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Sunday of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council

Each Sunday at Liturgy we join in reciting the Creed immediately after the homily. The fact that we do it so often and the need to keep pace in saying it together as a congregation can easily bring us to say it without thinking about it. But the nature of the feast today, Trinity Sunday, gives us reason to reflect a bit on what the Creed is and what we are doing when we profess a creed, so that we can pray it all the more attentively as a sign of our union with the Church throughout the world.

The Creed that we say at Liturgy in called the Nicene Creed because of the place of its origin: the second Ecumenical Council that met at Nicaea in the year 325 A.D. (the first Council was at Jerusalem in the year 70 A.D.). Now, there have been other creeds (that is, statements of belief) that came to be devised in subsequent centuries, including a very beautiful but too little known creed called the Creed of the People of God written by Pope Paul VI after the Second Vatican Council. But even in 325 there already was a much older creed, the Apostles’ Creed. This is the Creed that we say, for instance, at the beginning of the Rosary. It is thought to have been created by the Apostles, and some even think that its twelve lines reflect the contributions of the twelve Apostles. The Apostles’ Creed sets the format for all subsequent Christian creeds by its division into three parts, each of which makes various statements of our fundamental beliefs about God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

The Nicene Creed that the Church has said at Liturgy ever since 325 A.D. (to be even more accurate, we should note at this point that there were a few small refinements made in this Creed at the third Ecumenical Council, which met at Constantinople in 381 A.D.) reflects this three-part structure, and the resulting concentration on the Holy Trinity is what makes it so appropriate for us to reflect on the Creed today on Trinity Sunday. It is not just that the Nicene Creed is longer than the Apostles’ Creed — it also tries to be as clear as possible on various points that had come under question by 325 and on which the Church needed to declare the truth so as to prevent members of the Church from holding heretical positions, positions that thoughtful people had, for one reason or another, found attractive but which actually deviated from the truth about God.

Now, one of the most interesting aspects of the Nicene Creed is that, except for one phrase, it is made up entirely of biblical phrases. The Council of Nicaea was so concerned to hold fast to the tradition which the Church was entrusted by Christ and so intent on handing it down exactly as received from age to age, that every effort was made to use only biblical words and phrases. This is why it contains such wonderful phrases as “eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God” when trying to capture a sense of how the Son of God, the second Person of the Blessed Trinity is related to God the Father, the first divine Person. Every one of those words is somewhere in the Scriptures.

Readings like the first reading at Liturgy today, the passage from the book of Proverbs, had already given important Scriptural evidence about the Trinity in saying: “The Lord begot me, the first-born of His ways. . . When there were no depths, I was brought forth . . . When He established the heavens, I was there. . . . This is already testimony in the Old Testament about the second Person of the Holy Trinity, but (as is often the case in the Old Testament) the truth being expressed here is still veiled, only to become fully clear with the coming of Christ, the Incarnate Word in the flesh. What the Church found in the early centuries of reflection on Christ was that well-meaning people understood these Old Testament passages differently, and (to be honest) it is no wonder, given the difficulty of these texts.

If we use this particular passage as our example, some people understood it to report exactly what the Church came in the Nicene Creed to declare as the final and definitive truth on the subject, that the Son of God is God’s Son from all eternity, and that unlike human procreation, which occurs within time, there never was a time when the Son of God did not exist. It is for this reason that the Nicene Creed explicitly calls Jesus “the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God.”

Other thinkers had understood passages like the one we read today from Proverbs somewhat differently. Unable to imagine how begetting a son could take place except within time, such that there must have been a time when only God the Father existed and when the Son did not yet exist, they interpreted this very passage from the book of Proverbs to say that the Son of God is “the first born” and the very best, but nonetheless a creature. However much they wanted to honor Jesus, the difference in their approach was immediately clear: this Son of God was better than all the rest of us, but nonetheless inferior to God the Father.

The Council at Nicaea saw the need to stop this heretical way of thinking, however well-meaning it may have been, cold in its tracks. Not only did they pile up biblical phrase upon biblical phrase when calling Jesus “the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.” In addition, the Council Fathers saw fit (after long and vigorous debates on the Council floor!) to include one non-biblical phrase in the very next phrase, that is, a phrase that came from philosophical circles and is nowhere found within the Bible. But they thought that they had to include it in order to preserve the Church’s long-standing faith in the tradition of biblical interpretation that had been handed down from the very beginning: “begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father.”

The phrase “one in being with” (in Greek, homoousios, in Latin consubstantialis) is a very precise and abstract way of putting the matter. It uses the metaphysical language of being and substance rather than such biblical phrases as “Light from Light.” But it does so only in the effort to make absolutely clear, once and for all, that the second Person of the Holy Trinity is in no way a creature but a person who is truly divine. This is the intent of the phrase “begotten, not made” — it says that the Son of God is truly a Son and not a creature, but that he is a Son unlike all the rest of us who only were only begotten at some point in time. He is eternally the Son of the Father, from whom he has received all that he is.

Now, all this could easily sound too abstract and complicated for a homily, and yet we have only touched on just one of the more technical points. Others await us if we would turn to the section on the Holy Spirit. But perhaps we would do better to stay with just this one point for now and to consider one of its practical implications. One of the truths which the Church has come to realize over the course of time while reflecting on the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel where he promises us that “the Spirit of truth” whom he will send to us “will guide you to all truth” is that every human being is made in the image and likeness of God, and thus made in the image and likeness of the Trinity, for God is a Trinity. Not only do we bear a certain resemblance to God, but we are supposed to reflect the way God loves in the way we act and think and love.

Here is one of the practical points that can flow from pondering the Trinity through the Creed. The special love of the Son of God for his Father arises precisely from having received all that he is from his Father. The special love that he eternally shows is gratitude for the utter and complete generosity of the Father. One respect where we differ from him, of course, is in having been born in time. Yet, we too have received everything that we are from God through the parents who begot us. In this respect, what is due from us too is a love of gratitude for having received our being and our life. Cultivating a deeper sense of gratitude modeled on the divine gratitude shown by the Son to the Father can be an excellent way of remembering what we have received and of imitating in action the Person of the Son.

The Psalm in today’s Liturgy encourages this very attitude. By posing a rhetorical question, it already suggests the very answer we have been discussing: “What is man that You should be mindful of him, or the son of man that you should care for him?” Why should God care for man? Precisely because God created man in his own image and likeness. The love which God the Father eternally shows for his Son has become manifest to us in the care that he exhibited in sending his Son to suffer and die for our sake. In gratitude for what he had received, the Son undertook this commission without question or pause. And in this he is the perfect model for the gratitude we in turn should show to God and to our parents in using (as St. Paul says in today’s reading from Romans) “the love of God . . . poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” This is our privilege, creatures made in the image of the Holy Trinity and made to love in a way that resembles the way in which each Person of the Trinity loves.

Suggested reading: Catechism of the Catholic Church, 185-197



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