When we recite the Creed, and we say the words “I believe in one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church,” the word “holy” may pose a certain challenge. To the extent that we have some difficulty with the idea that the Church is holy, this can arise for two reasons. First, the idea of holiness is often misunderstood, with the result that it can get some bad press.
“She is terribly holy, but you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of her.” Many of us have heard some such expression. It’s used of a person who prays devoutly, but whose prayer doesn’t quite seem to get lived out in Christian virtues such as kindness, patience and charity of speech. But what kind of holiness is it that can talk nicely to God, then turn around a fleece one of God’s beloved children? Actually, it’s no kind of holiness. It may not be blatant hypocrisy – we’re not qualified to judge anyone in that way. But at the very least, that kind of “holiness” is immature and lop-sided.
Holiness – genuine holiness – is lovely, attractive, appealing. Genuine holiness is a true advertisement for God and for the life that God wants us to lead. We should remember this, if ever we encounter a kind of “holiness” that is off-putting.
There’s a second reason why we might take issue with the idea that the Church is holy: the obvious and undeniable fact that sin, scandal and a lack of compassion have often been found in the Church. In recent years, we’ve become aware of scandalous failings. Earlier generations sometimes faced a real lack of compassion, in the way that the demands of our faith were presented. Some of the older people in our midst may recall a time when the Catholic faith, as preached and practiced in Ireland, was more a matter of compulsion than a matter of compassion.
And yet, we profess to believe that the Church is holy. So just what is holiness? Holiness is two things. First of all, to be holy is to be called by God, to be set apart for a particular task and with a particular identity. This aspect of holiness is pure gift – it has nothing to do with the behavior of Christians and everything to do with the free choice of God, who has loved the Church to the point of offering his Son to us.
The second part of holiness is to live a life that is in keeping with God’s gift and call, a life that is a response to God’s goodness. This is the part of holiness that can shine less than brightly when Christians do not live up to their calling. But the first part of holiness remains; it remains in the Church, always. The Church remains loved by God, called by God, set apart for a special purpose, which is to be a light for the world.
Think of parents who dearly love their child. Their love is pure gift – it didn’t begin because the child did something very special; it was poured out from day one, before the child could do anything. That child is and remains a beloved son or daughter, irrespective of whether he or she does well or badly. But it’s in the nature of love to call forth a response, and if the child grows up to be selfish, ungrateful, unloving, then even if the parents’ love remains constant, there is something lacking. When the love shown by the parents doesn’t meet with love in the child, the child may still be loved, but he or she is failing to live as a beloved child.
At times, the Church fails to live as God’s beloved child. But from God’s side, the love is constant, the call is constant. For this reason, we can say that the Church is holy, because it is God’s choice that guarantees real holiness. When we say that despite her failings, the Church is holy, we’re saying that God’s call has not gone away – it is constant, like the love of parents for a wayward child is constant.
How, then, should we react to the lack of holiness that can be evident in our Church? One reaction is to insist that the Church can no longer speak with a clear, distinctive, authoritative voice, no longer offer a message that is fresh and challenging and hope-filled. But that reaction can become a kind of collective self-harm. If suffering and disappointment lead us to reject the very possibility of goodness, our pain can only increase. We can end up like a starving person refusing to believe there is such a thing as food.
The only sane response to a lack of holiness is the pursuit of holiness, in the knowledge that God’s call to the Church, and to each one of us, is constant. For broken, sinful human beings, the pursuit of holiness has a name, and that name is “repentance.” On our way to the holiness (the genuine, lovely, attractive holiness to which we’re called by God), our road-map is repentance, a realistic, humble acknowledgment of the sin that is found in the Church as a whole, and in each of us. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it: “In everyone, the weeds of sin will still be mixed with the good wheat of the Gospel until the end of time. Hence the Church gathers sinners already caught up in Christ’s salvation but still on the way to holiness.” (CCC 827).
That’s us, that’s the Church. Beloved, sinners, pilgrims: holy, yet still on the way to holiness.
If you want to check whether an item of gold or silver is authentic, you’ll look for the hall mark. Once you’ve found that discrete mark, you’ll be reassured that you’re not dealing with a bit of cheap metal posing as the real thing. From early times, Christians spoke about certain hall marks that indicated the genuineness of the Church. There were four such hall marks, and for centuries, they have been referred to simply as the “marks of the Church.” We list them in the Creed, when we say: “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.”
These words are signed up to, not only by Roman Catholics, but by Christians of various traditions. As a part of our ancient Creed, they are older than most of the divisions in the Church, which means that virtually all Christians have a sense of ownership of them. Granted, these marks are not understood in the same way by all Christians; the words “one” and “catholic,” for example, can mean somewhat different things to a Roman Catholic and an Anglican.
First, though, let’s ask the question, “Why have a church at all?” To which we might add: Why have any organized religion? Why not let each person go his or her own way to God? The simple answer is that this is not what Christ wanted. The Lord has a tailor-made call and plan for each of us, but he does not call us in isolation, and he does not call us to live in isolation. The Bible tells us that Christ is the head of a body (Col 1:18), not of a vast number of isolated individuals; together, the disciples of Christ make up a body.
This means that if any of us ever wants to get a handle on our discipleship, one of the first questions that we should ask is, “How do I treat others? What is my attitude to those around me?” It also means that we must dismiss as nonsense the idea that I can find my own way to God, in splendid isolation, and with contempt for organized religion.
But when we consider some of the failings of organized religion, might we not wonder if the world would be a better place if it, along with the Church, were abolished altogether? There is a fairly straightforward answer to this objection too. Without in any way downplaying the sins and crimes that have been perpetrated by “religious” people, we’d be very naïve to think that such things would disappear if an institution were abolished. Sin of every kind lies deep in every human heart. As the Lord once said to Cain: “Sin is lurking at your door; its desire is for you; you must master it.” (Gen 4:7). Get rid of an institution, and the same badness will surface elsewhere. And as for those who are naïve enough to think that all institutions should be abolished, they will need to set up a pretty powerful institution to oversee and implement that project!
The Church is nothing other than the people called by God, as disciples of Christ, in the life and power of the Holy Spirit. Despite all the brokenness and division of history, Christians keep saying that they believe in one church. Our various traditions want us to do this, and when we, here, and our Church of Ireland brothers and sisters nearby, stand in our respective congregations on a Sunday morning and profess our belief that the church is one, we’re engaging in a wonderful act of trust in God; we’re expressing the hope and trust that the oneness for which Christ prayed will come to pass, despite division.
Christ prayed for that oneness shortly before he died. “Father,” he said, “may they all be one, as you and I are one” (cf. Jn 17:21). If our oneness was Christ’s dying wish, then we need to take it seriously. We need, at the very least, to avoid anything that gives rise to division – and not only division between churches; also, division between Christians. What does sin bring about? What is the first effect of selfishness? Division! When people offend each other, they fall out; those who were once friends find that their relationship has fallen apart. What does love do? It unites! Saint Paul writes that it is love that binds everything together in perfect harmony (Col 3:14).
God’s plan – God’s desire – for the relationship between different churches and traditions is exactly the same as his plan for the relationship between individuals: it is a plan of unity and reconciliation; it is a plan for communion. This begins to come about when individual believers and different traditions seek renewal, when each of us tries to dray a little closer to God in our day-to-day living, when we try to pray in earnest, when we strive to live a life marked by goodness, compassion and forgiveness. When we pray the words, “I believe in one church, we’d do well to imagine the Lord asking us, gently: “How are you attempting to live as a person of communion?”
The Creed tells us that the Holy Spirit is a person who has spoken. Our God is a God who communicates. At the very beginning of the Bible, we read how God spoke reality into existence: “God said, ‘let there be light,’ and there was light.” (Gen 1:3) Jesus is described as the Word of God: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). Our God is not a silent God, but a God who has things to say to us – things to guide, to correct, to heal, to console, to give hope.
It might be a little easier if God were silent – or at least if he didn’t speak words that challenge, but when God speaks, he does so in order to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable. And when God speaks, it is the Spirit of God who speaks through the prophets. The most important and influential prophets and the prophets of the Bible, but the voice of prophecy continues in the Church.
When people seek to live a Spirit-filled life, a life open to God, they very often become mouthpieces for God. If we were to name a couple of modern prophets, we might think of someone like Blessed Theresa of Calcutta, whose own work with the poorest of the poor led her to see that the teaching of Christ can be virtually summed up in just five words, that can be taught on a person’s fingers, like teaching a child to count. Blessed Theresa would sometimes take a person’s hand, and repeat the words of Jesus on their fingers: “You did it to me.” (Mt 25:40). Or, more recently, Pope Francis, who in an interview just a few days ago reminded us that “the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives.” In other words, the starting point of our Christian faith is what God has done for us; not anything that we have done for God; and our efforts to live a life that is moral and just are a response to God’s love, rather than an attempt to earn it.
What, then, about the biblical prophets? These were people whom God called, when people had become careless in responding to God’s love; when people had become unfaithful in their relationship with the Lord. God then called prophets to remind his people of how to live and pray and act. These prophets often had a two-sided message: they spoke stern words of correction; and they spoke words of hope. The reminded people that their sinfulness would lead them to misery, but that God’s love would heal and restore them.
The trouble was – and still is – that people don’t like to be corrected. God asked the prophets to speak, but the people told them to be quiet (cf. Amos 2:12). Then, as now, there was temptation only to want the sugar coating, and not the pill. That temptation was behind what the people once said to the prophet Isaiah: “Don’t be telling us what’s right; speak to us smooth things, prophesy illusions… let us hear no more of the Holy One of Israel.” (Cf. Is 30:10-11). But God loved his people too much to leave them uncorrected when they strayed – just like a father correcting a child, even when the father himself feels terrible about having to do so.
The word of God is critical of a prophecy that is one-sided, that is timid. On one occasion, God complained about false prophets through the prophet Jeremiah: “They have healed the wound of my people too lightly, saying ‘peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” (Jer 6:15). That’s a powerful expression: “they’ve healed people’s wounds too lightly.” If my life is a mess, the last thing I need is for someone to say, “You’re just fine.” This won’t help me at all – in fact, if I believe it, it will stop me from getting better! Sometimes upsetting news from the doctor is what saves a patient’s life. Sometimes upsetting news from the prophets is what calls us to a better life.
Here’s a smattering of thoughts from the prophets of the Old Testament. Through the prophet Isaiah, God tells the people that he can’t stand their worship, that he doesn’t want their prayers and sacrifices, unless they are also making an honest attempt to live a life of kindness and compassion towards others: “I can’t stand assemblies with iniquity,” is what God says (Is 1:13); “Though you pray at length, I will not listen; your hands are stained with crime” (Is 1:15). A lovely line in the prophet Hosea conveys God’s dream for us: he wants us to be wise, to live well, to be happy. This is why he complains: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” (Hos 4:6). God does not want to leave us in the dark: he wants us to know what is good and right and just, and to live by that knowledge.
The biblical prophets also promised God’s favour, a time of renewal. Through the prophet Ezekiel, God made this promise to his people: “I will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit in you. I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezk 36:26). On another occasion, the prophet Joel spoke these words on God’s behalf: “I will restore to you the years the swarming locust has eaten” (Joel 2:25). I remember hearing a priest, who had lost years of his life to alcoholism, describe what hope he took from those words. No counselor, or psychotherapist, or life-coach, can ever make a promise like that or offer a hope like that. That was God’s Spirit, speaking through the prophet, to a broken person in our own time.
Finally, the Spirit can speak with the voice of prophecy in our own conscience. What is the biggest obstacle to God in my life? If I can answer this, I am being open to the Spirit’s prophetic voice. Equally I could ask: What am I most cynical about? Where do we most need hope? It’s in the spaces hollowed out by questions like that, that the prophetic voice of God’s Holy Spirit wants to speak to us today.
It was once remarked of a certain successful businessman, “He’s a self-made man and he adores his maker.” What does it mean to “adore” someone? There’s something instantly off-putting about the idea of someone adoring themselves. At the very least, it sounds comical, and on a more serious note, we wouldn’t expect the man who adores himself to make a very good husband. Even if we haven’t got a ready definition for adoration, we know instinctively that self-adoration would be no adoration.
What about chocolate? Or a really good red wine? Don’t lots of people adore such things? In common language, yes. If someone says they adore a nice rare fillet steak, we needn’t think of them as a blasphemer, and it’s unlikely that they’ll be getting down on their knees in front of the plate. Adoration can be used as a figure of speech.
But when we speak about adoring in the proper, religious sense, in the sense in which the Holy Spirit, along with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified, we’re talking about something quite different. When we say that we adore God, this means something more than fondness – although it is, of course, a great blessing to feel fondness for the person of Jesus. When we say we adore God, Father, Son and Spirit, we’re saying something about our deepest, innermost selves. Adoration is an attitude that comes from the very deepest part of who we are.
It would be a desperate misunderstanding to imagine that to adore God is to put ourselves down. When we get down on our knees, in a posture and attitude of adoration and praise of God, we are actually raising ourselves up, in our dignity as the beloved children of God. When we adore, we’re in touch with our deepest selves.
An intriguing thing about adoration, whether it’s adoration of the Lord’s presence in the Blessed Sacrament, or a prayerful attitude in some other context, is that adoration is utterly impractical. It’s not a means to an end – it is an end! When we adore God, we’re being what we are made to be, doing what we’ve been created to do.
Does this still sound a bit like a put-down? Does it leave a lingering suspicion that the reason for our existence is to put ourselves down by bowing down? If so, then consider how you feel when you witness beauty. Does a gorgeous sunset make you feel like a lesser human being, because you are standing in awe at its beauty? Are you diminished by your admiration of it? Do you feel the need to hold back, and not overdo your admiration in case it takes from your dignity? Of course not. Your admiration is a gift; it enhances your human dignity.
Things that are truly praiseworthy call forth our human dignity – they don’t overturn it. And adoration is the highest form of praise – indeed, it’s something beyond praise, reserved for the One who is beyond every created thing.
Another liberating thing about this profound attitude that we call adoration is that it doesn’t depend on our circumstances or on our feelings. For various reasons, at any given time I may not feel joyful before the Lord; I may not feel thankful; I may not feel praise of God arising within me. But in all my circumstances, I can get down on my knees and let God be God – or stand up, for that matter, and spread out my hands and without the need for thoughts or words, let God be God. In doing that, I’m not only praying deeply, I’m asserting a little bit of freedom, irrespective of my circumstances. We might think of the words of the young Dutch Jewish woman, Ettie Hillesum, which she wrote while she was in a detainment camp in the Netherlands, before being shipped to Auschwitz by the Nazi authorities: “There will always be a small patch of sky above, and there will always be enough space to fold two hands in prayer.” What a powerful expression of a freedom that no law and no tyrant can ever touch. What a sad pity if we should ever reject or devalue that freedom!
The Creed states that the Holy Spirit, along with the Father and the Son, is adored and glorified. How do we glorify God? Simply by seeking to live a life that reflects something of his goodness. It is our innermost, deepest self that adores; it’s only good sense that our practical self, our decision-making, our day-to-day living, should follow suit. When this happens, we give glory to the one whom we adore.
We are not New-Agers. For us, the Spirit is not some vague force, enabling us to boast about being “spiritual,” while living a life that doesn’t give the Spirit a look in. God’s Holy Spirit, whom we adore, is our magnetic north, our guide, our enabler. There’s nothing vague or wooly about living an authentic Christian life: to do so is, as St Paul puts it, to “walk by the Spirit” (Gal 5:16). May our efforts to live that life lead us to adore God, and may our adoration help us in those same efforts.
How are we, human beings, when we are in love? What does it do to our life when the people we care most about are prospering, healthy, honourable? Is there a particular shape to our lives when we’re looking forward to being reunited with a loved one whom we haven’t seen for some time? What’s it like when we are experiencing beauty or delight?
In answer to those questions, wouldn’t it be true to say that in all such circumstances, one thing we are not, is wrapped up in ourselves? Love and beauty and joy draw us out of ourselves; to be in love, or to behold beauty, or to experience joy, is to be outside of oneself.
But don’t take me at my word. Think of the most loving person you know. What’s she or he like? Always there for others, right? A constant readiness to give, to be present? Lives a life that look a bit like an ongoing procession in the direction of other people?
It might seem a slightly stilted expression to use, but when people are anchored in love, beauty and happiness, they are “proceeding out of themselves.” This is what the Creed tells us about the Holy Spirit: the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The Spirit is the eternal love and beauty and joy of God.
At this point, our imagination can fail us, because we are used to thinking of love and joy as things that people experience, rather than as a person. But the truth that our faith puts before us is that in the life of God, the love between Father and Son is so complete, so total as to be a person: the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit.
Sometimes the facts of theology really are very close to the facts of life: you don’t need a theologian to tell you that the love between two human beings can lead to the creation of a third person! And if the Bible tells us that we’re made in the image and likeness of God, we see a particular reflection of that image in the way in which people continue to be made.
The earliest theologians of the Church saw the Spirit’s proceeding from the Father and the Son as a kind of explosion of joy. They were mindful that joy is the very heart of God. This might prompt us to ask ourselves if joy is anywhere close to the heart of our faith; perhaps a good question to ask, given our human propensity to see faithfulness as a kind of drudgery.
The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, as the expression of their joy. But if joy as at the heart of God and the heart of our faith, this must give rise to some questions. First, if our faith is all about joy, we might wonder why faith is so widely ignored, despised, rejected and resisted? The answer is actually quite simple: faith invites us to real joy, but in doing so, it calls us to put away our false joys. No man on earth can be a faithful husband and a philanderer. If he is to be a true lover of his wife, he must ruthlessly kill any desire for the false little joy that infidelity might offer.
Likewise, our faith calls us to by-pass the cul-de-sacs, to kill off false joys, so that we can be true, authentic human beings, who are able to possess lasting joy, instead of being possessed by desires for joys that don’t last. So yes, our faith is killjoy! When voices in our secular culture make this criticism, they probably don’t realize just how accurate they are. But the part they miss is that this killjoy faith of ours is nothing other than an invitation to joy. The most vigorous plants around are the ones that have been well and wisely pruned, and if we never consent to some pruning, then whatever little joy we find, may well turn out to be a highway to chaos and misery.
A second question: if joy is at the heart of our faith, what does this say to world in which there is a great deal of sorrow? Christians are not called to deny suffering, or to try to brush it away with an easy appeal to God’s goodness. If joy is at the heart of our faith, then our task as Christ’s faithful is to seek to bring authentic joy into this aching world of ours. Our task is to hold our faith – or better, to let our faith hold us – in such a way that we don’t despair when life brings suffering. Mature Christians are wonderful models for us, not just for what they do, but also for what they don’t; they don’t lapse into despair, even when life is at its most testing. In seeking to be that kind of Christian, we become better able to bear some of this world’s burdens, better able to support those who are vulnerable.
A final question – this time, a slightly odd-sounding one. Is it possible to remember the future? Yes, it is. We know that it’s possible to forget the future: when a person slips into despair, they are beginning to forget the future – to forget that they have a future. The consequences can be tragic. Our faith invites us to remember that the future is in God’s hands, and those hands want to work all things for our good (cf. Rom 8:28). To remember this is not to be spared suffering, but to have a shield against despair. If we remember that joy – the joy that is at the heart of God and of our faith – remains a possibility for ourselves and our world, then we are better placed to strive for it, rather than becoming consumed by whatever sadness that life will inevitably bring.
One well-known Christian apologist asks the question: “Why did twelve fishermen convert the world, and why are half a billion Christians unable to repeat the feat?” The answer he gives to his question is: “The Spirit makes the difference.”
That same writer then goes on to tell a story that captures something of the difference between a Spirit-filled faith and one that doesn’t have the Spirit. A poor family, parents and children, were emigrating, taking the boat to America. The parents had barely scraped together the money for the boat, and they had brought along as much bread and cheese they could carry. After three days of cheese sandwiches, the little boy told his father that he couldn’t stand cheese sandwiches, and that he felt like he would die if he ate any more. The father took pity on him, gave him a small coin from their savings, and sent him off to the ship’s galley to buy himself an ice-cream.
Some time later, the little chap came back smiling from ear to ear, rubbing a full stomach. When his father asked what he’d been up to, he told him: “I’ve had three ice-creams, and a steak dinner. There’s no charge for the food; it’s included in the ticket price. And by the way, here’s your coin back.”
When it comes to what our faith is offering, many of us are making do with cheese sandwiches, when we could be tucking into the best of food. The cheese sandwiches will get us there, but there is so much more on offer. Far too many of us, far too much of the time, limp along with a faith that keeps us going, but only just. There is more on offer –more than we may have been led to believe.
This is not about pouring cold water on the faith of anyone who is hanging on by their fingertips or going through the motions; rather, it’s about recognizing that there is more on offer. Let me say that I dine on the faith equivalent of cheese sandwiches quite a bit myself… and it’s often stale cheddar, rather than the best brie or camembert! Our faith is a bigger gift than we realize; indeed, Jesus himself describes the life of faith as a precious pearl, or a buried treasure.
Going back to what that writer says: “The Spirit makes the difference.” God’s Holy Spirit is, as the Creed tells us, “the Lord, the giver of life.” We owe all life to the Spirit. We respect and protect human life, from conception to natural ending, because as a gift of God it is not a commodity, but a priceless gift. And it is the Spirit that puts life into our faith.
If there is to be faith in our life, there needs to be life in our faith; if our faith is lifeless, than we’re at least a bit more at risk of a life that is faithless. For many reasons and in many ways, faith is more problematic today than it was a generation ago. Scandals have done untold damage to the life of faith; we’ve changed from being a society in which belief was valued, to a society in which belief is tolerated; our means of communication and entertainment, far from encouraging faith, routinely call it into question.
The upshot of all this is that even for those who practice their faith, there can be a certain timidity, a degree of embarrassment. These things can sap the life from our faith – and the faith from our life. But the good news is that we’re not the first generation to experience this. One of the prophets in the Old Testament tells us how, at one point, the people of God complained: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost.” God’s answer to his people’s dryness and distress was: “I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live.” (Ezk 37:11, 14).
If our faith is not as life-filled as it might be, it might help us if we recall that in the history of our religion, it has been common for people to feel that their faith has become dry and lifeless; and God’s answer to this is the gift of his Spirit. The Spirit is “the Lord, the giver of life.”
Those cheese sandwiches may well keep us on our feet, but there is so much more on offer, and the Lord, the giver of life, wants us to have it. Let us ask for this gift; let us pray to the Third Person of the Trinity, God’s Holy Spirit. As one of the Church’s best-known prayers goes:
Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in them the fire of your love; send forth your Spirit and they shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth.
With these words, we begin the third chapter of the Creed. We’ve already said, “I believe in one God,” and “I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ.” Now, we’re arrived at the part of the Creed devoted to the Third Person of the Trinity.
It’s often been said that the Holy Spirit is the forgotten person of the Trinity. If this is so, then the remedy is not so much for us to raise the Holy Spirit’s profile – as if we could do such a thing! – as to be more aware of how the Spirit acts in our lives. Theologians say that the Holy Spirit is “self-effacing.” This term is used to remind us that the Spirit’s work is to lead us to God. It’s as if the Holy Spirit were saying: “Don’t look at me; look at God the Father, as he shows himself to us in Jesus his Son.”
The Creed will tell us something of who the Holy Spirit is, but for now, let’s focus on what the Spirit does. Jesus once compared the Holy Spirit to a blowing wind (cf. Jn 3:8), and indeed God’s Spirit is the wind in the sails of the Church. In Ireland, the Church, which has been through many storms, often seems to be motionless, stuck. Coleridge’s image from “The Ancient Mariner” fits well: “As idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean.”
With the wind gone out of our sails, many people are saying that what we need is a new ship. But the Gospel truth is that what we need is wind in our sails, and that wind is the Spirit of God, without which no projects or changes will avail us. The first page in any chapter of renewal, whether in the Church, or in our personal lives as believers, must be written by God’s Holy Spirit. Once that is done, once we are in tune with the Spirit, we can ask about any changes that need to be made.
What does the Holy Spirit do, in our lives and in the life of the Church? To put it another way, what happens without the Spirit? First of all, without the Holy Spirit, there is no real discipleship, and no real renewal. At the end of his earthly life, when Jesus was leaving his disciples, he said to them: “Stay in the city until you are clothed with the power from on high” (Lk 24:49). Jesus didn’t want his followers even to attempt to proclaim the Gospel until they had received the Holy Spirit.
Without the Holy Spirit, there are no new beginnings, only false starts. It’s not about sitting back and letting the Holy Spirit do all the work. When we learn to depend on God’s power, which is the power of the Holy Spirit, then we will work like never before, but we know that it’s the Spirit who guides and crowns our efforts.
Without the Holy Spirit there is no lasting wisdom. As Irish people, we’re often told we have the gift of the gab, but only God’s Holy Spirit can give words of wisdom. Recall that at the first Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came to rest on the disciples in the form of tongues of fire. It’s easy to generate chatter – we have the wit and the technology. But it’s only by the power of the Spirit that we can generate language of meaning and hope.
There’s a wonderful scene described in the Acts of the Apostles, where Peter and John and a group of Christians are praying together, in a time of persecution. The writer tells us: “As they prayed, the house where they were assembled rocked; they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to proclaim the word of God” (Acts 4:31). Whatever else we might say about our Church and our way of worshipping, we can hardly say it rocks! We need the Spirit, if our faith is to come to life.
Without the Holy Spirit, there is no real prayer. It’s not that we must directly address the Holy Spirit every time we pray, but without the Spirit’s power, we simply can’t pray; and whenever we do pray, it’s thanks to the Spirit. As St Paul puts it: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought.” (Rom 8:26).
Our Christian faith calls us to live a life of love – a love that is not limited to our loved ones, but that reaches out into our community, our society, our world. How can we live a life of love in a world that wounds, a world that can be so cold and indifferent? Without the Holy Spirit, we cannot live a life that loves beyond the natural human boundaries. With the help of the Spirit, things can be very different; we can discover, with St Paul, that “the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit which has been given us.” (Rom 5:5).
Finally, the Holy Spirit doesn’t just confirm all our plans and our ideas; the Spirit who helps can also hinder. The earliest missionaries found that some of their best-laid plans met with failure (cf. Acts 16:6-7). Rather than becoming disillusioned, they saw the hand of God at work, and were confident that the Holy Spirit acted also through disappointment and deferral. Our efforts to walk with the Spirit don’t bring automatic success: what they bring is the confidence that – to quote St Paul once more – “in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” (Rom 8:28).
The culture we inhabit is generally open to religion – and it generally imposes a condition on that openness. It is happy for people to hold whatever beliefs they want, so long as they don’t let those beliefs influence their behavior in politics, or business, or education. In other words, the world we live in desires that faith and religion be something private.
As Christians, we collide with that desire every time we pray, as the Lord taught us: “Thy kingdom come.” And the Creed insists that, whatever the exact details of this kingdom, it will be unending: his kingdom will have no end. Contrary to what our culture understands and wants, there is no such thing as private Christianity. The practice of faith is about a whole lot more than attending church once a week: it’s about living a life that brings God’s values into this world, into its politics, its business, its education. We are called to be “kingdom people” – people who, by the way we live our lives, make this world God’s place, a place that is fertile with goodness, compassion, forgiveness, hope… rather than the moral, social and spiritual desert that many people inhabit.
By the grace of God, we’re already doing this in many ways. Let’s never forget that every single thing we do for goodness’ sake, all our striving for kindness and our efforts to persevere in our day-to-day commitments – all of these things are part of how God’s kingdom comes about. We pray “thy kingdom come,” and we try to live a life that makes that prayer a reality.
Our Christian faith is, of course, something deeply personal, but this does not mean it is private. Its effects should be seen in our world – and by God’s grace are often plain to be seen. But if faith is to have a public impact, does this mean that the Church should be getting involved in politics, or seeking direct political influence? Not at all. History tells us that Church leaders can be just as corrupt and self-serving as leaders in any walk of life.
Our Christian faith is to have a public face, we are to claim this world for God. But this is not a party-political manifesto. It means, rather, that our discipleship of Christ, when it is authentic, is not locked up in some private corner of our minds, but has a clear impact on the community and society in which we live.
I once heard it said of a politician: “His religious beliefs are so private they don’t even interfere with his own life.” There’s also the story of the man who went to confession and didn’t mention his tax-dodging. When his wife questioned him about this, he said: “I told the priest my sins, not my business!” Our Christian faith is to reach into all parts of our lives, and in that way to be a part of God’s great project: the building of an eternal kingdom of love, justice and peace.
That might sound impossibly idealistic, so let’s listen to the realism of Jesus. Jesus compared the kingdom to a field where wheat is sown, but someone with a grudge against the farmer added lots of weeds. One of the workers wanted to go and root out the weeds, but the farmer told him to leave the wheat and weeds together till harvest time, when it would be easier to tell them apart. Too much zeal in rooting out the weeds might only damage the wheat.
There is great human wisdom in this parable. Some people are very zealous – they want things to be sorted out straight away. Their motto is, “if you want to make an omelette, you have to break some eggs.” In their holy zeal, they can be cruel to those around them, breaking hearts rather than eggs. God spare us from such people! They can discredit the very best of causes. The Lord teaches us that in this life, we have to accept limitations, sinfulness, shortsightedness, and that if we try too hard to root these out, we’re liable to do more harm than good. God’s kingdom calls us to commitment, not to crankiness.
Jesus also compares the kingdom to a tiny seed, that grows into a very large plant. Don’t so many of our efforts seem terribly small and ineffective? Yet the Lord says to us: “Don’t worry – the best things result from the smallest beginnings.” Look around you today: the biggest tree you’ll see started out as a tiny seed! As one writer puts it, our gallant efforts, however small they may be, are “the currency of the kingdom.”
Finally, Jesus also compared the kingdom of heaven to a woman putting a measure of yeast into a batch of dough. The yeast is hidden, but it causes the whole loaf to rise. In our word, there is a lot of highly visible evil: crime, scandal, violence… But there is also an untold amount of hidden goodness. It will, by God’s providence, leaven the world.
So, let’s allow the wisdom of Jesus to give us hope and encouragement, as we try to live kingdom-lives. There will always be weeds among the wheat – problems and obstacles. We must live with that. Our efforts are often very puny – but no less important for that. A lot of what is good gets no attention, but there is more than enough goodness in the world to buoy us up in our efforts to live a life that says, “Thy kingdom come.”
Almost two hundred years ago, the Danish Philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard told a story which was intended to rattle the cages of his contemporaries, to shake people out of their smugness. His story speaks just as clearly today; it’s the story of a fire that broke out in a crowded theatre. The fire started backstage and the clown came out on stage to warn the public. They thought this was great fun, and they applauded loudly. The clown repeated his warning; they applauded again. Pretty soon, they all died laughing. Kierkegaard said that he reckoned that that was just how the world would end: to general applause from people who thought it was all a bit of a joke.
Maybe that story is even more relevant to our day, given how much time and expense goes into entertainment. Our culture has so conditioned us to expect to be entertained that we even run the risk of expecting worship to be entertaining: we come to Mass, to commemorate Christ’s self-giving death on Calvary for love of sinners, and some people tell us that the Mass is competing with television! In many people’s minds, there is a simple, “either-or” formula: either it’s entertaining, or it’s boring. Yet I think we’d all agree that if a man goes to visit his friend in a cancer ward, and he expects either to be entertained or to be bored, then he is both an unwise and an unpleasant individual.
Thank God for entertainment! For art and imagination, for a laugh and a smile. We’re not Calvinists; our faith does not ask us to be po-faced. Yet our faith reminds us, and urges us to bear in mind, that life is serious. Our life is not a dress-rehearsal; it is an unrepeatable journey, involving an ongoing exercise of our free will, at the end of which we will be judged according to how we have acted.
This fact of judgment is not a threat; it’s an acknowledgment of our human dignity: how we act matters; our choices have consequences. We already know that this is a law of life: we see the consequences of good and evil actions all around us. Our faith insists that Christ, as our judge, will finally respect our choices. Those who downplay or soft-peddle the notion of Christ’s judgment do us no favours: they fail to respect the utter seriousness of our situation.
Does this mean we should live a life of fear and trembling? Are we to stop thinking of Jesus as a friend, or to replace his crown of thorns with a judge’s wig? In fact, there are two common mistakes, two extremes we can fall into. One extreme is to ignore or deny the fact of judgment, to smile benevolently at the clown who insists on it. This is a common error in our day. The other extreme, no longer common, is to become so preoccupied with the Lord’s judgment that we live a life of craven fear.
What does it mean to be a “God-fearing” person? When that expression is used of someone, it’s doesn’t mean they are a nervous wreck, but that they are upright, honourable, compassionate. Each of us is called to be God-fearing in the sense that we have a healthy awareness that God respects our freedom, and allows us to experience its consequences in this life and in eternity. There is an interesting line in the Book of Exodus, where Moses says to the people: “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that you may fear him, and not sin” (Ex 20:20).
Do not be afraid – fear God! To fear God is to respect reality; to know that the way in which we use our freedom has lasting consequences. When this is clear in our minds, we will strive to avoid sin; we won’t treat life as a nursery game that we can leave behind us like a child drops a toy. Genuine fear of God can help us to be less fearful in the face of life’s challenges – and life’s temptations; it teaches us a sane and healthy sense of the seriousness of life.
Three final thoughts on the fact that Christ will judge us, whether we are alive or dead when he comes. First, the thought of judgment is not something that we should apply to others. Let God judge others; let each of us examine his or her own conscience, rather than the consciences of others. Second, Christ will judge us with mercy. If we try to live a life that is merciful, that seeks to forgive, to lets go of grudges, if we try to build bridges rather than walls, then we are opening ourselves up to the Lord’s mercy. As the letter of St James puts it: “Judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy; yet mercy triumphs over judgment.” (Jas 2:13). Third, since it is Christ who is our merciful judge, we should never condemn ourselves. As long as we draw breath, we can breathe in the Lord’s mercy. The words “too late” are not a part of the Christian vocabulary.
One of the criticisms occasionally leveled against our Christian faith is that it distracts people from the here and now. If we’re focused on the future, can we be focused on the present? The American philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, when he was asked if he believed in an afterlife, famously answered: “One world at a time.”
Our faith invites us to be mindful of the future, of that moment when, as the Creed tells us, Christ will come again. Does this mean that our faith is a distraction from what’s going on in the present? To answer this question, we need only consider how people tend to behave when they are expecting someone. What about the woman who is expecting a baby? Or the family who are looking forward to the visit of a much-loved relative whom they haven’t seen for a long time? Far from distracting people in their day-to-day living, their looking forward focuses them: their life becomes a getting ready; every new day brings things to do, preparations to be made; there is anticipation and excitement.
We might also think about the opposite situation, where people slip into the kind of depression that robs them of any sense that there are good things to come. This does not have the effect of focusing their attention more clearly on the present: quite the opposite, people who feel they have nothing to look forward to can be quite unable to focus on the present.
To be healthily human is to look forward, to have a sense that life is bringing something else, something new; that our reality is not all flat and exhausted. If, for whatever reason, we have no sense of any goodness ahead, we may be heading for trouble – at the very least for an experience of depression. Indeed, psychologists tell us that one of the difficulties faced by people who have experienced deep trauma is the absence of a sense of the future, an abiding feeling that there is nothing to look forward to.
Our faith crowns this psychological insight by telling us that no matter what our past holds, whatever sufferings we’ve experienced or sins we’ve committed, we are offered a future. As the saying goes, every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future. The world can be a cruel place; some people suffer very greatly. Our faith does not gloss over the hard edges of life, but it assures us that ultimately, the future lies in God’s hands. Christ will come again. He is the Lord of the future, who at some point will come in glory, and who, in the meantime, wants to enter our lives in more ordinary ways.
It’s a blessed thing to live a life that has a direction, a life of readiness, of preparedness; a life with a purpose. Indeed, to live this kind of life is not only a blessing: it’s a command. Jesus tells us: “Keep watch, for you know not the day nor the hour.” (Mt 25:13). One of the best ways to keep on our toes is to spend some time on our knees; to keep up some steady contact with the Lord who will come again.
A healthy exercise for us as believers is to compare what our faith offers with what a non-faith understanding offers. There are many people – people we know and love, people with whom we work, we ourselves at certain times – for whom the future seems flat and dull. Our faith – this can never be stressed enough – does not candy-coat the hard realities of life, but it does offer a vision and a hope for our lives. In a lovely passage in the Old Testament, the Lord says through one of his prophets: “I know the plans I have for you… plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jer 29:11).
Some people will say, “What’s the use of words like that when you are struggling to make ends meet, or when the test comes back positive?” But what words will offer the hope that every human heart longs for? If we reject those words of faith, what words will we choose when we are up against it? Should we not, rather, say with Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (Jn 6:68).
He will come again. Maybe the next time you hear or read the suggestion that our faith is backward-looking, you might call to mind the fact that it is actually forward-looking. To be a Christian is to look forward. It is to look to the future with the kind of expectancy that makes us more attentive than ever to how we are living in the present.
Finally, the Creed states that Christ will come again in glory. When he comes again, he will not turn up like an undocumented refugee, hoping to find a kindly reception. He will not have a hunted or beseeching look in his eyes. He will be seen by all for who and what he is: the one before whom, as St Paul writes, “every knee shall bow… and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” (Phil 2:10-11).
Begrudgery is something at which many Irish people excel. It comes in various shades, but most broadly, it is the attitude that nobody should be allowed to rise too high, and that if they do so, they need to be taken down a peg or two; they should be kept in touch with their humble origins. I’ve often thought that Irish begrudgery is the exact opposite of the American Dream. One is the naïve expectation that anyone can do well if they apply themselves; the other is the cynical insistence that nobody should be allowed to do all that well.
Every time has its characteristic oddness and blindness. One of the oddities of our time is that many people manage to combine an almost worshipful interest in celebrity with a deep cynicism towards anyone who appears to be outstandingly good and authentic. It’s almost as if we were saying: “lots of glitzy trash, please, but none of the real McCoy.” Somehow, we’ve learned to be fascinated with anger, stupidity and infidelity, and at the same time we’ve acquired a deep mistrust of those who appear to be wholesome and wise.
As Christians, we are blessed to have a way of cutting through the cynicism of our time, almost like a compass that will guide us through the fog. Our compass, our guide, is Jesus Christ, this person who lived a fully human life, and who is now, as the Creed tells us, “seated at the right hand of the father.” Those words tell us that Jesus is no longer a hidden figure, walking the roads of an insignificant corner of the world, with a small group of peasants for followers. That Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father means that he is now recognized for who and what he is.
Jesus, the Creed tells us, is seated. In the culture which gave us the Creed, to be seated was a sign of honour; it was also a sign of authority. In a lot of early Christian art, Jesus is depicted as seated or enthroned, like a king surrounded by his subjects. Some of this art was a very deliberate “copyright theft”: it was based upon depictions of the Roman emperor, and in effect it proclaimed that it was now to Christ, rather than to Caesar, that Christians gave their homage. And so there is (yet another) political statement in the heart of the Creed: to be a Christian is look to Christ as our final authority, and to be radically sceptical of anyone who might claim a higher authority. There is, after all, a kind of Christian scepticism, and this is exactly what it is reserved for!
The Creed tells us that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God. In Biblical language, to be seated at a king’s right hand was to be given the highest possible honour and power. The phrase “the right hand of God” was a kind of shorthand for God’s power and governance; to have access to this was to share in it.
In the early Christian art I mentioned a moment ago, when Jesus is depicted at seated, he very often has a book on his lap, open on some words of Scripture which he is inviting us to put into practice. At other times, he is pictured as handing a scroll to St Peter or another disciple, just as the Roman emperor would have handed a decree to one of his senior officials, so that it could be implemented. Like the Roman emperor, the seated Christ gives guidance and instruction, but unlike the emperor, he does not use force to ensure that his commands are perfectly carried out.
That little bit of background to those words of the Creed might raise some questions for us. Do I look to Christ for guidance? Do I defer to his authority? Do I seek to allow him to shape my life, rather than being drawn or driven by fad or fancy? The Lord who is seated at the right hand of the Father is our reference point, and he is a gentle Lord, who appeals but does not impose.
Back for a moment to the scepticism of our times. There is, as I’ve said, a kind of healthy Christian scepticism, one that allows us to see through a lot of this world’s nonsense. But there’s also a general, unhealthy scepticism towards a lot of what is good and wholesome. We are blessed to have a tonic for this attitude. Our tonic is honour and worship of Christ. Christ is indeed our friend, but we should be wary of any notion that he is simply our buddy. He is far more than that; he is, in his own words, “the way, the truth and the life.”
A true sense of honour and respect towards Christ the Lord is not beneath our dignity; quite the opposite, it is an expression of our dignity. No loyal subject every felt slighted at the prospect of offering homage to a beloved king. No Christian should ever hesitate to offer genuine homage and honour to Christ, who is our guide, our reference point, our final authority. He is seated at the right hand of the Father. May he be enthroned in our hearts and our lives.
When Jesus had finished his earthly life and work, he left his followers. He no longer walked and talked with them. Their discipleship entered a new phase; in fact they became like us: they walked by faith and not by sight. Two questions can help us to reflect on the departure of Jesus, his ascension into heaven: What did he bring with him? What did he leave behind? These questions can prove very relevant to us, as we try to live out our faith in this Lord whom we believe, but whom we don’t see.
What did Jesus bring with him when he left his disciples? He went to heaven, the Creed tells us; he went into the presence of God the Father; but he did not go empty-handed. First of all, Jesus brought our human nature with him. He had lived a fully human life, with all the ups and downs, the confinements and aspirations, of a flesh-and-blood person living in the ordinary limitations of time and space. This is life that Jesus brings to the Father as he ascends into heaven.
Here, it might help if we use our imagination and ask what God the Father saw, when Jesus ascended into heaven and took up his place at God’s side? God saw a human nature that he loved; he saw, in Jesus, everything that he desired for each one of his children. In the human nature of Jesus, God the Father saw his dream for every man and woman. When Jesus ascended into heaven, he brought our human nature with him. In him, God sees and loves our humanity, our concerns, our struggles.
Jesus brought something else with him: “When he ascended on high, he took captivity captive.” (Eph 4:8). That means, quite simply, that anything that enslaves humanity, anything that defeats us, anything that would make us captive, has itself been defeated, captured, by Jesus. While we continue to experience their effects, we are no longer captive to sin, death and despair, because the Lord has dealt with them.
What Jesus brought with him, then, was our human nature, untainted and free; along with sin and death, bound up in chains. This starts to become very concrete if we think about the world we live in. Don’t many people, at least at certain times, experience life as a burden, a kind of captivity? And don’t sin and death appear, at least at certain times, to have a free hand in this broken world of ours? But Jesus has reversed this: in him, it is human nature that has been set free, and everything that burdens it that has been taken captive. This state of affairs has been established by Jesus, set up in the heavens. And this, for us, is a hope that helps us to live this life, here and now, to the full.
And what did Jesus leave behind him? Again, let’s focus on two things. When the Lord departed from his earliest followers, he left a task and a promise. First, the task: “Go and make disciples of all nations.” (Mt 28: 19). This was an enormous, universal task. Jesus did not say: “Go and teach people their prayers; go and instruct them in such and such a practice.” He was vastly more ambitious for humanity! “Go and make nations into disciples.”
The Lord’s final ambition and plan is to bring the whole world where he has gone: not only to bring a human nature to his Father, but to lead humanity after him. Could the Lord really be looking at Ireland today and saying to his followers: “Go and make a disciple of this nation”? Or was that message just for a time, a time that has now expired? There is no evidence in anything the Lord said that his intention was to make disciples of some generations, but not of others. For that matter, there has never been a perfect generation of disciples; each generation brings its own challenges – sometimes very great challenges.
The Lord’s parting wish is for the making of disciples; the times we live in seem geared more to the unmaking of disciples. Is there anything we can do? Will opposition, cynicism, indifference and discouragement prove the Lord to have been a naïve optimist? We don’t, of course, know how things will unfold; we are living through a time of ongoing upheaval. For that reason, we need to be more aware than ever of the second thing the Lord left behind: along with the task, he left a promise: “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mt 28:20).
We don’t know the future, but we can be sure of this much: the only way to future-proof our discipleship is to be people who lean on the Lord’s promise to be with us. Without that conviction, all the plans and projects in the world will not lead to renewal. “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Let us find confidence in those words, a confidence that might enable us to pray:
God is for us a refuge and strength
A helper close at hand, in time of distress:
So we shall not fear though the earth should rock,
Though the mountains fall into the depths of the sea.
The story of the two weary disciples on the road to Emmaus is one of the loveliest incidents in the Gospel. These are two very sad individuals: the hopes they had invested in Jesus have been shattered; he has been crucified and buried. The story is over. The rock rolled across the entrance to the tomb is, as far as they are concerned, like a great, cosmic full stop.
Ironically, they are walking away from Jerusalem on the first Easter Sunday. As they go, Jesus joins them. Even though they don’t recognize him, they engage him in conversation; they open up to him, and tell him how their hopes have been disappointed.
At a certain point in the conversation, Jesus says to them: “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things…” Jesus then goes on to point out how the Scriptures had foretold what was to happen to the Christ. Later that day, speaking to another group of disciples, Jesus, the Gospel tells us, “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.”
In effect, what Jesus is saying to these groups of disciples on the first Easter Sunday is something like this: You have been deeply shocked, saddened. You’ve reached what looks like the end of the road, an impenetrable barrier. But hear this: unseen by you, God has been working through these deeply painful events. He has been ahead of events all along, guiding and leading. What looks like the end of your plans has been in accordance with God’s plan.
This is the meaning of that lovely biblical phrase (cf. 1Cor 15:3) which we pray in the Creed: “in accordance with the Scriptures.” Everything that happened to Jesus was part of God’s plan. What happened to Jesus was not a failure but a fulfillment.
The very first homily preached in the Church, St Peter’s Pentecost Day sermon, makes this point even more starkly. Peter stood up on Pentecost day and said to a crowd of people in Jerusalem: “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. But God raised him up.” (Acts 2:23-24). Here, Peter tells us that all that had happened had been in accordance with God’s plan – including the disastrous events of Good Friday.
Let’s be clear: there is no simple route for any of us through the difficulties and tragedies that life can throw at us and at our loved ones. Faith doesn’t offer simple routes – it offers the assurance that the most twisted and tragic events can be embraced by God’s plan, and it calls us to do our best to make this world a better place. God’s embrace of all our circumstances has a very specific name, and that name is providence. God’s providence means that reality does not run away from him, no matter how far or how chaotically it may run away from us.
God’s providence means that he is able to write all events into his plan. In this, God has been compared to the conductor of an orchestra in which a key musician has played a glaring bum note. That bum note is such a clanger that it could cause the whole symphony to unravel; but the conductor is so brilliant that he simply conducts around it, and the mistake gets absorbed into the score.
That is God’s providence: his infinite capacity to absorb error, sin, tragedy. How often we would rather that God would write these things out of the script in advance, so that we could live in a world free of tragedy. But this is not the world we live in. It is not the world Jesus lived in. Our faith is not founded on a pipe-dream, that offers some kind of free pass through life. It is, rather, founded on the conviction that the greatest evil ever, the torture and murder of Jesus, was “in accordance with the Scriptures,” fully part of God’s plan.
There’s a misunderstanding waiting in the wings, a serious misunderstanding, one that has caused untold misery for Christian believers. If all that happens is part of God’s plan, does that not mean that the dice have been cast and there’s nothing we can do? Far from it! That everything is “in accordance with the Scriptures” means that God is so deeply present and at work in all that happens that nothing can finally derail his plans. God was at work in the agony and death of his only Son. Our faith holds out the hope that the same God is still at work when agony and death are doing their worst in our time. God has not destined or predestined any of us for destruction. His desire for our destiny is quite the opposite, as the Bible makes clear: “He destined us on love to be his sons and daughters through Jesus Christ” (Eph 1:5).
Jesus himself was completely convinced of this. It was because he believed in God’s providence that Jesus could pray: “Father, all things are possible to you; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mk 14:36).
“In accordance with the Scriptures.” Properly understood, those words assure us that God’s plan embraces all events – from the loveliest to the most awful. May we find peace and hope in that assurance; may it give us the encouragement to become more engaged with the sufferings and needs of our time.
My life is but a weaving
Between my God and me.
I cannot choose the colors
He weaveth steadily.
Oft times He weaveth sorrow;
And I in foolish pride
Forget He sees the upper
And I the underside.
Not ‘til the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly
Will God unroll the canvas
And reveal the reason why
The dark threads are as needful
In the weaver’s skillful hand
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern He has planned.
Why do people leave the Church? For various reasons, among the more obvious of which are scandal and disillusionment. In addition to asking why people leave, we would do well to ask why they joined to begin with. More specifically, we might ask why, at the very beginning of the Church, people joined it in droves. At the time of the earliest Christians, there was a great variety of religions that people could subscribe to, with all sorts of philosophies and outlooks, some of which offered a great deal of wisdom and commonsense.
Christianity, too, offered wisdom, but it was a stern religion, one that made great demands of its adherents. Wherever its attraction lay, it certainly was not an easier option for people who were tired with the demands of paganism. Yet people flocked to the new faith, to the Church, in great numbers.
What was the attraction? What did people see in this faith, that so many people today no longer see? What was it that fascinated them, to the extent that many of them were willing to face martyrdom rather than return to their old, pre-Christian ways?
Indeed, many of the earliest records make it clear that countless early Christians were happy with life, yet unafraid of suffering and death. Today, many people seem unhappy with life, yet terribly afraid of suffering and death. Many decades ago, G.K. Chesterton noted that that there is a certain sadness about that calls for a new kind of prophet: not like the early prophets, who reminded people that they were going to die, but who would, instead, remind people that they are not dead yet!
What was the difference between those earliest Christians, and so many believers today? The heart of the matter is that the earliest Christians believed that Jesus Christ was real, that he was alive. They believed that, as a matter of concrete fact, he had risen from the dead. They did not believe that, as a matter of psychological or sentimental fact, he was somehow living on in their hearts. The earliest Christians believed that the Lord had risen from the dead. This was the Big Bang – the energy at the very beginning of the faith: “He is risen!” These were the words spoken by the very first witnesses, who ran off and told others that they had seen the Lord.
From the very beginning, there have been attempts to debunk and disprove the resurrection of Jesus, to put it all down to hallucinations, or deception, or wishful thinking. Those attempts are as old as the Church; up to our own time, hardly an Easter goes by without the publication of some new book that’s allegedly going to sound the death-knell for Christian faith. “Easter is cancelled: they’ve found the tomb, and there are bones in it!”
The first Christians were drawn to the new faith – in many cases drawn away from culturally enriching practices – because they were convinced that Jesus Christ was alive. This was the heart of the matter then, and it’s the heart of the matter now: He rose again! The Gospels are careful to insist that after he rose from the dead, Jesus was seen. He was seen by many people, beginning with the women who had made their way to his tomb, hoping to get a last look at a dead body.
What about today, when many people, looking at the Church, imagine they are taking a last look at a dying body? What is to become, in our time, of the faith that took hold of countless pagans, and turned them into fearless disciples of Christ and dedicated members of his Church?
Today, we need to return to those words from the Creed, “he rose again.” Christ is alive, and this is why – in spite of sadness, scandal and strife – the Church is still in business. Indeed, the Church has no other business than to proclaim Christ to the world, both in words and in deeds.
To the extent that our faith is jaded, to the extent that we are bored or cynical, we need to return to that cornerstone conviction, to the Big Bang that is at the origin of the universe of Christian faith: Christ, who died, has risen. Christ is alive and he is real.
The Creed tells us that Christ rose again “on the third day.” Day one was Good Friday, the day of his death; on day two, he lay in the tomb; and on day three, he rose from the dead. Remember that as a child, Jesus was lost in the Temple, to be found on the third day. We can’t compress all of life’s mishaps and tragedies into a three-day schedule, but in those words, the Creed tells us that the time of death’s victory is limited by God’s plan. God has imposed a limit on every manifestation of evil. For every experience of betrayal, suffering and death, there is, in God’s providence, a “third day.” The Christ who, in human weakness, died and was buried is the Christ who, by God’s power, rose again on the third day.
We are used to the cross. We hang it on the walls of churches, homes, schools – some of us wear it around our necks, sometimes merely as an item of jewelry. It’s easy to forget that the cross is an instrument of capital punishment, and that in a way, we might as well display a little replica of an electric chair, or a hangman’s noose. We should never forget that the cross was not a pretence – Jesus died on it.
Both historians and medical doctors have studied crucifixion in detail, and their combined disciplines tell us that when people were crucified, the immediate cause of death was not blood loss but asphyxiation. Crucifixion did not damage any vital organs; victims remained fully conscious; but as they gradually tired and weakened, they became unable to bear their own weight, and so they sagged on their cross, with their outstretched arms bearing more and more of the weight of their body. This put increasing pressure on their diaphragm and hence on their breathing, until eventually, and very slowly, they asphyxiated.
It was fully expected that crucifixion would lead to a slow, horrible and terrifying death. In the case of Jesus, there seems to have been some surprise at how quickly he died. The Gospel of John (19:33) makes a point of remarking that when some Roman soldiers went to finish Jesus off by breaking his legs, they found that he was already dead.
“He suffered death,” the Creed tell us. But then it adds the words, “and was buried.” Have you ever wondered why this should be specified? In the climate of Palestine, as is still the case in many parts of the world, burial was a matter of urgency – everyone was buried, as a matter of course and as quickly as possible, before the body began to decay. Why, then, should the Creed spell out the fact that Jesus was buried, when this was taken for granted, as the universal practice?
The Creed does this so as to underline the fact that Jesus had died. He hadn’t simply passed out, only to revive later on; his body hadn’t been stolen by his disciples, so that they could invent the myth that he had risen from the dead. This was exactly what the enemies of Jesus feared: that his followers would steal his body. That was why they went to Pilate to ask that Jesus’ tomb be secured to prevent his body being removed (Mt 27:62-66). Even after they had killed him, Jesus’ enemies were going out of their way to silence him! Silence the message! That’s been the first commandment of the enemies of Christ, since the very beginning.
So yes! Jesus died and was buried. And his burial place, a borrowed tomb, was sealed by a rock. We believe that Jesus did not remain dead; we believe in the resurrection. But our faith is insistent – and the Creed spells this out – that there was a time when Jesus was dead. His lifeless body, taken down from the Cross, was left in a tomb, which was sealed and had a military guard stationed outside – and that was no guard of honour!
Christ is alive – so the Easter hymn goes. Christ was dead – so the Creed insists. There was a time in the history of the world when the Son of God lay dead in a tomb. Now, Christ is alive, his tomb is empty; but the world remains full of occupied tombs. Tombs and graves where loved ones lie; tombs of illness, anxiety, addiction, despair, scandal, hurt. The fact that Christ once lay lifeless in the tomb holds out a powerful message of hope to all those who are well acquainted with tombs. The Lord has been there.
In our liturgy, that time when the Lord lay silent in the tomb is re-lived each year on Holy Saturday. This is the day between Christ’s death on Good Friday, and his resurrection on Easter Sunday morning. In many ways, we are called to be Holy Saturday people. We haven’t personally experienced the resurrection – our departed loved ones have not been restored to us; the world remains a broken place. But we believe that Christ has made the journey in full, from life, to the Cross, to the tomb, and back to life.
A core challenge of discipleship is that we wait faithfully at whatever tombs life presents, and that we keep faith with others in their times of need. Christians are people who neither run from the tragedies of life, nor provide glib answers to them. Instead, we wait. We are able to wait because we have faith in Christ, this Lord of ours who knows the tomb from the inside. It is this faith that enables us to live our Holy Saturdays, with real suffering, perhaps, but without despair.
What shields us from despair is the conviction that He, the Master, has been there. He, the Lord: He suffered death and was buried. He is with us in all our Holy Saturdays, those times when we have tasted death, but not yet tasted resurrection.
We are now at the heart of the Creed, where we profess what Christ has done for our sake. In a sense, the entire Creed is about relationships: the relationship in the Trinity between Father, Son and Spirit; the relationship between God and creation; the relationship between God and us; the relationship among ourselves, as members of the Church. Here, at the centre of the Creed, we’re considering the relationship between God and humanity, and that relationship has a name: Jesus.
The relationship between God and humanity is fully expressed in the crucifixion of Jesus. From God’s perspective, the crucifixion and death of Jesus shows that God placed himself in humanity’s hands; from the perspective of humanity, what was inflicted on Jesus shows the depths of rebellion and cruelty that we are capable of.
Let’s take the three phrases, “for our sake,” “he was crucified,” “under Pontius Pilate,” in reverse order. The Creed reminds us that Lord was crucified “under Pontius Pilate.” Aside from Jesus, there are just two people mentioned by name in the Creed: one is Mary, whose self-giving generosity gave Jesus life; the other is Pilate, whose self-interested politics gave Jesus death. To be a disciple is to be caught up in this ongoing drama that has Jesus at its centre. Will I be Mary? Or will I be Pilate?
Jesus lived in a country that was occupied by a foreign power, and Pontius Pilate was the senior official of the occupying force. But why does the Creed immortalize the memory of Pilate, a regional Roman official, with a widespread reputation for cruelty? Because Jesus lived and died as a concrete individual, in a particular place, at a particular time, under a particular regime. God’s plan was not vague or general, but was tied up in the details of time, place and politics.
That was how it was then; and that is how it is now: God works in specific, concrete details … the details of our lives. And God doesn’t work only in the pleasant details – Pilate was anything but a pleasant detail, yet his cruelty and political ambition served God’s purpose. At the trial of Jesus, Pilate showed himself to be more interested in keeping in the good books of the Emperor in Rome than in seeking the truth of the God of heaven. Yet, by God’s providence, this self-serving man served God’s plan, to the extent that Pilate is now a permanent footnote to the history of our salvation.
Pilate sentenced Jesus to be crucified. The Romans had different forms of capital punishment, depending on the offense being punished, and crucifixion was regarded as the most depraved and degrading form of all. It wasn’t only a means of execution – it was also a statement. It said: “Here is what happens to the enemies of the Empire.” The purpose of crucifixion was not simply to kill someone, but to put them on display for all to see. But in the case of Jesus, what was on display was above all God’s love for humanity.
To be crucified by the Roman authorities was to be eliminated, crushed, by the most powerful political and military force the world had yet seen. To be crucified was to be rendered completely powerless. In the Creed, there is a huge contrast between the words “through him all things were made,” and the words “he was crucified.” Jesus is God; he is all-powerful. Yet he subjected himself to complete powerlessness. Why?
This brings us to the first of those three phrases: “For our sake.” Why did Jesus, who is “God from God,” and through whom “all things were made,” die on a Roman cross? Surely the all-powerful Lord could have chosen some other way? Saints and scholars have rightly been uneasy with the idea that the sufferings of Jesus were the price demanded by an angry God if sinful humanity was to be saved, but the Lord’s willing choice of the Cross remains a mystery.
That said, it is possible for us to grasp something of the logic of God’s choice of radical powerlessness. If we consider the matter, what is the most that power can achieve in restoring a broken relationship? If someone inflicts great damage on me, I can have recourse to law, and have an offender’s behavior restrained, whether by imprisonment, or some other sanction. But this proper and necessary exercise of power doesn’t reach into the heart of the offender – it does not, of itself, lead to repentance; it does not, of itself, restore the relationship between offender and offended.
In willingly submitting to the powerless of crucifixion, the all-powerful God was saying: “I want something more! I don’t just want to restrain the sinfulness of humanity, I want to restore my relationship of love with them. And in order to do this, I will not coerce, I will not exercise the power that I possess, but seek to reach right into people’s hearts.”
The crucified Jesus teaches us this above all: God’s desire is not so much to restrain us as to restore us to full relationship with him. And to this end, he sets his power aside, and appeals to our hearts.
“What is man, that you are mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:4). What is the human person? What is our life for? Where have we come from? Where are we going? The culture we inhabit doesn’t offer answers to questions like these – in fact, it studiously avoids them. It prescribes our behavior in ever-increasing detail, but it hasn’t a clue what all that detail is finally for. Never have we been handed down so many directions; never have we been so lacking in a sense of direction. Because our culture has no answers to deep questions, it would rather we remain superficial, distracted, flitting like butterflies from one experience to the next.
When we’re younger, quite naturally we want to have lots of new experiences; we want to jump into life and taste it to the full. But sooner or later, most people will begin to wonder who the person having all those experiences actually is: Who am I and what is my life for?
The Creed tells us that in Jesus, God took on our human nature completely: he became man. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (401) tells us that it’s only in the mystery of Jesus, the Word made flesh, that the mystery of our human nature becomes clear. Our faith offers us the priceless gift of a clear understanding of our own humanity. It does not spoon-feed us; it doesn’t offer ready-made answers to painful questions, but our faith does assure us that we are not random atoms in a random universe. Our life is precious, and it is meaningful.
In 1979, when Blessed Pope John Paul II addressed the young people of Ireland at Ballbrit racecourse in Galway, he listed various ways in which people seek happiness. He mentioned drugs, materialism, sexual irresponsibility… and then he went on to speak some powerful words that show the great gift that faith has to offer: Something else is needed, John Paul said, something that you will find only in Christ, for he alone is the measure and the scale that you must use to evaluate your own life. In Christ you will discover the true greatness of your own humanity; he will make you understand your own dignity as human beings “created in the image and likeness of God”. Today, there is a great deal of talk about dignity, but there is no scale against which to measure it. “Dignity” risks becoming an empty word or a political banner.
John Paul never courted popularity – he never sought to sugar-coat the demands of discipleship, and on that occasion, he went on say: Yes, Christ calls you, but he calls you in truth. His call is demanding, because he invites you to let yourselves be “captured” by him completely, so that your whole lives will be seen in a different light.
Without that “different light,” as Pope John Paul well knew, we are like a dog in a cage at the airport, who has chewed the tag off his cage. There is no information about him: nobody knows his name, or his master’s name, or where he has arrived from, or what his destination is. He’s a doggie in the dark: he has no identity, no past, no future.
Just what is the light that Christ sheds on our human nature? Let’s briefly consider five things that our faith teaches us about ourselves (cf. CCC 357). For a start, we needn’t suffer the fate of that poor dog, because unlike it, we are capable of self-knowledge. We have hearts that are restless, and that ask big questions (the very kind of questions that our culture hasn’t a clue how to answer, and that it invites us to treat with large doses of entertainment, pleasure, consumption…). Our questions are an invitation to self-knowledge, to go deeper, not to be contented with an endless stream of novelty or entertainment, not to anaesthetize ourselves with cheap pleasures.
In addition to self-knowledge, we are called to self-possession, to be masters of ourselves and our urges, rather than be mastered by them. This call to self-possession is the principal reason why Christian faith will never be flavor of the month with a culture that thinks that freedom is being able to do what I want, when I want. But without self-possession, what good are we? What good am I to an employer, if I do not possess myself enough to get up every day for work? What use am I to my spouse, if I do not possess myself enough to be faithful?
What follows self-possession? When I possess myself, what’s next? I give myself away! This is a core Christian conviction regarding human nature: we become truly free by restraining ourselves, possessing ourselves, and then by giving ourselves away! We are designed for self-giving. Surely we can all see that those who become caught up in the pursuit of immediate pleasure, immediate satisfaction, are unable to give themselves– and to the extent that they are unable to give themselves, they are unable to love.
Know yourself; possess yourself, and you’ll make a great lover. This is core Christian teaching. It is the very opposite of what our culture understands.
Our faith takes us a couple of steps further. It insists that we are made for communion with others; that we are called to be people of social concern, who work for the good of our community, our country and our world.
Finally, our faith tells us that human nature is ultimately geared towards God, and that it is only in God that we can finally come to rest.
In a nutshell: what does our faith in Christ tell us about our human nature, which he shared? We are called to know ourselves, to possess ourselves, to give ourselves, to be people of communion, and to seek God. This is a truly great plan for any person’s life!
Several lines of the Creed describe the Holy Spirit and how the Spirit works. We’ll get to them in due course, but what we need to keep in mind for now is that when God does great things, it is God’s Holy Spirit that is at work. The greatest thing of all was the coming of Christ, his taking human nature and living a human life; and it was God’s Holy Spirit, and not a human father, that brought this to pass.
Some people get hung up on the idea that Mary, a virgin, gave birth to Jesus without the involvement of a human father. They say that this is simply impossible. And of course, they are right: from a purely human perspective it is impossible. It is impossible that God should be born a helpless infant; it is impossible that the dead should rise; it is impossible that the deaf should hear, the blind should see; that those who are in despair should be filled with hope. Many things are impossible. We live in a world of impossibilities!
What did Mary herself say when the angel Gabriel announced God’s plan to her? She asked the angel: “How can this be?” And the angel answered her: “Nothing is impossible to God.” One of the great blessings of our Christian faith is that it does not leave us walled in by our circumstances, but gives us a hope that reaches beyond what is humanly possible.
The Creed tells us that it was by the Holy Spirit that Christ, who was already the Son of God, at a certain time became the Son of a human mother. Christ was “incarnate,” the Creed tells us; that word means simply that Christ took flesh, that he took on a carnal human nature.
Mary said “yes” to God’s plan, and that was how it all happened. The best of things happen when people say “yes,” when they agree to take part, to offer themselves and their energies. There is no social or political programme, no plan for renewal, that can bring real blessings, unless there are people behind it who are willing to say “yes,” to be available, to offer time, talents, concern.
Mary is above all the woman who made herself available to God, and that made all the difference. One of the earliest Christian theologians said that Mary conceived God’s word in her heart before she conceived in her womb. And that’s where she is the great model for believers: in her openness to God. It follows that the only genuine devotion to Mary is the one that leads us to be more open to God. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!
Here’s the whole drama of Mary in just three points. First, Mary shows us that the whole point of discipleship is to receive the Lord into our lives. Second, she shows us that this can involve real upheaval and suffering. What happened after Mary said her “yes” to God’s plan? Her relationship with Joseph practically broke down – he wanted to end their engagement. Not all that surprising, when he found out that his future wife was expecting a baby. All sorts of misunderstandings can arise when people allow Christ to enter their lives. How did Mary deal with this crisis? This is the third point: Mary did not despair, or panic, or run away. She trusted in God. The crisis Mary resolved by trust was the crisis at the beginning of Christ’s life. An even greater one came at the end. Mary’s hands cradled an infant at the first Christmas, her eyes looked at her Newborn with great love. Years later, the same hands received a lifeless body from the Cross; the same eyes looked on, with unmeasured grief.
So whatever else we might think, let’s not imagine that Mary lived in a garden of roses, or that her existence was all sweetness and light. There is a certain kind of piety that might suggest that. It may be a well-meaning piety, but it is blind to the human strength of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
We, as disciples, are called to conceive Christ in our hearts; to bring him into our families, our communities, our workplaces. That’s what discipleship is. If we’re not doing that, or trying, in some way, to do it, then our discipleship is at best defective.
If disciples, like Mary, are called to be open to what God is doing, we also need Mary’s steeliness: we need to be able to resist temptations to quit, to despair, to walk away. Mary followed her Son – even as He went through opposition, defeat and disfigurement. It might well be that a real mark of discipleship today is the willingness to continue following Christ, even when his image is disfigured by sin and derided by opposition.
May we be helped in that by the example of Mary; may we be supported by her prayers.
12. “For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven…”
Jesus is “for us.” The Creed makes this very clear. In fact, the Creed makes two things about God very clear. On the one hand, God is all-powerful, the creator, the eternal, the source of all light and goodness; on the other hand, in Jesus, God has come to us, lived like us, shared our existence. By nature, God is infinite, heavenly, beyond us; but by his kindness, God is with us and among us. The Creed captures this by saying that for us, Jesus “came down from heaven.”
If you want to help someone who has fallen, you have to reach down; if you stay proud and tall, you may be proving your strength, your physical superiority, but you’ll be no use at all to the unfortunate person on the ground. That image can explain a great deal about Jesus: he is the one who has reached down to the fallen. Jesus has not asserted himself, he has not stood proud and tall, but has let go of his strength and greatness in order to enter our weakness and vulnerability.
Jesus is not simply a nice person who has done us a good turn: the Creed tells us plainly that he has come “for our salvation.” Christ came to save us – not to affirm us. Yes, we need to be saved – this is a core truth of our Christian faith. To be a Christian is to acknowledge the power of God in Christ; it is also to acknowledge the power of sin in us. We can’t straighten ourselves out – we need outside intervention. To use a financial image: we’re a bit like a failed economy – what we need is not economic advice, but a massive bailout.
Saint Paul puts the matter very plainly in his letter to the Romans: “Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift” (Rom 3:23). In other words, we have a deeply ingrained capacity for falling short in so many ways, for messing things up; but God puts things to rights, and offers us his help (the biblical name for God’s help is “grace”) so that we might live well.
Does it seem a bit negative to insist on the universality of sinfulness and brokenness? Not if we give the matter some thought. If human weakness is universal, to the point that we need to be saved, bailed out, then this means that there is no perfect programme, no perfect politics, no perfect system or philosophy waiting to save us. And this, in turn, means that we do not owe total obedience to any organization, any government, any political system.
One of the more ill-informed criticisms of Christian faith is that it makes believers gullible, ready to believe in anything. In fact, the opposite is true: believers in Christ are radically skeptical of all purely human efforts to save humanity. When all is said and done, believers look to God for salvation. Yes, they roll up their sleeves and work for the betterment of the world, but they know that only God can put reality completely to rights.
There’s a great freedom in that belief: when all is said and done, we’re beholden to God alone. The belief that all people are in need of salvation means that we don’t regard anyone in this world as a savior, and we look with suspicion on anyone who is beginning to pose as one. This means that there is freedom in the insistence that all men and women are sinners in need of salvation.
As one writer wisely puts it: “We have nothing to fear from those who do or do not believe in God; we have much to fear from those who do not believe in sin. The concept of sin is a stark acknowledgment that we can never be omnipotent, that we are bound and limited by human flaws and self-interest. The concept of sin is a check on the utopian dreams of a perfect world.”
If the belief that no human person is perfect puts a break on grand political dreams, then on a personal level, the same belief can help us to be more realistic about ourselves, our families, our workmates, our neighbours. Sure, let’s expect standards – and in high places let’s expect high standards. But our Christian faith doesn’t allow us to be tyrannical in our expectations, because it insists that we all need that bailout; it insists that the Lord came for our salvation. Who is my neighbour, my child, my colleague, my friend? Someone who, like me, needs to be saved.
The Times of London once invited some prominent authors to submit their thoughts on the topic “What is wrong with the world today?” One of the replies was a very brief letter: Dear Sir, I am. Sincerely yours. G.K. Chesterton.
“For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven.” We need more than a bit of good advice, a tweaking here and there, a new political programme. We need salvation. Men and women of good will can achieve some great things, but only Christ can save us. Far from taking from our human dignity, that belief can prevent us from being enslaved by the latest notion (and there will always be a latest notion!) of what it is we need. It is Christ that we need, and we begin to find true freedom when we realize that need.
Sat./Sun. May 4th/5th, 2013…
After week of publication of heads of “Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill”
I’m very keen to keep moving down through the Creed, as I’ve planned to do during this year of faith. But this Sunday, I’m being diverted once more by events. This has been a momentous week for Ireland, the week in which the heads of the “Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill” have been published. I’d like to read a couple of short extracts from the Catholic Bishops’ statement, but first, let me raise the question: What right have the bishops got to be sticking their oar in, telling elected politicians what they should or shouldn’t do? Does this kind of intervention not breach the proper separation of church and state?
In addition to the right that anyone has to make a statement about matters of public concern, the Bishops have a particular and specific right to make an appeal, in their capacity as bishops, to Catholics, including Catholic politicians. There is no inconsistency in this, because part of the logic of professing Catholic faith (the same logic applies to other faiths) is that faith, if it is real, must make a difference in the real world. Otherwise, it’s only a weekend ornament, an empty vessel, a sham.
If, for example, I stand here and profess to believe in honesty and integrity, but in my dealings I am dishonest and corrupt, it’s clear that any and all of my religious views and practices are wide open to suspicion. The mainstream Christian view – not exclusive to Catholicism – is that Christian faith stands or falls on how it shapes the lives of those who profess it – and this means the home lives, the business lives, the sporting lives, the political lives, the judicial and legislative lives. Those who would say that personal beliefs should not be allowed into parliaments or public life might as well say to a married man: “It’s all well and good being married, but you can’t be acting like a married man in public.”
I’ve dwelt on this for a moment, because I think we’ll find that in the coming weeks, there will be many voices challenging and ridiculing any interventions from the Catholic Church regarding the issue of legislation for abortion. We’ll hear it said that the Bishops have no moral ground to stand on; past failings will be referred to as a way of attempting to silence the Church. Frankly, it takes a good deal of hypocrisy to insist that the Church’s cowardly silences of the past should be matched by cowardly silence in the present.
So, what have the Bishops actually said? Here are some short extracts from their statement (a statement made for us all): The Catholic bishops of Ireland stress once again the importance of continuing to provide a healthcare service in Ireland which ensures complete respect for the sacredness of the life both of the mother and her unborn baby… The Heads of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013 published by the Government on Wednesday would, if approved, make the direct and intentional killing of unborn children lawful in Ireland… The Bill also appears to impose a duty on Catholic hospitals to provide abortions. This would be totally unacceptable and has serious implications for the existing legal and constitutional arrangements that respect the legitimate autonomy and religious ethos of faith-based institutions… Abortion, in the sense of directly killing the unborn child, is never a remedy for suicidal ideation and therefore should never be cited as a justification for the direct killing of an innocent human being. It is a tragic moment for Irish society when we regard the deliberate destruction of a completely innocent person as an acceptable response to the threat of the preventable death of another person.
Even as I read those extracts, I can sense a certain tension between, on the one hand, our being here to worship the Lord, to listen to his word and receive his Body in the Eucharist, and on the other hand, the intrusion of that rather dry language, with its legal and political concerns. Surely we’re just here to pray, right? Yes, we’re here to pray, but if we look the other way, or feign embarrassment, or take refuge in the notion that all these things are just too legally and medically complicated for us to be bothered… if we do that at a time when the right to life is being compromised and eroded, then we must ask how acceptable our prayers are to the Lord of life.
But is the right to life actually being compromised and eroded? Ask the campaigners, lobbyists and politicians who are welcoming the latest developments as a step along the way to abortion on demand. Ask them what the desired outcome is. Some months ago, a leading campaigner wrote that this is not about maternal mortality, but a woman’s fundamental right. That campaigner is not alone in hoping that the right to life will be supplanted by a right against life.
What about that fact that if we don’t change our laws here, women will keep taking the boat or the plane to England or elsewhere? Are the Bishops and other anti-abortion campaigners implying that the only thing that really matters is keeping abortion out of holy Ireland? That cheap slur notwithstanding, the Irish Church has an army of volunteers who put their time and energy where their mouths are, who are helping and continue to help women in crisis pregnancies. The concern here is the protection of unborn human life – not the geographical location in which it can or can’t be ended.
What about ordinary believers, far from the levers of power? What can we do? Let us first of all not give in to jaded or lazy or fearful cynicism. Let us not be afraid to express strong and clear pro-life sentiment in conversation. If it should fall to us in some way, let’s express such views to our elected representatives. And let us pray that somehow, even if it should require a miracle, our laws might protect rather than compromise the right to life of the unborn.
11. “Through Him all things were made”
This is the second time the Creed mentions creation. We’ve already heard that God, the Father almighty, is the “maker of heaven and earth.” Now, we’re being told that it wasthrough the Second Person of the Trinity, the “one Lord, Jesus Christ,” that all created reality came into being. Our Christian faith makes it very clear that creation was not a fluke or a mistake, but was willed and planned by God – the Father and Son, working together. The third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, is also part of this co-operative venture, and the Creed teaches us about the Spirit’s role after its teaching on the Son.
Creation, to repeat, is not a mistake or a fluke. The Creed tells us not once, but twice, that God wanted creation, planned it, desired it. At the time of Christ, and in the earliest days of Christianity, many pagan religions taught their followers that creation was evil, and that salvation meant escaping from all material things, including escaping from the body. But the Christians, just like the Jews, our older brothers and sisters in the faith, insisted that created reality is good, a blessing, a sign of God’s wisdom and care.
There have been times when Christians fell into mistaken or warped views, forgetting that all creation is good. At certain times, for example, there has been a great mistrust of human sexuality, to the point where it has been seen more as a threat to salvation, than as a gift of God. Human sinfulness and weakness can certainly make this a vulnerable gift, but the Church has never taught that human sexuality is anything other than a gift from God, for which men and women should be grateful, and which should be carefully guarded against the excesses and blindness to which our sinfulness can give rise.
“Through Him all things were made.” Imagine how our way of walking on this earth might be changed for the better, if we took those words to heart: “Through him, through Jesus, the Son of God, all things were made.” Some years back, it was fashionable to speak of the “greening” of the Church, a term which could suggest that believers were finally catching up with the environmental movement. But the Creed has been green all along! Our faith invites us to value God’s creation, given to us as a gift.
In his Letter to the Romans, St Paul writes that God has been recognizable, since the beginning of the world, in the things he has made (Rom 1:20). Yet we don’t always – and perhaps not even all that often – see goodness and loveliness that there is in the world. Why is it that we can be blind to a lot of goodness? Sometimes there are obvious reasons: people who are ill, or grieving, or anxious can have their energies and their attention consumed. But there is forgetfulness that affects practically everyone to some extent: we routinely forget that reality itself is a gift.
Here’s a thought that might help us to reflect on some of the different ways in which we can look at reality. Imagine yourself in your favourite shop, with a reasonably generous, but not unlimited, shopping voucher. How will you look at the things in that shop? You won’t be there to admire; you’ll be there to get! You’ll be calculating, working out: “How much can I get? What’s the best way to use my money? What’s the best value?”
Now, instead of the shop, put yourself in front of your favourite view, or listening to your favourite piece of music, or reading a favourite poem. In this case, there’s no need for calculation; all you have to do is open your eyes, your mind, your soul… and it’s yours to enjoy.
We are broken and limited creatures, and we have a great desire for security. Our insecurity can lead us to look at reality as though it were a shop in which to get things, rather than as something lovely, something just there, a gift and a blessing. Those words from the Creed can speak to this brokenness and insecurity of ours: “Through Him all things were made.”
We have to shop, to get, to make ends meet, and for many people there are real struggles involved. The faith which we profess in the Creed does not urge us to be naïve about reality; rather, it reminds us that Christ is the heart of reality.
Some people imagine that it’s naïve and unrealistic to thank and praise God even in the midst of difficulties. Our faith would insist that it’s naïve and unrealistic to imagine that we can navigate life’s difficulties if we never take a moment to thank and praise God. “Through Him all things were made.” Let’s indeed give praise and thanks to Christ, for his goodness in creation and for the wisdom of our faith.
Sometimes the poets can come to our help, those naïve dreamers who habitually see what others habitually miss. Joseph Mary Plunkett, who was executed in 1916 along with Padraig Pearse and Thomas MacDonagh, wrote:
I see his blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.
May we, too, have not just eyesight, but insight, so that we might see the Lord’s handiwork around us. May we take strength and hope from the conviction that through Him all things were made.
‘… begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father…’
This is the second mention in the Creed of the fact that Jesus is “begotten.” We’ve already heard that he is “the only begotten Son of God.” But before we try to unwrap the meaning contained in those words, let’s stand back for a moment, and ask: Why all the words? Why all the nit-picking precision? Is this not just so much irrelevant hair-splitting? After all, when we come to Mass, or when we pray, we’re neither thinking of nor thinking in this rather dry terminology. If I visit someone who is ill, and I want to pray with them or keep them company in their struggle, they probably won’t find it particularly useful or uplifting if I say to them: “By the way, as you lie on your sick bed, keep in mind Jesus is begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father.
The solemn language of the Creed is like the foundation of a house. It’s absolutely essential, yet we don’t enter the house through the foundation – we go in through the door. The “door” of our everyday faith is the language and attitude of trust in God. Those words of the Creed, “begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father,” are not the everyday language of prayer and belief and struggle and doubt. But this does not mean that those words are irrelevant. When we walk over a picturesque bridge, we will probably be more interested in enjoying the view than in pondering the engineering aspects of the structure that’s keeping us from falling into the river. But that does not mean that the engineer’s text-books and formulas are irrelevant.
Granted, the Blessed Trinity is not an engineering problem! When many great minds and saints set themselves to understand God, they were not trying to solve a problem, or come up with a formula. What they did seek to do was safeguard a mystery. God will always be infinitely bigger than human intelligence, and the Creed does not set out to explain the Trinity. In effect, the saints and scholars who gave us the Creed were saying: “If you keep within these lines and limits, then you won’t go astray; if you accept these fundamental truths, then no, you won’t understand God, but yes, you will avoid the risk of fundamentally misunderstanding God.”
This means that when we recite the Creed, we’re acknowledging that our faith is rooted in the prayer and reflection of the saints and scholars and pastors who gave us the Creed. We don’t invent our belief – we receive it as a gift. Happily, we don’t have to dive into the theological depths every time we recite the Creed. That’s a valid exercise, but it tends to be the work of theologians. When we recite this statement of our belief, we are saying that our faith has deep, strong roots; it’s well founded; it’s a gift from God that has been received and lived, and whose power and goodness is well established.
Back to those words, “begotten, not made.” From a human perspective, to be begotten means to be brought to life, to be brought into existence, and so there seems to be the makings of a contradiction in those words. If we’re begotten, then surely we’re made? Here, the Creed is telling us something else about the relationship between Jesus and the Father: this is a relationship of begetting, in which Jesus receives himself from the Father.
Think of a person who is in love. People in love know that in a very real sense they are receiving themselves from the person they love; they feel that they have never been more alive, more real, more truly themselves; they are given life, “begotten,” by the one they love. This is the way it is with God, but always, permanently, eternally. The Son receives his whole self from the Father, he is begotten of the Father. But things were never any other way – there was no beginning, no initial moment where the Son came into being. And so, the Creed says that the Son is “begotten, not made.”
If that sounds a little bit abstract, then let’s remember that our faith is founded on the conviction of a permanent, unchanging love. There’s nothing at all abstract about the absence of permanence in love. When the love between people ends, as it occasionally does, then the consequences can be very concrete indeed. The fact that our faith is founded on permanent love is immensely practical; it’s a practical as magnetic north. We can’t see it, but we can navigate by it.
Jesus is also “consubstantial with the Father.” The early Christians did quite a bit of squabbling over the nature of Jesus. Is he God, or is he man? Some said one, some said the other. Some said a little bit of one and more of the other. But the most careful reflection on biblical truth has insisted that Jesus is both God and man; fully God and fully man. Those words, “consubstantial with the Father,” capture the fact that Jesus, although fully human, is indeed God. He has two natures – human and divine – but only one self, one person, one substance, which he shares with the Father.
After the resurrection, when Jesus appeared on the shore of lake Galilee, the disciple John saw him from the boat, and said: “It is the Lord.” The Creed puts great and repeated stress on the divinity of Jesus, and this is so that we can repeat, with John the disciple: “It is the Lord.”
This Lord of ours is no abstraction. Let me finish with some lovely words of encouragement from one of the great saints of the ancient Church, St Ambrose of Milan:
In Christ we have everything…
If you want to heal your wound, he is the doctor.
If you are burning with fever, he is the fountain.
If you are in need of help, he is strength.
If you are in dread of death, he is life.
If you are fleeing the darkness, he is light.
If you are hungry, he is food.
“Born of the Father before all ages.
God from God,
light from light,
true God from true God.”
As we make our way down through the Creed, we’ll do well to remind ourselves that the Creed was not composed as a proof – it wasn’t written to prove that God exists, or that Jesus is his son. When we recite the Creed, we’re giving expression to the faith that we already hold. But sometimes the very act of repeating our beliefs helps us to grow in them; just as the words “I love you” do more than simply communicate information about how the person speaking them happens to feel. Those three little words don’t simply express love: they actually strengthen it. Likewise, reaffirming and repeating the truths of our faith can strengthen our faith.
When we recite the Creed, we say that Jesus was born. This is something we all have in common with him … our arrival in this world as tiny, needy, vulnerable human beings. But of course, the Creed immediately adds that Jesus was born, had his existence, from the Father before all ages. This is something we do not have in common with him. We came into existence when we were conceived, and it’s nearly impossible for us to get our minds around the fact that there was a time when we did not exist. Jesus’ human nature came into existence when he was conceived, but as God’s son, he existed from eternity, before time; there was never a time when he didn’t exist.
It would sound pretty daft if you or I were to say, “I took on human nature when I was conceived.” Before that moment, there simply was no “I.” We did not exist. The Son of God did. He already had an existence, but he agreed to share fully in ours. He was utterly rich, and he agreed to share in our poverty; utterly self-sufficient, and he agreed to share in our weakness and vulnerability. That’s the kind of Lord we believe in, the Lord who was “born of the Father before all ages,” and yet was born one of us.
I once read a book review in which the reviewer described a large volume of theology as “both exhaustive and exhausting.” In these reflections on the Creed, I’m not attempting to be exhaustive, and hopefully I won’t be too exhausting either. In the phrases “God from God, light from light, true God from true God,” the only word I want to highlight is the word “Light.” Yes, Jesus is God from God, true God from true God; but one identifying characteristic the Creed singles out is light.
Jesus is light. In the Gospel, he tells us: “I am the light of the world.” (Jn 8:12). Then he tells us: “Those who follow me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” Our ordinary way of speaking links light and truth: to know the truth is to be enlightened. Not to know something to be in the dark about it. The early Christians used to call themselves the “enlightened.” Still today, during the baptismal ceremony, when the child’s baptismal candle is lit, the priest says to the child’s parents: “Receive the light of Christ.”
A question that we might all do well to reflect on is, “In what way does my faith enlighten me? What clarity does it bring me that I wouldn’t otherwise have?” If we’re not sure, then the good news is that the best is still ahead of us – if we’re willing to accept it. Faith in Christ, to be sure, doesn’t offer a ready answer to every question life puts to us. But it can help us to see the questions themselves in a different light.
Here’s just one example of how faith can enlighten us – of how it enlightens countless believers. There is a great and fundamental difference between how our secular culture sees suffering, and how believers see it. Our secular culture tends to see faith in the light of suffering. Believers see suffering in the light of faith. The secular mind thinks: “Look at all the suffering in the world; faith must be nonsense. The believer, in contrast, because he or she has faith, rejects the idea that suffering is nonsense, that it is meaningless. From the point of view of unbelief, suffering casts darkness on faith; from the point of view of belief, faith casts light on suffering. And this is not “whistling in the dark,” as unbelievers and sceptics would like us to believe. There is a world of difference between whistling in the dark and looking towards the light.
I’d like to finish by sharing a brief reflection that you might call to mind when you are visiting a church with stained glass windows. How does stained glass work? It’s stained glass whether we look at it from outside or inside the church building. But it’s entirely different, depending on which of those views we’re taking. From outside, stained glass is dark and dull; it could even seem like a waste of what should be a clear, bright window. But from inside, it’s a different matter. From inside, we see the colour, the form and the beauty of the stained glass.
Sceptics, whether they are workplace atheists or newspaper columnists, may lament the dullness they see from the outside. We are invited to take a different view, to come inside, to inhabit our faith, and in this way to see its beauty and the light and hope it offers.
8. “… the only begotten Son of God…”
The Creed is a very carefully compiled list of statements, a list that draws together the core truths of our Christian faith, so that when we recite it on Sundays, we’re setting out our stall, reminding ourselves of what we stand for.
When we want to emphasise something, to make a point without leaving any room for doubt, we often repeat ourselves. This is just what the Creed does, when it comes to the insistence that Jesus is divine, that he is truly God. The Creed does not simply state that Jesus is the Son of God, and then move on to the next truth. Instead, the Creed lingers over this truth, spelling it out repeatedly by means of a kind of studied, solemn repetition, which includes no less than seven different expressions.
Jesus, “the only begotten Son of God,” is also:
Born of the Father before all ages
God from God
Light from Light
True God from true God
Begotten, not made
Consubstantial with the Father.
Each of those phrases tells its own truth, yet there’s a strong element of repetition. The Creed wants to leave us in no doubt whatsoever: Jesus is divine; Jesus is God. What is a Christian? A Christian is a person who believes that Jesus is God, and who lives out of that belief.
Yes, Jesus was born a baby, and grew up to be a man… the Creed will also remind us of that. But Jesus is more than just a man – more, even, than a very good man. One of the biggest squabbles among early Christians was over the nature of Jesus. Some people insisted that he was divine, but downplayed or denied his humanity; others insisted that he was human, but downplayed or denied his divinity. At a certain point, the teaching Church intervened and said, “Enough! Jesus is fully God and fully man.”
But lest this sound a bit abstract, let’s stop and ask how it is relevant to us. Here is a little image that captures how utterly relevant it is to us that Jesus is both God and man. If you are trying to cross a deep chasm, or a canyon, you need something that is firmly connected to both sides – a rope, a cable, a bridge. But whatever kind of structure it might be, it is of no heavenly or earthly use unless it’s firmly anchored on both sides of the chasm.
Jesus is firmly anchored in God; and he is firmly anchored in humanity. And so it’s in Jesus, and only in him, that we can cross the chasm between the frailty and weakness of our human nature, and the infinite strength and goodness of God. At the end of our lives, it’s in Jesus that we cross the impossible chasm between death and life. When I pray to Jesus, I’m not praying to someone who is simply a good and inspiring human being. I am praying to the one who can reach me in my humanity, to the one who can find me where I am, and who can raise me up – ultimately beyond death.
So let’s ask ourselves: what “impossible chasms” have I experienced, or might I yet experience, in my life? To whom have I turned, or to whom will I turn? Our faith invites us to turn to Jesus. As man, he knows all about pain and betrayal and misunderstanding and fear. As God, he knows how to deal with them. For us believers, it’s no small matter that the man Jesus is the Son of God.
Someone once said that if Jesus were only heavenly, he’d be no earthly use to us, and if he were only earthly, he’d be no heavenly use. He is both heavenly and earthly. We know from the historical record that the man Jesus existed, preached, gathered followers, and was crucified. This information is found not only in the Bible, but also in plenty of ancient Roman historical sources. The Creed wants to ensure that the clarity of those historical facts is accompanied by clarity regarding the divinity of Jesus, and that’s why it is insistent to the point of repetition.
A final thought. Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, shared our humanity so that we might be sons and daughters of God. Jesus is God’s Son by nature; we are called to be God’s children by adoption. Saint Paul tells us that we’ve received “a spirit of adoption” (Rom 8:15). As adopted children, we are beloved of the Father, precious to him. Here’s a short poem, written by a woman for her beloved, adopted child. It conveys something of the reality of God’s love for his adopted children:
Not flesh of my flesh,
Nor bone of my bone,
but still miraculously my own.
Never forget for a single minute;
You didn’t grow under my heart
but in it.As Christians, we are called to trust that we have a space in God’s heart, along with his only begotten Son, who is our Lord and our brother.
“I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ”
What is the heart of the Christian faith? What is it most essentially about? The heart of the matter is not a teaching, or a moral outlook, but a person: the person of Jesus Christ. There is no teaching or doctrine or practice that can be sifted out, distilled, or detached from the person of Christ, so that we might say: “Here it is, this is what it’s about.” The essence of our faith is, to repeat, the person of Christ. One of the great theologians of the twentieth century puts it very simply: “Christian belief… stands or falls with the historical person of Jesus. Christian belief is Jesus!”
It’s strange, then, a more than a little bit sad, that so many Christians have a very strong sense that their faith involves teachings, rules and practices, but have little or no sense of the person of Christ. They have received the rules, the practices, the morality, but have never encountered the Person to whom all these things are a response.
Let me say it again: the heart of our faith is Christ: “I believe/we believe in one Lord Jesus Christ.” If we were to leave out the person of Christ, we’d be a bit like a man for whom being married meant working to maintain a household, ferrying children about, and putting out the bins – but who had no personal relationship with his wife! All those other things are, of course, part and parcel of a marriage, but without the relationship, the heart is missing.
Likewise, a faith that consists in doing all the necessary things, but that doesn’t involve a relationship with Christ as Lord, is a faith that is impoverished. We’re being offered more than we realize!
There is a lot of silliness spoken and written and broadcast about Jesus. If the “silly season” in the political world is during the summer, when journalists are desperate for news, the silly season for Christian faith is around Christmas and Easter, when there’s nearly always someone lined up to tell us that we’ve had it wrong all along. Here, once again, those little words that we say four times in the Creed, the words “I believe,” are hugely important. Our faith is not built on some hazy notions, but on a very concrete foundation. When we insist, for example, that Jesus is Lord, that he is God’s Son, we’re being no more unreasonable or dogmatic than an engineer who says “I believe in gravity.”
But there are those who would suggest that belief in gravity limits our freedom; or that belief in Christ is something that was imposed by the early Church, as a way of exercising control. Over Christmas, I heard a novelist being interviewed on the radio. During the course of the interview, he tossed out as a historical fact that notion that the content of belief was not considered important for the first several centuries of Christianity, and the only thing that mattered was that believers “entered into the story,” whatever that might mean.
Needless to say, he wasn’t contradicted or corrected. It’s a free country, and he was left free to dismiss belief in the person and Lordship of Christ as an invention of a cynical power-crazed group of men. I don’t want to dwell on that, but it’s important for us to realize that the beliefs at the heart of our faith are routinely challenged, trodden on by the ignorant, without any challenge or any demand for verification.
When we say “I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,” we’re asserting an important human and political right. We’re insisting that as Lord, Christ is our ultimate authority. At a time when many of us have become a bit cynical and jaded about politics, it may warm our hearts to recall that when we affirm the Lordship of Jesus Christ, we’re saying that no state, no politician, no leader, no law will overturn or overrule the judgment of an informed Christian conscience. We don’t say, in the Creed, “I believe that Christ is a Lord.” No! We insist that He is the Lord, the only One; the authority above all authorities. This is an important human freedom to assert, at a time in history when the reach of the state seems to be getting ever longer. Indeed, the state may reach far into our lives, but it cannot reach into that personal space, in which we affirm that Christ, and nothing or no one else, is our final authority.
This is why, from the very beginning of Christianity, people got in trouble over the belief that Christ is the one Lord. What about Caesar? What about Herod? Those people got angry. And it didn’t end there: in Nazi Germany, a priest was imprisoned for daring to call Christ not the Lord, but simply the leader. That was Hitler’s title, Der Führer, the Leader. His supporters were not happy about it being applied to anyone else.
All of this means that when we say those words, “I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,” we’re saying something that is at one and the same time both profoundly personal and profoundly political. As a personal statement: Jesus is our Lord – a real, living person, to whom we look, to whom we pray. And as a political statement: Jesus, and only him, is our final authority, our final guide, our final arbiter.
Our faith in Christ, therefore, ranges from the personal, to the political, and covers everything in between. Let’s treasure it.
The opening words of the Bible are “In the beginning, God made the heavens and the earth.” The Creed uses the same expression, “maker of heaven and earth,” and in this way, it takes us right back to the foundations of reality.
Neither the Creed nor the Bible set out to tell us just how God created. We don’t have to get bogged down in details of modern science or of the theory of evolution. We don’t have to reconcile details from the book of Genesis with the details of science or geology. In the official teaching of the Church, believers are perfectly free to accept any scientific theories about how the universe came to be. Science and theology are two different languages, but there is only one truth; and both of those languages try to understand and describe the aspects of the truth that they are concerned with.
The Bible and the Creed insist that God created; science insists on the reality of evolution. There needn’t be any contradiction here, and one of the Church’s catechisms says: “Evolution presupposes the existence of something that can develop.” If the world has evolved, if the human race has come about through evolution, then we can thank God for his evolutionary handiwork.
When the Creed says that God, the Father, created, it’s saying something absolutely stunning. Modern physics tells us that there are just four fundamental energies in the universe: gravity, electromagnetic force, strong nuclear force and weak nuclear force. And the Creed tells us that the fundamental energy of the universe is Fatherhood: “God, theFather, created…”
Again, there’s no contradiction here. If God the Father can weave this awesome universe out of just four forces, then praised be He! Our faith insists that creation has beenfathered into existence. You and I are not cosmic flukes or random collections of particles – we haven’t come about by chance; we’ve been fathered, called, loved into existence. We’ve come from the mind and heart of God; that is our origin and we also have adestiny: life with God, a life which is the fullness of the life and the beauty that this world offers.
No, we’re not here by chance; yes, we’ve been fathered; fathered in a more fundamental way than even the most loving human fatherhood. We exist from God; we have our existence from God! Let me quote a lovely phrase from St Edith Stein, a convert from the Jewish faith, a Carmelite nun, and one of the twentieth century’s most influential philosophers. She says: “In the knowledge that being holds me, I rest secure.”
God is the source of all being – nothing that happens, nothing that is, is hidden from him. The conviction that God the maker of all things, that God is in charge, is a life-altering conviction – it sustained St Edith Stein as she went to her death in the concentration camp at Auschwitz. The saint insisted that this conviction that we are in the loving care of our creator-God is an intelligent rational conviction … as rational as the trust a small child has in its mother or father. St Edith Stein also wrote: “if a child were living in the constant fear that its mother might let it fall, we should hardly call this a rational attitude.” We’re not our own creator; we have our being from God and in God. There will always be questions and there will often be doubts, but it is eminently rational and sane to trust God our creator in all things.
The Creed tells a story. It begins by telling us that God created all things, and it ends by looking forward to “the life of the world to come.” That is our story: we’ve been fathered, called into being by God, and we’re destined for eternal life. None of us remembers our coming into being, and we don’t know what the life after this one is like; so here we are, between two mysteries, between our beginning and our end. We’re somewhere in the middle of the story, muddling along. And sometimes it is a pretty muddled middle.
But that story, which the Creed outlines for us, isn’t just going somewhere; it’s taking us with it. We are caught up in God’s plan for his creation. And our faith in God, our Father and Creator, helps us to make sense of this muddled middle.
Finally, the Creed tells us that God has created “all things visible and invisible.” We do well to bear in mind that there is much more to reality than meets the eye. There is a spiritual world; there are spiritual powers, both good and evil. As St Paul reminds us, it’s not against human enemies we have to struggle, but “against the sovereignties and powers who originate the darkness of this world, the spiritual army of evil…” (Eph 6:12). Dramatic language, perhaps, but it holds no terrors for those who are caught up in the drama of a life lived with God, our Father and our Creator.
 YouCat, q. 42.
 Edith Stein, Essential Writings [Modern Spiritual Masters Series]. New York: Orbis, 2008, p. 68.
 Cf. Stevens and Green, Living the Story: Biblical Spirituality for Everyday Christians(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), ix.
When we recite the Creed, we say, “I believe in one God, the Father almighty…” That’s a fundamental Christian belief: that God is all-powerful, almighty. And it’s a belief that often has a question hot on its heels: “If God is all-powerful, almighty, then why doesn’t he do something about the suffering and tragedy in the world? Why does he not intervene a bit more?”
It would be very hard, if not impossible, to find any thoughtful believer who hasn’t at times asked what God is up to, why he allows certain things to happen, why he doesn’t intervene to save people in distress. It’s impossible not to ask questions like at times. We could almost say that such doubting questions are part and parcel of faith; they show that we are trying to take faith seriously.
And these are not theoretical questions – for people in situations of suffering or distress, those questions are closer to a matter of life and death. Religious questions that begin with the word why? are good questions, necessary questions. One of the most dramatic books in the entire Bible is all about a man’s attempt to take God to task over the issue of innocent suffering; the Book of Job shakes a fist at heaven and looks for answers.
The world can be cruel and unpredictable, and it can seem hard to square suffering and evil with a God who is both loving and all-powerful. Faith does not eliminate suffering, not even faith in an all-powerful God. Nor does faith offer a satisfactory reason for each experience of pain. What our faith does is offer us “deep resources for actually facing suffering with hope and courage rather than bitterness and despair.” Many people who suffer greatly arrive at the conviction that God’s power works not so much by theelimination of suffering, as in and through suffering.
There is no simple answer: trying to square an all-powerful, loving God with the presence of terrible suffering, innocent suffering, can be like trying to square the circle. But commonsense tells us that to abandon belief in God does not make suffering one bit more tolerable, nor does unbelief provide any extra answers. Here, we’re drawn – if we allow ourselves to be drawn – into another question: the question of why so many suffering people throughout history have found comfort and strength in their faith in a silent and apparently inactive God. Once again, faith does not brush the questions away – but it offers resources for dealing with a painful reality.
For those who are in the throes of suffering; for those who watch helplessly as loved ones suffer, no discussion avails. Indeed, any discussion could sound like an attempt to get God off the hook. But this is where we come to the heart of the Christian approach to suffering. Far from “getting God off the hook,” our Christian faith recognizes that God willingly put himself on the hook of human suffering. On the cross, Christ took on himself the deepest torment, despair and abandonment, even to the point of crying out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” And God’s answer to that suffering was the resurrection, new life.
This does not brush away all those questions about suffering and an almighty God, but it insists – it promises – that just as happened on the Cross, suffering and death do not have the last word.
Finally, the question “why?” is not the only question that suffering poses. The question “why?” looks backwards, to the source of suffering – how it came to be, why it was permitted… But there are also forward-looking questions that suffering can lead us to ask; questions like, “Where to from here?” “Now that this has happened, what can I do?”
Our faith may not give clear answers to the backward looking questions, but it gives us a clear answer to these forward-looking questions: it urges us to help bear people’s burdens, and to bear our own with trust. “Where was the almighty God when this terrible thing happened? Where is he, now that I have this burden to bear?” These are fair questions, reasonable questions, questions that thinking people can hardly avoid. But they are not the only questions, nor are they necessarily the best questions. Let’s never forget the question that goes like this: “How does my faith in God the Father almighty ask me to bear whatever burdens life brings to me, and how can that same faith help me to help others?”
People’s names are important. If, like me, you’re one of those people who have trouble remembering names, you’ll know what it’s like to be hoping for patience and understanding from people whose names you feel you should know, but don’t. If you’ve ever forgotten someone’s name, and then apologetically asked them to tell you again, and then gone on to forget it once more, you’ll know that names are not just labels of convenience: they are part of us; they are part of how we, as persons, are recognized.
God has a name, a name by which He is recognized. In the Bible, God told people various names by which he could be addressed. But it was Jesus who finally told us how to refer to God, how to address him: God is FATHER. When his disciples asked him to teach them to pray, Jesus said to them, “When you pray, say: ‘Our Father…’ ” We can say that “Father” is God’s Christian name, because it is the name given to him by Christ.
What do fathers do? First of all, Fathers know their children. A father names, recognizes, calls, corrects and provides for his children. A father suffers when his children suffer, when they go astray, when they are ill or in danger. A father rejoices when his children rejoice.
We all know, of course, that human fathers, like everyone else, have their limitations. They can be less than they should be – sometimes, sadly, a great deal less. Some wise person once remarked that one of the tasks we need to negotiate in order to become mature human beings is to forgive our parents for not being perfect. We might add that we also need to forgive ourselves for ever having been silly enough to expect any other human being to be perfect!
Every earthly fathers is less than perfect, but some people carry heavy burdens of sadness and pain on account of the shortcomings of their fathers. And for those who have had particularly mixed or negative experiences of fatherhood, it could come as really good news that God is not a Father – God is the Father. This means – at least it canmean – that we don’t judge God by the yardstick of human fatherhood; rather, we can bring to God the Father any brokenness and suffering that might arise from the experience of human fatherhood. As for the blessings that arise from human fatherhood, the love and care and selflessness that most fathers show most of the time, these can be signposts towards the fatherhood of God.
Jesus actually went a step further than telling us to call God “Father.” He himself addressed God as “Abba.” (Mk 14:36). That word is from Jesus’ own language, Aramaic. It is the word small children used when addressing their father; it is the word for “Daddy.” We needn’t bother asking a little child why he or she calls their father “Daddy.” The wholepoint is that it’s not something that has to be thought about: it’s a spontaneousexpression of affection and trust. It’s something a child just does.
So when St Paul (Rom 8:15) encourages us to cry out “Abba, Father…,” he’s inviting us to be spontaneous, to trust. He’s inviting us to step away, at least for a moment, from all the doubts, all the analysis, all those very grown-up questions that begin with the words “why should I?” The fact is that we never can reason our way to a loving Father; we don’t invent love and nurturing – these things invent us, they (or their absence) make us who we are.
If we wait for all the answers before trusting, then we’ve decided not to trust. If we wait for certainty before taking a step, then we’ve decided to stand still. But faith says to us: “Trust, trust in the reality of a loving Father-God, and take things from there.
Those words with which the Creed begins, “I believe in one God, the Father…” are very powerful words. They can be like a foundation on which we stand, on which we build. They can speak to the deepest part of us, to the child inside each one of us – a child made for love and goodness; a child who can be hurt and disappointed by the absence of love and goodness.
There is a deep match between those words “I believe in one God, the Father…” and our human nature. Those words do no violence to us. They encourage us to live a life of trust rather than fear; a life that is focused outwards rather than turned in on itself.
They are words of trust – not words to be analysed to death. Let’s hear them and learn them afresh, during this Year of Faith.
And now let us stand, and say together:
I believe in one God, the Father…
3. “… in one God…”
“I believe in One God…” That’s the phrase from the Creed that I’d like us to dwell on for a few minutes today. Let me start with a few words from a remarkable person: “Once you have begun to walk with God, you need only keep on walking with Him and all of life becomes one long stroll.” Those are not the words of a carefree, starry-eyed romantic. They were found in the diary of a young Dutch woman named Etty Hillesum, died in Auschwitz in 1943, having witnessed scenes from hell in the last years of her young life. When a person like that speaks to us about their faith, we should sit up and listen.
I quote those words because they make the point that belief in God, in one, good God, has immense potential to transform lives – and not because it’s a nice, comforting illusion, a tune to be whistled in the dark, but because it’s the truth. The reality of One God is the rock on which we, as believers, stand.
Here’s a little bit of history that might tickle your fancy. Remember that the early Christians were sometimes persecuted – thrown to the lions, burned in front of enthusiastic pagan audiences, hacked to bits by gladiators. When they were being dragged before judges and magistrates, one of the common charges leveled against the early Christians was the charge of atheism. In the Roman Empire at the time, the religion of the state was a religion of many gods, and anyone who rejected the gods was considered to be putting the welfare of society at risk. The Gods, after all, had to be kept onside if they were to continue blessing the Empire with political stability and good harvests.
But those Christians rejected the gods – they had the nerve to insist that there was only one God, and that all others were fakes. And so they were accused of atheism; quite a logical accusation, considering that they didn’t believe in the gods. Those early Christians encountered anger and rage, because they believed on only one God.
We, today, needn’t fear being persecuted because of our belief, but the insistence that there is only one God runs against the popular culture of tolerance, a culture that says: “You believe in your god – I’ll believe in mine; you go to your church – I’ll go to mine; you have your morality – I’ll have mine.” To believe in one God is to be on a collision course with all the other little gods that call for our attention. In these politically correct times in which we live, it’s not considered “nice” to be exclusive, and to believe in just one God is exclusive.
It’s a fact of human nature that everyone worships something, in the sense that everyone’s life is directed towards some goal or other. It might be power and prestige, it might be pleasure, it might be security (I like the old phrase, “He was a self-made man and he worshipped his creator”). For us, as believers, the only final goal is God himself, the One and Only God. At any given time, there are lesser gods within us, clamouring for our attention; little gods of resentment, ambition, lust, greed, despair… But if we try to take our faith seriously, then we remain directed towards the One God, and we avoid getting entirely diverted, lost in the pursuit of lesser things. If we believe in the One God, as our ultimate Lord, then, whatever about our struggles, we don’t become permanently imprisoned by lesser things.
Let each of us ask him- or herself: “What, at this moment in my life, is my highest aim, my biggest concern, my number one priority? And where does belief in God come into this picture?” Consider all those who are in a state of despair, of deep anxiety; those who are tormented by financial worries, worries about health or loved ones. If these burdens are the last word, the final reality, then where is the hope?
In a very real and deep sense, the only lasting foundation for hope is belief in One God, in God who is greater than any single ambition or concern. It’s only this kind of belief that can guarantee a path through. And once again, belief in One God, who is over all and in charge of all, does not bring a passing comfort because it’s a “nice” belief. The passing comforts are brought by money, security, health, pleasure… and where are we left when these fail? A comfort that lasts must be more real, not less.
If everything were to crumble, we are blessed to be able to say, with the Psalmist, “The Lord is my rock” (Ps 18:2). This is a conviction that we should allow ourselves to rest in, to draw great comfort from. We don’t have to consider ourselves to be people of enormous faith or holiness to have a deep and strong belief in the One God as our foundation.
Let me leave the second last word to St
Theresa of Avila, whose famous prayer goes like this: Let nothing trouble you
Let nothing frighten you.
God never changes.
Patience obtains all.
Whoever has God
Wants for nothing.
God alone is enough.
As for the last word, let’s go back to Etty Hillesum. Writing in the cramped, stinking, death-filled horror of a detention camp, before being shipped to Auschwitz, she wrote: “There will always be a small patch of sky above, and there will always be enough space to fold two hands in prayer.”
May this belief in One God, who is greater than our circumstances, be our consolation and our hope.
Today, we begin our journey down through the Creed… a journey we’ll be continuing during these coming months of the Year of Faith. Before we go on to look at the things we believe, let’s linger for a moment on believing itself. Let’s begin at the beginning, with the words “I believe…” Those words are easy to say, but the actual believing can a lot more difficult. “I believe…” But do I really believe? Don’t we all have doubts? Is there a single person here today who hasn’t had moments of doubt, who hasn’t wondered about this tremendously silent God of ours?
Thankfully, we can say “I believe…” without having to have it all worked out. Those words are for people who want to believe – they are not limited to those whose belief is rock solid. So, when we say “I believe,” we’re also saying “I want to believe.” We’re saying, like the father of a troubled child says to Jesus in the Gospel, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” (Mk 9:24). That’s a lovely prayer, because it tells us that our belief can go hand in hand with a real struggle to believe.
Besides, wouldn’t we risk being a bit smug if we had it all worked out? If we never had to struggle, never had a moment’s pause, we might become a bit conceited. If you wanted to talk to someone about your doubts, wouldn’t you rather it was someone who knew from first-hand experience what doubt is? We need not fear our doubts; yes, they can be very real, but the faith we’ve been given is bigger than our doubts. We don’t have to wait for perfect belief, before saying “I believe.”
A standard objection to religious belief is that it’s for weak or lazy people who need a ready answer to life’s deepest questions. Those who say that like to think that unbelief is tougher, more robust than religious faith. But if we’ve ever had to wrestle with doubt, we know that’s just not true: faith calls for real strength and perseverance.
What about all those who can’t say “I believe”? People with an intellectual disability, the very young, the very ill? When we say those words, they’re not purely private – we can speak them on behalf of others. When an infant is brought for baptism, the parents and godparents say “I believe” on behalf of the infant. Let’s remember that when we say “I believe,” we help to carry other people, people who, for whatever reason, are not able to say those words for themselves.
What about tolerance? Can we really have the nerve to say “I’ve got it right; this belief is correct; any belief that contradicts it is wrong”? That’s another of those standard objections to religious belief – the notion that it makes people intolerant. But the fact is that we can hold our beliefs both firmly and gently: Yes, I believe certain things, and by the same token, I disbelieve others. But I have no wish to eliminate those who don’t share my beliefs. Rather, I want to live out my beliefs in a way that will be a blessing also to those who don’t share them.
But historically, hasn’t religious belief caused all sorts of trouble… wars, violence, terrorism? Wouldn’t we be better off without strong beliefs? There’s no doubt that at times, terrible deeds have been masked by a veneer of belief, and mass-murderers have walked beneath a banner of religious faith. But the fact that belief can be twisted and warped by sinful human beings should tell us that what we need is right belief,wholesome belief, not no belief.
Some of the more high-profile atheists of recent years (such as Richard Dawkins), have insisted that religious belief, with all its alleged intolerance, is the world’s greatest evil. Well, pardon me for saying so, but this congregation, gathered today by a shared belief, really doesn’t look like a threat to humanity! Incidentally, Dawkins and Co. overlook the fact that the greatest intolerance and violence of the twentieth century were perpetrated by people who believed that religion caused intolerance and violence.
How are we to recognize good, wholesome belief? The Lord himself has told us how: “By their fruits you shall know them” (Mt 7:16). What we really believe is seen in how we live, in our actions. And none of us fully lives out our beliefs. There’s a lag, a gap, between what we say and how we live. This does not mean that we’re roaring hypocrites; it means that we’re sinful human beings who also believe in the need for repentance and forgiveness.
When we say “I believe…” we may imagine that we somehow contain the things we believe, as though our beliefs were in us, inhabiting us. But really, it’s the other way around: we inhabit our beliefs. We don’t hold them – they hold us. We don’t contain the belief that God is real and loving: instead, that belief contains us, it holds and guides us; it makes a difference to our lives.
Finally, a lovely image that can show the sheer invisible power of belief. Alexander Solzenitsyn, the winner of a Noble prize for literature, wrote a lot about his experience in Soviet labour camps. Someone once asked him how he could continue being a religious believer after all that suffering and injustice. He answered: “Faith in God may not get you out of the camp, but it is enough to see you through each day.”
“I believe… We believe.” Our belief does not sweep away life’s burdens, pains and mysteries, but it does see us through.
 Cf. Alister McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism, 230.
- 1. What is Faith?
On October 11th, 2012, the Catholic Church throughout the world began a “Year of Faith,” which will run right through to the beginning of Advent, 2013. It’s not the first time this has been done: In 1967, Pope Paul VI announced a Year of Faith. So what’s it for, this Year of Faith? Quite simply, it’s an invitation to us to deepen our faith… to understand it better; and to live it with greater conviction.
Like a lot of words we hear regularly, the word “faith” can be so familiar as to be almost meaningless, so let’s take a brief look at it. Wouldn’t it be a strange faith that had no effect on the life of the person who held it? Imagine someone who said that they believed all that the Church believed, all that the great saints and theologians and prophets and martyrs had taught, but who freely admitted that they didn’t believe in letting that belief interfere in how they lived their life. That would hardly be an attractive, inviting faith. If anything, it would come across as extremely off-putting hypocrisy.
Now, in contrast, imagine someone who claims to have a great sense of the spiritual, of God, of the “other side,” but who can’t tell you one single clear belief they hold. If you ask them to pin down their beliefs, they reply that they wouldn’t have any truck with anything as limiting as set beliefs. That kind of faith wouldn’t be particularly attractive either. It would seem very wooly, vague, “new-agey,” and impractical.
In reality, faith has two sides. It’s like a coin – one reality, two sides; two inseparable sides. First of all, faith is what we believe. If I say that I have faith, I need to be able to answer the question, “Faith in what?” “What things do you believe?” If the answer to such questions is, “Well, I don’t know, I just believe,” then my faith is lacking, it’s incomplete.
There is a crystal-clear content to our faith. It can come as a surprise to many believers that our Christian faith is very clear and robust; it is not at all vague… when we come to understand it, our faith it is intellectually solid and satisfying; it adds up; it holds water; it can stand up against all the scepticism and cynicism that is thrown against it. Right down through history, our Christian faith has held firm, in the face of both external opposition sinfulness within the Church. The content of our faith has held firm because it is strong and clear and wholesome and wonderful.
But how many of us understand it? If someone calls to your door and wants you to join some strange sect, and they ask you why you’re a Catholic, can you give an answer? Granted, you don’t have to be a theologian, but can you at least give an answer to yourself, in the privacy of your heart? Or are you left with lingering doubts? Some Catholics are able to say what it is they believe, and why, but others are less sure, and a good number really have very little clue. They believe; maybe they come to Mass very faithfully, but they don’t really understand.
Whatever category we might put ourselves in, we may well need to be let in on the great secret that our faith is something strong and clear and intellectually respectable. Have you noticed, for example, that even the New Atheists, with all their science and all their brilliant rhetoric, haven’t managed to kill off the faith. The things we believe are a robust treasure. And if the Year of Faith has any purpose, it’s to teach us what a treasure we have.
That’s one side of our faith: the content, the things we believe. The other side of the coin is the movement of our hearts; the capacity to turn to God, to trust in him, to offer our lives to him with the confidence of children – our hopes, our hardships, our dreams, our disappointments. Yes, we believe certain things, but it’s not all head-stuff – our hearts are involved too. When people give their lives for their faith (whether it’s the ongoing effort to live a decent Christian life; or the decision to follow a very radical path of discipleship, or even martyrdom itself), they’re not moved by some abstract belief, but by a sense of the goodness of God. And that’s the essence of that other side of the coin: a life that trusts in God; a life that – for all its struggles and sins – is turned towards God in hope and trust. If the first side of the coin is what forms our minds, then this second side is what warms our hearts. And the Year of Faith will invite us to deepen that sense of trust in God; it will invite us to turn towards him in a new way, in a way that we haven’t yet done.
That’s faith: clear, robust beliefs, and a heart that’s turned towards God. That’s the kind of faith that makes a difference to the world; the kind of faith that we are given the opportunity to deepen, during this Year of Faith.