he who was born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him.”107 In this Johannine affirmation there is an indication of hope, based on the divine promises: The Christian has received the guarantee and the necessary strength not to sin. It is not a question therefore of a sinlessness acquired through one’s own virtue or even inherent in man, as the Gnostics thought. It is a result of God’s action. In order not to sin the Christian has knowledge of God, as St. John reminds us in this same passage. But a little before he had written: “No one born of God commits sin; for God’s seed abides in him.”108 If by “God’s seed” we understand, as some commentators suggest, Jesus the Son of God, then we can say that in order not to sin or in order to gain freedom from sin the Christian has within himself the presence of Christ and the mystery of Christ, which is the mystery of God’s loving kindness.
105 The text presents a certain difficulty, since the relative pronoun which opens the literal translation does not agree with the neuter mysterion. Some late manuscripts have adjusted the text in order to correct the grammar. But it was Paul’s intention merely to put next to what he had written a venerable text which for him was fully explanatory.
106 The early Christian community expresses its faith in the crucified and glorified Christ, whom the angels adore and who is the Lord. But the striking element of this message remains the phrase ‘manifested in the flesh’: that the eternal Son of God became man is the ‘great mystery’.
107 1 Jn 5:18f.
108 1 Jn 3:9.
— Reconciliatio et Pænitentia 20