The year 381 witnessed the writing of a most high and hearty poem. Squeezing cosmic scope into twenty-seven lines, it spoke of an almighty Father, of things visible and invisible, of an unending kingdom, of people awaiting the resurrection of the dead. The poets were theologians; the occasion was the Second Church Council; the poem was the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.
Like its predecessor, the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed was formulated as a doctrinal standard for use in hedging heretics, catechizing converts, and fortifying the faithful. It was the result of over two centuries’ contemplation of the mystery of the Trinity: from ancient Jewish theologies who recognized one God and spoke vaguely of a companion Spirit; to third-century hierarchical conceptions of Father, Son, and Spirit; to fourth-century elaboration of ways to think and speak of one God in three Persons. Legends have risen around its writing—tales of earthly and spiritual warfare, political and ecclesial intrigue—and these remain compelling despite modern recognition that they are indeed legends rather than stenographically precise accounts.
Perhaps, somehow, the legends seem worthy of the Creed itself. From the opening declaration “We believe,” a buoyantly confident tone seems born of challenge and is bolstered with repetitions of “we believe . . . we believe . . . we acknowledge . . . we look” throughout the stanzas until culminating in the resounding “Amen” (lines 1, 20, 24, 25, 26, 27). Meanwhile, theological affirmations become pure poetry. First, the Trinitarian distinction between God’s one substance and three persons appears in the way the poem’s flowing unity overlies a striking threefold structure marked by invocations of “one God, the Father Almighty” (line 1), “one Lord Jesus Christ” (line 4), and “the Holy Spirit” (line 20). Second, poetic parallelism verbally depicts the eternal generation of the Son from the Father in the phrases “God of God, Light of Light, / very God of very God” (lines 6-7). Third, polysyndeton (the use of more conjunctions than necessary) in the recounting of Jesus’ life creates a rhythm that, by involving time, captures the sense of His inhabiting history: He “came down from heaven, / and was incarnate . . . / and was made man; / and was crucified . . . / and the third day He rose . . . / and ascended . . . / and He shall come again” (lines 10-19, emphasis added).
Finally, and perhaps most poignantly, throughout the whole runs the double metaphor of life and light. God is known as the “Maker . . . of all things” and thus source of life and light (lines 2-3). Jesus Christ proceeds from Him as “Light from Light,” the patristic metaphor for divine life (line 6). The historical account focuses on Jesus’ embracing, sacrificing, and resurrection-reclaiming of human life (lines 10-19). The Holy Spirit is nominated “Lord and giver of life” (line 20). And those who believe are marked by their “look[ing] for the resurrection of the dead, / and the life of the world to come” (lines 26-27).
The shining, pulsing vitality of the whole creedal poem culminates in these last lines. But what do they mean? What does it mean to be people who look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come?
It is Holy Week. Yet the demands of school, family, work, home, and even church often overshadow the drama of suffering, passion, and resurrection that we wish would shape our souls.
Someone has commented that angels cannot comprehend how much of human effort is drained in the fight against death—even the need to brush our teeth is the fault of the Fall. Blight strikes the garden, the laundry machine breaks, phone calls end in tears, food is recalled because of bad spinach, the baby gets sick, bones weaken and crack, forests are clearcut to make highways, words are twisted out of context and made to mean what we never intended. Yesterday, at the church adjoining our school, a funeral was held for a young man, two years out of West Point, claimed by cancer; that night, the mother of two of my students died from the same. Scripture and experience join to testify that not only our souls, but also our bodies; not only individuals, but also societies; not only men and women, but also this world, have been torn and riddled by sin and sin’s curse, death.
In the face of all this, to look for resurrection is not easy. Those who should have done it best, having heard His own words that the Son of Man would be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth, went back to their nets on the day after His death. They walked home to Emmaus. They hid in upper chambers. They brought spices to embalm the body in the tomb. And when they looked for the body—only then, they discovered the resurrection.
“Why do you seek the living among the dead?”, they were asked. And so are we. In the high hope of Holy Week, with the confidence of the Creed, we are a people called to look—not to watch, which can be done from a padded armchair, but to look with the intent searching and firm expectation of the woman who lost her coins or the parents who found their boy in the temple—to look for resurrection. Acknowledging the death in all created things, we are to seek and even to expect the restoration of relationships, rebuilding of ruins, provision in sickness, blessings from burdens, life after the grave. For, after resurrection, there is a life in a world to come, and a promise that seeds dying in the ground of earth spring up in that of Eternity.
The drama is about to begin: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday—and, beyond, a life profoundly changed: a life of looking for resurrection, “rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer” (Romans 12:2).