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Thursday, October 9, 2014

I Believe: Forty Meditations on the Nicene Creed -- First Meditation

In 2007 I published a book of 40 meditations based on the Nicene Creed. I recently revised the book to reflect the changes in the English translation of the creed, promulgated in 2011 by the American Bishops. It is not a total revision. You can find the book either in print through Amazon (and other sellers), or Kindle. What follows below is the first meditation.

Creed Statement: I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.

Today's Focus: I believe

[Jesus] said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”  Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God” (Matthew 16:15-16).

For the seven years I recited the Nicene Creed as a Catholic (I came into the Catholic Church in 2005), I liked saying “We believe.” As a Jewish Christian, I understand the value of the communal proclamation of faith. For thousands of years my people have made similar proclamation each Sabbath when they recite the cornerstone text of their religion: Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai echod.  And for millennia, whether persecuted and ostracized to shtetls, or welcomed into towns or cities, Jews have anchored themselves to one another as much for protection as for self-identity.
Christianity, like its Jewish root, is a communal faith. The Lord Jesus said it first: “I will build my Church.” The Greek word used here – ekklessia – denotes those who are called out of the world and into God’s special community. Jesus did not establish a maverick faith wherein everyone does what is right in his or her own eyes. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of Israel’s history during the period of the Judges understands how maverick faith leads to disastrous outcomes.
But long before the Church revised the Creed in 2011 to its original wording, “I believe,” I knew the communal ‘We’ in the Creed had potential to rob the community of the personal faith of ‘I’. Without individuals, there would be no community, and without individual faith, the community becomes little more than a religious shell.

The Lord Jesus went out of his way to teach the crowds about the one lost sheep, the one lost coin, the one lost son. He left the many to find the one demoniac, the one leper, the one lame. He singled out Zaccheus in the sycamore tree, the woman at the well, the tax collector at the table. “My sheep hear My voice”, Jesus said, “and I call them by name.”  Yumiko, Ethan, Dakshi, Oksana, Jose, Deloris, Michael . . . .  God calls each of us by name to become part of the community of “those who are called out.” As Pope Francis twittered in December 2013: “The love of God is not generic. God looks with love upon every man and woman, calling them by name.”
Perhaps one of the clearest examples of the importance of individual faith can be found in the sixth chapter of 2 Maccabees. By the time of its writing, the Jewish people had been living under Greek domination for more than three centuries. Many had already thrown away the ancient faith passed down from Moses for Greek philosophy, culture and lifestyle. Then, a little more than 160 years before Mary and Joseph laid their Baby in the manger, a Greek politician, Antiochus, determined to force the remaining Jews in his realm, under pain of death, to abandon their religion and practices. To expedite their apostasy, he profaned the Jewish Temple, “so that the altar was covered with abominable offerings prohibited by the laws” (2 Maccabees 6:5). He prohibited their celebrations of the Sabbath and their feasts. He made it a crime worthy of torture to even admit to being Jewish.

Enter Eleazar, the elderly Jewish scribe. When brought before the court and forced to open his mouth and eat unclean (i.e. non-kosher) meat, Eleazar made unambiguous his choice to serve God rather than man. He spit out the food in front of the men who could pass judgment on him, preferring death to defilement.

But that’s not the end of the story of his personal faith. You will find it in 2 Maccabees 6:1-31, and is well worth the read.
Those in charge of that unlawful sacrifice took the man aside, because of their long acquaintance with him, and privately urged him to bring his own provisions that he could legitimately eat, and only to pretend to eat the sacrificial meat prescribed by the king. Thus he would escape death, and be treated kindly because of his old friendship with them.

Eleazar, however, would have none of that charade. He answered, “At our age it would be unbecoming to make such a pretense; many of the young would think the ninety-year-old Eleazar had gone over to an alien religion. If I dissemble to gain a brief moment of life, they would be led astray by me, while I would bring defilement and dishonor on my old age.

He then added, “Even if, for the time being, I avoid human punishment, I shall never, whether alive or dead, escape the hand of the Almighty. Therefore, by bravely giving up life now, I will prove myself worthy of my old age, and I will leave to the young a noble example of how to die willingly and nobly for the revered and holy laws.”

When we recite with those around us the words of the Nicene Creed, “I believe” we proclaim with Eleazar and with all the faithful martyrs who chose God over the culture: We will serve God and no one else. When we recite the creed together, we fearlessly answer the Lord’s question, “Who do you say that I am?”     We forever say: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Prayer (from Psalm 119:33-37): Lord, teach me the way of your statutes; I shall keep them with care. Give me understanding to keep your law, to observe it with all my heart. Lead me in the path of your commandments, for that is my delight. Direct my heart toward your testimonies and away from gain. Avert my eyes from what is worthless; by your way give me life.




Barb Schoeneberger said...

Rich, you bring so much to the table with your Jewish background. I am at the point in my life where Eleazar's words must come out of my mouth. In fact, he speaks for all the martyrs down the ages in all countries of the world.

Are we raising our children these days to be able to confess Christ without fear? The sacrament of Confirmation needs to be conferred much earlier in life to help children stand up to the world which considers Christ the enemy.

Rich Maffeo said...

I'll go one further. When was the last time you heard from the pulpit about the marytrs, their faith, their love for God, and their walk of holiness? Inthe ten years since I have been attending Mass, I have never heard it. All I hear is God loves you. God loves you. God loves you. All without the requirement He places on us to live holy lives, persevering in our faith and walk with Him. We are raising a generation(s) of anemic Catholics (Protestants are not much better nowadays, from what I know from my continued acquaintence with that side of the theological aisle) -- we are raising a generation of Christians who know more about sports figures and hollywood stars than about things that REALLY matter for life and eternity.

Barb Schoeneberger said...

I agree fully. In traditional Catholic families such as the one I grew up in, we learned the lives of the saints. It helped that we went to Catholic school and the good nuns from back then taught us well. The teaching has to come from the parents first, but the priests, as you say, have to speak from the pulpit, too.

I know many people who pray the Divine Office and attend Mass daily. I pray the 1962 DO where we have the hour of Prime. Every day we read the martyrology as part of that hour with stories of the torments they endured. Some are hair raising. If the American Congress thinks water-boarding is torture, they know nothing of torture and the fiendish ways Christians were - and are - put to death today. Every day I pray that God will make me ready.

Our previous bishop told teenagers at their Confirmation Mass that the days of Diocletian are over and they weren't going to have to face that kind of persecution. They should, instead, emphasize participating in the Church "community", his code word for conforming to his version of Catholicism. I was just appalled when I heard him say it. We need to get ready to die for Christ. Period. And the Church has the obligation to equip young people with the truths necessary to engage the culture firmly and with charity.

Maybe, Rich, you and I should be raising some holy lio about this in our parishes.

Rich Maffeo said...

Ah, yes. And so I try. I am sure many of us Catholics are trying. I am on FB with a lot of Catholics and we commiserate with each other and do what we can do to awaken our fellow Catholics (and all Christians) to the danger lurking.