At most, I can probably translate 10 words. I should have taken Latin at some point. Still, the old wording of the Nicene Creed hangs on a four-feet by four-feet frame in my study. I look at it just about every day.
The creed mystifies me. Every word and phrase of it was debated, some to the point of tenacious opposition. Like the word “filioque” (and from the Son). No single word played a more significant part in the schism between eastern and western traditions of the Church. Other parts of the creed come across as completely redundant, evidenced by the description of Jesus Christ — “begotten of the Father, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” But even these parts have a rich poetic dimension.
I’m sure that a few pristine versions of the creed exist in museums around the world. The version hanging on my wall is anything but pristine. Any observer would notice the globs of glue and pools of candle wax. This has changed my perception of the creed. I used to see it as a static document with firm borders and fixed meaning. Now I see the creed as a living entity, with personality and a fluidity. When I look at the old words, I can’t help but see the fingerprints of so many people who handled the document in their own time. They made suggestions and corrections, bold claims — some that pushed us closer to the truth and some farther from it. And yet somehow this living confession wormed its way through generations who found it to be the root of real experience.
Obviously some folks don’t like the fingerprints. Too many untrustworthy smudges and smears. The Church has its share of these professional toy collectors. As good investors, they know that value diminishes once you open the package and let a room full of children tarnish the goods. But I tend to think that the goods were made to be taken out of the box. I prefer smudges to mint condition. A faith preserved in formaldehyde and locked up in a pressurized chamber doesn’t seem like much of a faith at all.
There are many “We believe” statements in the Nicene Creed. And they resonate deeply for me. We believe in one God, maker of all that is, seen and unseen. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. These words, written in ink, give shape and structure to long-remembered conviction. But as much as I love the words in ink, I am most drawn to the words written in smudged fingerprints around the edges. Because those words speak, too. They tell of the countless saints and stragglers who came before me. The ones who argued and made demands, who dreamed and schemed. And yet, ultimately, still affirmed the creed that called them all together. On some days, they affirmed with clarity and conviction. On other days, with little more than half-hearted hunches. And they found that this core confession was buoyant enough to hold whatever sinking fleets they attempted to steer.
I’m not sure that I’ve charted this course long enough to see my own fingerprints on the creed. But that day may come. I hope it does. While the ink dried a long time ago, it still rubs off on the curious lives who will take the truth out of the package long enough to by mystified.