Sunday, May 18, 2014


Reputedly Socrates prison; on Filapappos Hill, Athens
Beautiful Greece is a land of mysteries.

The land itself holds mysteries. There are caves everywhere, more than 10,000 charted caves, some so extensive they’ve never been fully explored. The Acropolis, in the heart of Athens, sits above a network of caves, and throughout the Greek hills and islands there are shallow caves used as homes, storage, animals sheds, prisons, even inns. In a nation where the sea is never more than 85 miles away, there are also thousands of underwater caves, caves carved into cliff face, caves that offer passage to underground lakes and rivers.

There are also springs – water welling up in caves, in rocks, high up on rocky crags. Some of the springs yield clear, clean, ice cold water – like the spring in the center of Berea, where I drank cold water spilling from a fountain in a rock wall. Some springs are the perfect temperature to bathe in; some too hot to enter. In some, the water bubbles, or steams, or smells of sulfur. Some taste sour, or salty. Many have been considered therapeutic, even curative, since long before Plato. 

During my time in Greece, I traveled by metro and bus to Vougliameni Lake, 15 miles south of Athens. It was formed when a cavern collapsed, and in several places low-ceillinged caves lead off into the rock below Mount Hymettos. The lake is fed by a mix of springs, some salty, others from somewhere deep underground. Its temperature is 75 Fahrenheit year round and like most springs in Greece, it’s slightly radioactive. Even today, Greek doctors prescribe time in Vouliagmeni for a wide mix of symptoms. The site is wheel-chair accessible and attendants are on hand to help lower visitors into the water.

Vougliameni Lake
In the 1970s, three divers exploring the chambers and tunnels of Vouliagmeni disappeared. A photographer searching for them years later also disappeared. 29 years later, the first three bodies were recovered; the photographer is still missing.

In some ways, that’s a recurring story in Greece: strange springs bringing water from the underworld; subterranean chambers providing passage between life and death.

On our first day of travel with Biblical Tours Greece, we took a bus through the busy streets of Athens, out toward the Peloponnesian peninsula. Costos Tsevas, our guide, directed our attention past the petrol refineries lining the coast to the hills of Elefsena, home of Demeter, Persephone, and  the Eleusinian mystery cult.

The story of Demeter and Persephone is one I thought I knew well. After all, I was Demeter in a third-grade play, my long dark hair draped over a carefully wrapped sheet. I stood on the Prospect Hill stage, grieving the disappearance of  my daughter into the underworld, where she was held captive by Hades. Eventually, Hades agreed to return her, but since she’d broken her hunger strike by eating several pomegranate seeds during her time in the underworld, she was forced to return there for an equal number of months each year  – yielding three or four months of wintry darkness.

Somehow, our third grade production had missed the cave connection, and the ongoing history of the Demeter story. For over a thousand years, the Eleusinian mystery cult drew initiates to a multi-day ritual that reenacted the drama of Demeter and Persephone and prepared participants to cross the boundaries of the supernatural. After procession along “the sacred way,’ the road from Athens to Eleusia, (now Elefsena), the path led through the gates of Hades, a cave in the face of the Eleusainian hillside, and into the Telesterion, at one time the largest construction in the world, where the most secret rites of initiation took place.

Reading more about the Eleusinian mysteries and the power they held for many hundreds of years in the region around Athens, I discovered theories about the influence of the “mysteries” on the early Christian church, conjecture about the secrets of the mysteries and the possible uses of hallucinogenic libations or incense. attempts to link the Apostle Paul to mystery rites of both Elueusia and Tarsus,

I found myself reading the places in his letters where Paul talks about mysteries. His use of that word sometimes puzzled me in the past, but in light of the Eleusinian mysteries, and the Mythraic mysteries of Paul’s own hometown, his choice of that word seems clearer.

The mystery religions of Paul’s day depended on esoteric knowledge, ecstatic experience, and complete secrecy. In Eleusis and Athens, speaking of “the mysteries” was punishable by death. Mithras may have been even more secretive; women were not admitted, and rituals were carried out in underground caverns.

But when Paul speaks of “mystery,” he does so in the context of revelation: that what was not known is now known. That what has been revealed should be shared with all.

In Colossians 2, Paul writes:
 I want you to know how hard I am contending for you and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not met me personally. My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. 
As I read through Paul’s epistles, I see his sympathy with those who are fearful of death and hungry for understanding.

Paul offered access to a mystery more constant than a night of narcotic-induced euphoria, a communal experience more substantial and lasting than an annual participation in a series of prescribed enactments.

I know many contemporaries who would say "they’re all equal." The mystery cults, the Jewish tradition, the Christian faith are equally valid, or equally invalid. There’s no one “sacred way,” no one revelation that offers full understanding, no one “mystery” that resolves all others.

Reading Paul’s letters, researching the religions of his day, revisiting in my mind the rough terrain he traveled so tirelessly, I realize he wrestled with the same objections, the same arguments.

What he knew, and believed, he knew and believed from the inside out: God had revealed himself in a way that made sense of the laws, the stories, the traditions, the overlapping questions.

What he knew, and believed, was not from his own conjecture, his own imagination, his own mental manipulations.  It was given in a moment of surprising revelation, shattering all previous agendas, all tightly held convictions.

That’s the amazing mystery of the early church:  men and women shaken from prior certainty, compelled by a new understanding, set free on a path so different from any prior path that they startled their neighbors,
Paul in Prison, Rembrandt, 1627, Amsterdam
disrupted social patterns, outraged authority.

And shared it – consistently, creatively, courageously – even when threatened, beaten, imprisoned, exiled.


The mystery religions vanished, almost entirely, in 392 after an edict by Roman Emporer Theodocius.

Meanwhile the Christian faith continued, and continues, to spread, sometimes by misguided political force or conquest, but more often, and more consistently, by the continued awakening of men and women whose previous agendas and tightly held convictions have been shattered by an encounter with the living mystery, Christ himself.

Riding the tour bus from Athens to Corinth, reading and talking with Scripture Union friends, I found myself thinking of the ways the mystery of faith in Christ has shaken each of us, shaped us, set us on strange paths, refined our vision and refocused our agendas.

If we added the years devoted to the gospel by our small group, the total would be well into the centuries. And if we totaled the countries touched by the work of that one group, the reach would span the globe: clubs and camps for kids in hundreds of communities; training for pastors, youth workers, teachers; Bibles and books in countries where books are hard to come by.

I’m thankful for all. And all the others I know, and will never know, who celebrate with joy the greatest mystery.

To repeat Paul’s words in Colossians, rephrased by Eugene Peterson in The Message:
I want you to realize that I continue to work as hard as I know how for you. . . . Not many of you have met me face-to-face, but that doesn’t make any difference. Know that I’m on your side, right alongside you. You’re not in this alone.
I want you woven into a tapestry of love, in touch with everything there is to know of God. Then you will have minds confident and at rest, focused on Christ, God’s great mystery. All the richest treasures of wisdom and knowledge are embedded in that mystery and nowhere else. And we’ve been shown the mystery! I’m telling you this because I don’t want anyone leading you off on some wild-goose chase, after other so-called mysteries.

This is the second in a series, Texts in Context, revisiting two weeks spent in Greece.
The first: Texts in Context: Yassas!

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Just click on   __comments below to see the comment option.