In honor of the Year of Faith, Fr. Patrick Tobin, O.P. will offer regular reflections on the Creed and why it matters throughout the spring semester. Check back often to see the latest editions.
#1: In or Out?
#2: Testimony or Trivia?
#3: Consubstantial & the Bridge to Heaven
#4: Give me Paramecium or give me death!
#5: The 2nd Coming: Promise or Threat?
#6: Church Spotting: 4 Marks of the Church
The Creed: Are you in or out?
Imagine the church as a dartboard, except there aren’t any markings on the board at all. There’s no bull’s eye or inner ring or outer ring. There aren’t any wedges to aim at. There aren’t even any numbers around the outside for scoring. Confused yet? A dart can hit the board anywhere from the dead center to the outermost rim for the same amount of points. Whether the dart hits the board at the 12 o’clock position, the 2 o’clock position, or the 8 o’clock position the same amount of points is given. In fact, there is only one relevant criteria for the ecclesial dartboard: did you hit it or miss it. Did your dart land on the dartboard or off of the dartboard? Are you in the church or out of the church? It is a binary question that permits only one of two possible answers. There is no inbetween.
Thankfully, the church isn’t a game of darts because I am neither lucky nor skilled in hand-eye coordination. I’m a priest and a chemist after all and not a daredevil or an athlete! Instead of a person’s ability to throw a dart determining whether or not they are in the church or out of the church, the church looks for evidence of the Holy Spirit dwelling within a person through the sacrament of baptism. Now this is admittedly an impossible task if certainty is the goal. But if God dwells within a person, among its effects is that person should have the sensus fidelium or “supernatural instinct” (B16 quote) that steers each member of the church toward the Truth who is God. It is this “supernatural instinct” at work over hundreds of years that led to the production of the Creed. The Creed, therefore, has become an integral criteria in determining membership in the church.
So I have to ask, are you in or out of the Church? Can you confidently speak the Creed on Sunday at Mass? That is a promising sign that maybe you’re in! Don’t know what you’re saying anymore, you’ve done it so many times that reciting the Creed has become a habit? Hmmm. Not a good sign. Don’t know what the Creed means? Not a good sign.
But do not despair! Over the course of this semester we are going to give the Creed a once over and give you a chance every two weeks to test your sensus fidelium.
The Creed: Testimony or Trivia?
If you had just 60 seconds to write something before you died, (like right now!) what would you write? Now it’s just 60 seconds so there isn’t a chance to write a long note. No time for long goodbyes. No time to right all the wrongs of your life or to say you’re sorry to all those whom you have wronged. No time to profess your undying love to someone. No time to share with the world the wisdom you have collected. Just 60 seconds. Go. No seriously, go!
What did you write? A Dominican friar had just such an opportunity one day as he was walking along on his usual rounds. His name was Peter of Verona and what set apart this one day for him from all the other days of his life is that it was his last. He was attacked and mortally wounded and he had just seconds to write a note upon the ground with the only writing instrument and ink available to him: his finger and his blood. What did he write? Well, what did you write?
While this may seem to be a rather morbid exercise, it helps to focus the mind on that which is true and important. Because there isn’t any time for long explanations we have to just say it as simply and honestly as possible. This, friends, is testimony. Like our testimony in a court of law, we are certifying that what we are saying is true and important and relevant to others.
Like testimony, trivia is a piece of factual information. It is true and we can even certify that it is true from our own experience. I cannot, in fact, touch my elbow to my nose. Where trivia differs from testimony is in its importance to us and to others. Trivia is something we use to win prizes or contests or to impress others. And if you were Peter of Verona and dying upon the ground and had just seconds to write something, I think that you would be like Peter and write your testimony and not trivia.
What did Peter write? What was so important and true and necessary to testify to? Credo! Hey, it was the Middle Ages so he wrote in Latin. He wrote “Credo.” As in “Credo in unuum Deum.” As in “I believe in one God.” As in the Creed. He didn’t write his name so others would be able to identify his body. He didn’t write the name of his attacker to bring him to justice. The most important personal experience of his life that he wanted others to know was God! And so he used a shorthand every Catholic in the world would understand. He used the creed.
This Sunday at Mass, when you stand with your brothers and sisters in Christ and loudly declare with one voice the source of your hope in salvation, I dare you to pay attention to each and every word and consider: If you had just 60 seconds to write something before you died, (like right now!) what would you write?
Consubstantial and the Bridge to Heaven
Have you ever built a bridge? Probably not one that real cars have driven over, but most of us have built bridges during our childhood so that we could walk over streams or for our toy cars to cross over imaginary streams of flowing lava. While I’m not suggesting that this qualifies you to build a bridge over the Mississippi, our childhood experience is sufficient for us to grasp one of the fundamental concepts of a bridge: it takes us from a specific starting point to a specific destination.
Jesus may be likened to a bridge. The span that Jesus crosses is the gap between heaven and earth. As you might guess, in order to use the bridge that is Jesus it is important to know how to get on the bridge and where the bridge will take us. The starting point is pretty manageable.
“And by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.”
Jesus is human. We’re human. Now while Jesus is a human being without sin, which does make him a bit different from the rest of us, we are pretty familiar with the human condition and so know where to find the starting point. The complication comes from the destination. Where does this bridge that is Jesus take us? Does Jesus take us to the edge of heaven? Are we within waving distance of God? Are we going to be an angel? What becomes of us?
“God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father.”
Jesus is Divine! Jesus is God! The language is very precise and unambiguous. Jesus is not a merely a being that lives in heaven (like the 9 different types of angels). Neither is Jesus a being that happens to be more like God than any other created being (Jesus is begotten, not made so not a created being). Nor is Jesus a special being that is very much like God without being fully God (Jesus is true God). Jesus is God! And to make sure there cannot be any doubt on this point the Creed tells us that Jesus is consubstantial with the Father. What?!? This means that Jesus is not kinda like God or maybe made from the same stuff that God is made of without being God. This would mean Jesus is of a similar substance as the Father. Jesus is of the SAME substance (consubstantial) as the Father who we acknowledge as God.
This means that our destination is...wait for it...God! We get to be with God! The bridge that is Jesus doesn’t just drop of off in God’s kingdom for us to wander around searching for God. The bridge that is Jesus doesn’t even drop of off within sight of God so that we can then walk over to God. The bridge that is Jesus takes us directly to God because Jesus is consubstantial with the Father. The bridge that is Jesus takes us directly to God because Jesus is God.
Give me Paramecium or give me death!
Said no one...ever! Not that I have anything against Paramecium. They are wonderful single celled organisms that I remember gazing upon in petri dishes of pond water from my childhood school days. Covered in little moveable hairs called cilia, they danced in and out of focus in the microscope eyepiece unaware of the giant eye that was observing them in their drop of pond water. But as much fun as it was to gaze upon them and to learn about single celled organisms (hey, it really is fun!), I would never be willing to die to save a Paramecium. I wouldn’t even inconvenience myself to save one from going down the drain. Yet I am more closely related to that Paramecium than I am related to the God who saves me.
The creed is univocal on this point. First, we are instructed that “for us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven” and then the point is driven home with “for our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” Jesus, the second Person of the Trinity, took upon Himself our human nature, lived, loved, instructed us, died, and rose from the dead for our sake. God didn’t come to save any other creature in the universe. God comes for us and through us God saves His entire creation! But why?
I think that we who have lived with knowledge of God, be it direct knowledge through a personal relationship with God or indirect knowledge transmitted through a Christian-inspired culture, often get too comfortable with the Easter mystery that we have just celebrated. We take for granted that Jesus came for the sake of humanity. It’s a historical fact after all! Yet why did God do this? Seriously, why? We are so unlike God that I don’t think we can adequately comprehend the dissimilarity. Yet are we not more willing to sacrifice our money, our time, and even our lives for that which is like us? Are we not more generous with family, friends, alumni, parishioners, and countrymen than with a complete stranger?
Perhaps it is this very dissimilarity between God and humanity that lies at the heart of the Easter mystery. Our God who is creator and master of the universe, who is knowledge, who is power, who is being, who is beauty, who is love is also humble enough to make Himself like us so that He might pay our debt. Our God is humble enough to make Himself like us so that He might save us. Our God is humble enough to make Himself like us so that He might attract us to Himself. In short, our God is humble enough to become one of us so that we might become like unto Him.
The 2nd Coming: Promise or Threat?
My 6th grade teacher had an odd sense of humor. When we cheerily waved goodbye at the end of a day and called to him, “See you tomorrow!” he would often reply, “Is that a promise or a threat?” All these years later, I still remember his response and I’ve often wondered what he really thought about us. Were we a reward or a punishment? If a reward, then we were sweet children that were a joy to be around. If a punishment, then we were awful hooligans that daily tormented him.
A similar question lies at the heart of our response to Jesus’ second coming. Is Jesus’ return a reward or a punishment? If Jesus’ return is a reward then we should be excited every Sunday when we get to the part in the creed that says
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead
and his kingdom will have no end.
Seriously, this is God! Can you imagine the kind of reward that God gives? Epic! We should be practically cheering and waving flags at the prospect of Jesus’ second coming, right? Unless it means punishment, in which case we should joyfully accept 6th grade hooligans if given a choice as God’s punishment will be truly horrific!
Reward or punishment? Perhaps the answer lies in what we think God is expecting of us. Jesus’ second coming is to judge us, so that means we are going to be held to some kind of standard or expectation. Do we think that Jesus is expecting us to be “perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect?” (Mt 5:48). Speaking only for myself, if that is the standard to which I will be held I am in for some serious punishment because I am NOT perfect! Or did “God so love the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish, but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (Jn 3:16-17). If salvation, not condemnation, is instead what is being offered then we are talking about a reward and not punishment!
So what is the answer!?! Reward or punishment? In this Easter season, perhaps we can find a clue in the many post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. In almost every appearance, what does he tell his disciples? Peace be with you. Jesus could have scolded almost every disciple for failing him and abandoning him during his passion and death. Jesus could have offered punishment. Instead, Jesus gently offers peace to his scared followers. Jesus offers a reward. May we have the courage to dwell in the love of God, follow His commandments, and look forward to Jesus’ second coming and the reward that awaits those who believe!
Church Spotting: 4 Marks of the Church
How do you know when you’ve found THE church of Christ? Jesus the Christ, Second Person of the Triune Godhead and the anointed one of God, came to earth to redeem the human race and to gather to Himself the holy ones or first members of what we now call a church. Yet there are many groups of people that claim to be a church, even the church founded by Jesus. So how do we know if a church is actually THE church of Christ? Answer: the Creed!
Recap: The Creed is four paragraphs and summarizes what we know about God! The first paragraph is about God the Father. The second paragraph is about God the Son. The third paragraph is about God the Holy Spirit. And the fourth and final paragraph is about the earthly experience of Christians.
The last paragraph of the Creed states that “I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” These are what we refer to as the four marks of the Church. These are the four distinguishing characteristics whereby a person may objectively evaluate any given group’s claim to be THE church of Christ. First of all, like the Highlander, there can be only one. As God is one, God’s church must also be one. There cannot be 100 churches claiming to be THE church of Christ. There cannot even be just 10 churches. There can be only one! But just as God is Three Persons and yet One Divine Being, God’s church is composed of multiple churches held together as one by a common belief in God as summarized by the Creed and by a common worship of God through the sacraments instituted by Christ.
THE church of Christ is holy and must produce holiness in its members. Please note that holiness is the goal and not perfection. No human being, other than Jesus and His mother Mary, can be perfect due to the pervasive weakness caused by sin that we call original sin. Holiness is instead a manner of living that is like that of God Himself and is marked among humans first and foremost by charity or love. Though a church’s members may be sinful and miss the mark charted by the course set by love and charity, THE church of Christ shall always encourage, promote, and defend a life characterized by charity while simultaneously calling her members who miss the mark to repent.
And yes, it is confusing, but there is a catholic church and a Catholic Church. The one referred to in the Creed is actually the “little c” catholic church which means universal. For a church to be THE church of Christ it must be universal on two counts. Firstly, universal refers to Christ Himself. The fullness of Christ exists in THE church of Christ. Remember, to be Christian is to become a part of the Body of Christ. That means THE church of Christ is sharing in the body and the life of Christ so Christ must be truly and substantially present in His church. When people experience THE church of Christ they should experience Christ! Secondly, universal refers to the mission of THE church of Christ. Jesus is unambiguous that the Good News or Gospel message that God’s love and life is available to those who are willing to turn toward God is for all the world (Mt 28:19) and every creature (Mk 16:15). Any church willing to claim to be THE church of Christ must be willing to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with every human being on the planet in every day and age!
Finally, THE church of Christ must be apostolic. Apostolic also has a twofold meaning. As above, it refers to the mission of the apostles to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with others, but it also refers to the actual historic apostles. To be an apostolic church, therefore, is to have successors to the apostles and to be able to trace the successors of the apostles, otherwise known as bishops, in an unbroken chain to the first 12 chosen by Christ and the Holy Spirit. And like the 12 apostles, who acknowledged the primacy of Peter, the successors to the apostles or bishops must acknowledge the primacy of Peter’s successor, the bishop of Rome aka the Pope. You may be interested to learn that there are 24 churches that fulfill the above qualities and that the Roman Catholic Church, with its many dioceses and parishes throughout the world, only counts as one of THE 24 churches of Christ.