Six years ago, I returned to Belfast after a long absence. In addition to the joys of visiting family, I attended a festival celebrating radical theology. The festival ended with a pub crawl on Saturday night. When Sunday morning arrived, I decided to worship at the church next door. There were more progressive options which would have been more in keeping with radical theology. St. Anne’s Cathedral drew me to her pews partly because my grandparents had been married there and my mother was baptized there. But more importantly, it has been a long time since I had been on a pub crawl, so I was a little worse for wear and St. Anne’s was just next door.
St. Anne’s is also known as the Belfast Cathedral and is part of the Church of Ireland, which is part of the Anglican Communion. So, I knew that the liturgy would be very familiar. Being just two minutes away from the sanctuary, I was able to time my arrival just before the service began. I mean, just before the service began. I wandered up the aisle, intending to sit in the back row. However, the back row was miles away from the last row of occupied rows. So, I had to travel three quarters of the way down the aisle in order to sit in the back row of the gathered congregation. In a church which boasts a seating capacity of 4,000 people, I walked past row after row after empty row in order to join a congregation of about thirty people. As I sat in a sparsely populated row, I quickly checked my watch to make sure I in my hung-over state, I hadn’t mistaken the time, and this was not the main Sunday worship service. Perhaps it was already evening, and this was the evensong crowd? But no, it was clearly 11am and an elaborate procession of liturgical leaders were beginning their walk up the long empty aisle. I scrambled to my feet, and perused the service bulletin, ready to lend my inadequate voice to the singing of God’s praise.
Alas, our assembled voices made hardly a din in the cavernous empty cathedral. The service droned on, and on. Lots and lots of words; mostly familiar. A few hymns, mostly familiar. An inoffensive sermon, by a gentle priest. Looking forward to the Eucharist, I longed for the hymn of the day to end. Flipping the page of the service bulletin, I came across an old nemesis. The liturgical option to use the Creeds, either the Apostles’ or the Nicene Creed, is not something we at Holy Cross have done for many years. Sadly, the majority of Anglican and Lutheran congregations do. There it was, right there on the page, a rubric instructing the assemble to turn to the Apostles’ Creed. I dutifully obliged, turning to the appropriate page as the congregation completed the hymn. There on the page, I began to inwardly read and digest the words of the Apostles’ Creed.
It had been a long time since the familiar words took up space in my mind. “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead…” Wait a minute. The words are so familiar, they are in my bones, they are part of who I am. But suddenly it was not the words which drew my focus. I’d long since given up on the patriarchal language, or Mary’s virginity, or the judgmental threats to the living which I knew were coming. Not even the inherent sacrificial atonement theology could hold my attention in that nearly empty cathedral. My eye, my mind, my whole being was firmly fixed on a punction mark. I’ve always known it was there, but on that morning, I actually felt that tiny, monumental, comma’s impact. The entire life of Jesus is reduced to a comma which sits between his birth to a mythical virgin, and his death at the hands of the forces of empire. Jesus’ life, his teachings, his loves, his passions, his story, and most of all Jesus’ humanity is reduced to a comma.
I quickly turned to the Nicene Creed to confirm what I already knew. “We believe in one God, the father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen. We believe in on Lord, Jesus Christ the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.” No mere comma this time, but a period. No sooner is the DIVINE Jesus born of a mythical virgin to become human, than with a definitive period does Jesus’ life pale in comparison to his death. I stood frozen, paralyzed by the reality of a comma’s momentous power, and a period’s precise ability to move the attention of generations of believers from the magnitude of Jesus life to visions of an other-worldly kingdom from which judgement of the living and the dead would be doled out between this world and the next.
Sweet Jesus, where are you? Where is your life in these iron clad, deliberately laid out, statements of faith, to which we are expected to say: “I believe, We believe?” Our creeds reduce Jesus’ life to a comma, or a period. The tiny little punctuation marks designed to shift our focus elsewhere. These tiny punctuation marks, they move us along without another thought to Jesus’ life, his teachings, his way of being in the world, his humanity. I closed the hymnal, and I took my leave. Outside the sun in all its glory beckoned me on to the streets of Belfast were actual humans greeted me with nods and smiles. I found my way back to my hotel, where the concierge greeted me, with a friendly smile and questions: “Is church over already? How was it?” To which I happily answered, “Yes. I believe it is. For me anyway.” The happy concierge replied, “Sure, that says more than you meant, I’m sure.” …I believe it does.
Credo, from the Latin verb credere which is the first word in both the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds. Credo a Latin verb which our English hymnals translate as: I believe in the Apostles’ Creed and We believe in the Nicene Creed. Is it any wonder that Christianity, is all too obsessed with believing? Continue reading