Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Extraordinary Form: The Creed

It is said that Christianity becomes different from other religions in that we are a religion of a "person", not a creed.  That being said, creeds are still incredibly important.  We get "creed" from the Latin credo, which stands for "I believe."  For this part in the series I would like to do two things.  I would like to discuss the significance behind "I believe", and also deal with some of the problems facing a proper understanding of the Nicene Creed today.

If there is one thing that defines modern man and the world, it is their indifference.  Pope Benedict XVI speaks of this as the "dictatorship of relativism" where the only truth is that there is no truth.  The corollary is that those who believe in absolute truth must be treated as the outcast.  If truth even exists, it is the product of the rationalization of the individual.  It never comes from an external force (i.e. an objective truth.)

The Nicene Creed is a rejection of that understanding.  If one wishes to presume themselves a follower of God, they must hold to these truths.  All other truths of the faith flow from these central truths (even if they are not explicitly spelled out.)  The Creed is ultimately a statement in monotheism (credo in unum Deum).  In addition, it is a statement of belief in the Holy Trinity (in the three "sections" of the Creed the 3 persons of the Trinity are explained), and in Christ's role as the Savior of mankind.

These words should never be a rote repetition.  Every time we speak those words, we are submitting ourselves to God.  We submit ourselves to His truth, made possible by the gift of Faith, itself made possible by the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross.  We cannot have this faith however without the Holy Spirit, who enlightens the minds of the faithful.  Our very recitation of the Creed is only possible through the constant action of the Holy Trinity.

Today, at least in English speaking countries, this experience has been hampered by the translations of the liturgy.  Words were translated in ways that were not necessarily false, but did not fully express the significance contained within the Latin, and in the Churches belief of these doctrines.  Thankfully, new translations are set to take place with the start of the next liturgical year. (The First Sunday of Advent)  Since the Creed is identical in both forms of the Roman liturgy, I hope the following will be of instruction to all Catholics.

In today's Creed in the vernacular, it begins with the statement "We Believe" as opposed to the Latin translation of "I believe."  The translations no doubt wanted to stress the importance of the community.  It is certainly true that as Catholics, we do believe certain things.

Yet the existence of these truths was independent of the group.  Some try to say that the faith of the Church comes about as a result of the belief of the community.  If the "community" (typically a bunch of dissenting liberal hippies) does not believe something, it is not the faith of the Church.  The Catholic answers this charge with "Credo", I believe.  While the community is important, God's calling is at first to the individual.  He did not call the Chaldean's as a person to be the father of many, but He called Abraham.  While God did indeed call entire nations (and all of humanity) to a certain vocation, the Bible was equally clear that one was not righteous or wicked on the account of others.  One was righteous or wicked on the account of the individual.  In the fullness of revelation, one is righteous or wicked to the extent he personally denies himself and follows Christ in all things.

There is also a general structure of the Mass being followed.  Up until the Creed, the action is very community centered.  The people pray as a community, they hear the Scriptures as a community, etc.  The Creed is a distinct shift.  We are transitioning from the Liturgy of the Word to the Liturgy of the Eucharist, culminating in our ultimate participation in Holy Communion.  This is a distinctly personal event.  While the Eucharist provides grace to the Church as a whole, the most importance grace is the chance for union with Christ Jesus through the Church.

The next part of the Creed tells us God the Father is the creator of all things visibilium et omnium et invisibilium.  The English lackadaisically translates this as "of all things seen and unseen."  A story best explains the difference.  It may be apocryphal, if so, it should be true.  Cardinal Francis Arinze was discussing with a Bishop about this very clause, and the Bishop wondered what the big deal was.  During this bewilderment, Cardinal Arinze got up and ducked behind a chair.  He replied "I am unseen, but I am not invisible." 

When we express these words, we express faith in the truth that there is more than just this physical world. While our bodies may tell us much, they cannot tell us everything.  More importantly, that which they do tell us leads to something that cannot be seen by sight, or even fully comprehended by human reason.  That is why we say visible first.  We move from the visible to the invisible.  Both are good, but the latter is clearly superior.  The liturgy itself uses visible actions to reveal the invisible realities they signify, mainly God's union with us.  The cross did the same.  The visible realities of Christ's suffering revealed (though only in a partial sense to dulled human reason) the length of obedience to the Father.  That perfect and unyielding obedience is why salvation is available to us.  While seen and unseen can signify this, it is done so in a far less powerful way.

That powerful way is again encountered when we come to the focal point of the Creed.  In the English, we bow and state "by the power of the Holy spirit, he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man."  The Latin uses a phrase of far greater precision:  Et Incarnatus est, de Spiritu Sancto, ex Maria Virgine, et homo factus est.  "By the power of the Holy Spirit he was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man.  The mystery of the Incarnation is expressed in all it's splendor.  While Christ certainly had a "birth" in the "natural" order (He did not just appear in this world out of nothing!), it was entirely different from the birth you and I experienced from our mothers.

"Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire, but a body thou hast fitted me" says the Messiah in the words of the Psalmist.  One could say that in Christ becoming man, He assumed the role, that body, which had been prepared for Him by the Father not only from the beginning of time, but beyond the existence of time as we know it.  As a result, every moment in history before led up to the Incarnation, where Christ, whom Heaven and Earth could not contain, enthroned Himself within the tiny womb of what, to the world, was an irrelevant peasant teenage girl.  (In the culture of that time, the three adjectives would only reinforce the seeming irrelevance!)  All time since that moment is due to that moment.

Again, one could get this from the word "born", but not as easily.  As one can see, these words are not chosen because of they sound more formal and liturgical, but because the express intimately what exactly is the truth.  When professing something as central to human existence as the Trinity and the Incarnation, precision is not just important, it is paramount.

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