Some of the benefits of the new English translation of the Roman Missal are the changes in the Gloria and the Nicene Creed, which force us to slow down a little bit and actually think about what we are saying. Familiarity can often lead us into a routine of forgetfulness.
In this Year of Faith, the church encourages us to study and meditate over the Apostles’ and the Nicene Creeds, for they express, simply and profoundly, the most essential elements of our Catholic belief.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Whoever says ‘I believe’ says ‘I pledge myself to what we believe.’ Communion in faith needs a common language of faith, normative for all and uniting all in the same confession of faith” #185.
How we, as believers, understand the Trinity, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit and the church has developed over time. For example, it took the church several centuries to articulate in theological language what it means to say that Jesus Christ is both divine and human, even though that conviction was held from the beginning.
In the fourth century, the heresy of Arianism – the false belief that Jesus was the anointed Messiah but was not divine – was ripping the church apart. In fact, the majority of Christians had embraced this erroneous conviction. To end this divisive and violent conflict, in 325 A.D., the Emperor Constantine summoned the bishops to an ecumenical council in Nicaea, a city in what is now Turkey. Through intense prayer and spirited dialogue, the bishops, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, formulated a profession of faith which became normative for the whole church and which we profess every Sunday during Mass.
What the Creed gives us is that “common language of faith” which binds all the faithful together in a united act of belief. It articulates the implications of Jesus’ incarnation, mission, ministry, preaching, death and resurrection. It shines forth the inner life of the Trinity as a communion of persons whose identity is pure and perfect love, and whose mission is the inclusion of us into that eternal life.
The Creed expresses the essential role of the Holy Spirit who brings the saving work of Christ to its fruitful completion. It reveals the nature of the church as one, holy, Catholic and apostolic. The Creed tells us who God is and by that fact who we are.
What the Creed cannot give us is a living relationship with the Lord. We believe in God, not the Nicene Creed. I cannot say that I simply affirm everything the church says and leave it at that. I need to make my own personal assent to Jesus Christ and his kingdom in my life. I must absorb and surrender to the mystery of God who has revealed himself fully in Christ.
As necessary as theological language is to profess faith, words and ideas will never fully capture God. The Creed is like the frame around a masterpiece of art; it limits and defines what can be believed, but always points beyond itself to the actual beauty, truth and goodness of God. What attracts our attention in a museum is not the frame but the picture.
Occasionally, I sit down with the Nicene Creed in prayer, meditating on some word or idea that captures my attention. My heart is drawn to ponder the eternal outpouring of love among the three Divine Persons or the humility of the Incarnation or the working of the Holy Spirit in my life.
Such spiritual musings help me to “digest” the essence of our faith; they move me beyond viewing the Creed as just some rigid, intellectual collection of ideas that we endlessly recite without much thought. If we hope to be effective witnesses of the new evangelization, we need to know the content of the Catholic faith, understand what it means, be able to express it to others, and most importantly, allow all the details of our lives and aspects of our humanity to be absorbed into a living and loving relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Creed can serve as a beautiful door that opens us into that sacred mystery of faith. In this Year of Faith, we thank the Holy Spirit and the early church for the gift of the Creed; it has held us together in the unity of belief for 1,700 years.