When I was maybe ten or eleven years old, my grandma wondered aloud while driving my sister and me home why Jesus died and remained dead for three days. Without missing a beat, I told her it was because he had to go to hell first. I remember this moment distinctly because she asked me how I knew that and I honestly had no idea and it was a bit of a disconcerting experience for me. The truth is that I'm sure my subconscious was remembering the line from the Apostles' Creed that I had heard (and said) hundreds of times by that point in my life but hadn't really taken the time to actually process.
I imagine the same is true for many "cradle catholics", those of us who from our birth were taken to church every Sunday. There are certain prayers that I don't remember learning, prayers that it feels like I've always just known; my mom prayed the "Our Father", "Hail Mary", and "Glory Be" with us every night before bed when we were little and I never consciously worked to learn them. The same is true for the Nicene Creed and the Apostles Creed. They are prayers that I could say along with everyone else at church without making a conscious effort to do so. This has the advantage that from a very young age, I was indoctrinated with the truth but the disadvantage that it was a very long time before I ever stopped to really contemplate what I was actually saying.
If you do a google search of what a "Creed" is, you end up with some really interesting answers. In many cases the answers include something to do with faith and Christianity. This isn't necessarily surprising as the word Creed comes from the Latin "Credo" which directly translates to "We believe". It seems reasonable that a Creed would be a list of things that we believe in as Catholics.
But a Creed is also more than that. Oxford dictionary defines a creed as "a set of beliefs or aims which guide someone's actions." Similarly, Meriam Webster defines creed as "a set of fundamental beliefs, a guiding principle." When we read these definitions, the word "Creed" takes on a different meaning (as do the words that make up the creeds that we profess at Mass each week).
In Religion this week, we've spent time looking at the Nicene Creed in bite-size chunks and talking about the theology behind it. For example we took the first line, "I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible." and we saw that the intent is to:
- Remind us of the commandment: "I am the Lord, your God, you shall have no other God's before me." The first line tells us that there is only one God for us to believe in.
- Dig into Trinitarian Theology, reminding us that even though there are three parts (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) they are all one. It also tells us that all three parts of the Trinity were present before time began (which is important, since it informs our understanding about the divinity of Christ).
- It tells us that God created the earth and reminds us of our call to care for creation, to be good stewards of the gifts that we've been given, and to work to protect the environment.
- This line gives us a characteristic of God the Father by telling us that He is "almighty", He is all powerful and able to do unfathomable things.
- And it tells us that God not only created everything that is visible (plants, animals, people, water, etc.) but also everything that is invisible (souls, music, feelings, thoughts, emotions, prayer, etc.).
In every line of the Creed, there is so much to unpack about what our beliefs are.
Right now, we're focusing on the "what does it mean?" aspect of the Creed which means we're looking at historical and theological context of the Creed but the next step is the "why does it matter?" aspect of the Creed, which is arguably more important.
Allow me a clumsy tennis metaphor. In high school, I had a P.E. teacher who always talked about "follow through" in sports we were playing, and it probably won't surprise you to know that I didn't understand what she was getting at. But in college, I played intramural tennis and the teacher who organized it finally helped me understand what "follow through" was all about. He talked about how, without follow through, you were really just using your arm; without follow through, your swings were less targeted, less impactful, and less powerful. When you follow through on your swing, however, you engage your entire body; you put all of your energy into hitting the ball and directing it where you want it to go.
What we seem to often be lacking when it comes to the Creeds we say in church (and I very much include myself in this we) is consistent follow through. When we stand in church and say the words along with everyone else, but we don't allow the words to penetrate our hearts and minds and affect real change, we're swinging without follow through. Sure, some unconscious part of our brain is holding onto that and maybe someday we'll have the opportunity to present that information (like I did with my grandma) but wouldn't it be so much more effective if we used our whole mind, body, and soul to pray these prayers?
What if we went into saying prayers understanding what we were professing and with the intention to follow through? What if the next time we saw a piece of trash on the ground we remembered that God charged us with the task to be good stewards of His creation? What if when we looked at other people (even, or perhaps especially, people it is hard to like) we remembered that they are God's creation, and that they have been created in His image and likeness? What if we really believed that God has the power to do anything? How would having a little bit of follow through from the prayers we say change the world that we live in?
The truth is that when we look at the Creed not just as something we say we believe, but as something that "guides our actions" everything changes. When our faith is more than lovely ideals that we hold aloft but is rather something we use as a tool to navigate the messiness of life, everything changes. James 2:17 says it this way "So also faith, if it does not have works, is dead." Our faith is meant to inspire action, it's meant to drive us out to serve the Lord and our neighbor.
It is my prayer as we continue to learn about the Creed and other prayers, that they help us to grow deeper in our relationship with the Lord and that they strengthen our resolve and follow through to reshape the world around us.
Religion Teacher at
Our Lady of Peace Catholic School