In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we turn to the Nicene Creed.
The Nicene Creed originated in the obscurity of antiquity. There were a number of such Creeds floating around in various cities in the earliest centuries of the Church. The shorter Apostles’ Creed, which originated in the city of Rome, and which we recite twice daily at Morning and Evening Prayer, and which has been, and remains today, the standard of faith expected of candidates for Baptism in the Western church, is another, example.
The longer Nicene Creed, by contrast, had its origins in the Greek-speaking East. It is found, almost in the form that we now have it, in one of the works of a Cypriot bishop of the late 300’s named Epiphanius; and in a slightly more truncated form, slightly earlier, in the lessons that St. Cyril of Jerusalem taught those preparing for baptism in the church of Jerusalem. Fr. Jungmann concludes that this, in fact, was likely the Nicene Creed’s origin: the baptismal symbol of the Church at Jerusalem.
It takes its name from the Ecumenical Council held in the town of Nicaea (325), in the western part of what is now Turkey. This council defined a number of the ideas about Jesus and his relationship with God the Father that are expressed in the first half of the Creed – that Jesus was begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, light of light, true God of true God; that he was not made but rather eternally begotten; that he is of one being, or “consubstantial,” with the Father; that everything that exists was created by him; that he became a man by being born of the Virgin Mary; that he suffered and died on the cross for our salvation; and that he rose again from the dead; ascended into heaven, and so forth.
The articles toward the end of the Creed, about the Holy Spirit, were shaped at the first Ecumenical Council at the city of Constantinople in 381; and the Creed, virtually as we now have it, was finally and officially affirmed and promulgated at the Ecumenical Council at the town of Chalcedon in 451. Its endorsement by the Council of Chalcedon – because the council was ratified both by the pope and the bishops of the Orthodox churches – is the basis upon which the Nicene Creed became the doctrinal baseline of authentic Christianity. And it remains so today, accepted by the overwhelming majority of Christians around the world, Catholic and Orthodox, and even by most Protestant bodies.
The Creed began to be used within the context of the mass at Constantinople in the early 500’s. Later in that century it shows up as a part of the ritual of the mass in Spain, part of which was controlled at that time by Constantinople. There is documentary evidence that the practice of reciting the Creed within the context of the Mass was passed by the Spaniards to the Irish, and from the Irish to the Anglo-Saxons; and that Alcuin of York, a monk from Northumbria who became the chief scholar in the court of emperor Charlamagne at Aachen, introduced the Creed at the imperial chapel, where we know that it was in use during the 800’s. When Emperor Henry II visited Rome in 1014, he was surprised to find that the Nicene Creed was not there recited during the mass. When he expressed his surprise to some of the Roman clergy, he was told that the Roman church had never been disturbed by doctrinal error and so they did not need to recite it all the time. Fr. Jungmann suggests that the pope gave in to pressure from the incredulous emperor, and we know that, beginning then, in the 11th century, the Creed began to be recited at the mass in Rome. And, as is almost always the case, from Rome reciting the Creed at mass became a universal practice of the Western Church, as it had been in the East for many centuries, and as it remains to this day.
So much for the history of the Creed. But what about what it SAYS? In the version of the Creed that we have used at Holy Cross since the 1970’s, the affirmations are made in the first-person plural: “WE believe in one God…” as it is in the text promulgated by Chalcedon in 451. But the text of the Creed used through the centuries in the context of the mass, in both the Latin and Greek churches, uses the first-person singular: “I believe in one God…” This too was the form used universally in Anglican churches, beginning in the 1500’s, until about thirty years ago. This older use – “I believe in one God…” – is residual evidence of the distant origins of the Creed as an affirmation of faith required of candidates at Baptism at the Church at Jerusalem in the time of St. Cyril (according to Jungmann).
Notice also the structure of the Creed. We begin by professing monotheism: We believe in ONE God – not the many so-called gods of the various pagan religions. The God we believe in is the God of the Hebrews, who is the first origin of everything that is real, whether it be physical or spiritual, visible or invisible.
Next we affirm our faith in the only Son of God, and of the many attributes that have been revealed of him – that he is the Lord, the King of Creation, and the one who rightfully has dominion in our personal lives. Jesus Christ also is God – not a separate God, but God from the very “godness” of the one God, his Father, with whom he is “consubstantial.” And all that is, came into being through his agency.
And then we come to the very crux of the matter, the center of the Christian faith: the incarnation of Christ: “who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man…” Fr. Jungmann says:
“Rightly does this article become the center and turning point of the whole creed. In His mercy God wanted it that way, and so the inconceivable became a realty. We therefore fall upon our knees at the words [“and was incarnate”], in awe of the mystery. Some of the grandest creations of ecclesiastical music have here made the devout offering of their greatest endeavor, in the effort to help us conceive the meaning of that tremendous descent of the Son of God from heaven to bring peace to earth.” (“The Mass of the Roman Rite” vol. 1, p. 466)
This mention of the incarnation in the Nicene Creed, and the fact that we kneel as we recite it, is sort of the hinge at the very center of the mass, upon which the whole thing turns – in much the way that the event of the incarnation is the axis of all history, the event that changes everything. The incarnation is, as Jacques Derrida put it, “the most impossible possible” – the becoming actual of a Possibility and Power behind and before all other possibilities and powers (cf. “Deconstructions: The Im-Possible”). This is of the very essence of Christian faith, the incarnation of God.
The best way of understanding the Creed, or so it seems to me, thus comes into view – it is at once the conclusion of the first part of the mass, the Mass of the Catechumens or the Liturgy of the Word, and the beginning of the second, final, and climactic part of the mass: the liturgy of the sacrifice. In the early centuries of the Church, when the “disciplina arcani,” was in effect, “inquirers” who had not yet been baptized were dismissed before the Creed was recited. And to this day, among the Orthodox, before the Creed is recited, the priest says: “All ye catechumens, depart! Depart, ye catechumens! All ye that are catechumens, depart! Let no catechumens remain! But let us who are of the faithful, again and again, in peace pray to the Lord.” And the Deacon calls out: “Guard the doors. Wisdom. Let us be attentive.” (From the Divine Liturgy of St. Chrysostom.) And the baptized who remain in the church recite the Creed together, and the liturgy continues. The Creed was thus a ritual doorway through which only the baptized could pass on to faithful appropriation of the sacrifice of Christ and communion with God at the altar of his Church.
The whole structure of the mass evokes this spiritual situation of the faithful: that what is revealed opaquely in the words of Holy Scripture becomes visible for all to see in the incarnation, in the person, the very flesh, of Jesus Christ. And from him, in virtue of his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, the history of his person, because of this, all the treasures of divinity have been opened to us: the Holy Spirit has been poured out on the Church, and the plentitude of grace is given to us through the sacraments of which she is the ever-vigilant custodian. And thus does the Creed serve as the gateway to the liturgy of the sacrifice, and the act of communion. It is through our assent to this narrative, our affirmation of it, our appropriation of it by faith, that makes our communion with the Body of Christ possible.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.