This is Bishop Mueggenborg’s final “Ask a Bishop” column for Northwest Catholic. On July 20, Pope Francis appointed him bishop of Reno, Nevada, where he will be installed September 24. Please join us in praying for Bishop Mueggenborg as he begins his new ministry.
The Creed can feel ordinary due to the frequency with which we recite it. But for early Christians, the Creed was anything but ordinary. It was a profession of the faith for which they were willing to die — and many did. Perhaps we can deepen our faith by remembering their witness every time we profess the Creed.
To answer your question, let’s consider some historical and liturgical developments.
Although the Creed developed over a few centuries — from the Apostles’ (first century) to the Nicene (325), then the Niceno-Constantinopolitan (381) and finally the Chalcedonian (451) — the basic content remained the same while clarifications and distinctions were added.
Before any form of the Creed was used in a liturgical context, simple professions of faith were common in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles (e.g., Matthew 9:28, Acts 16:31). Eventually, Creeds were used in the Rite of Baptism. The catechumens were usually adults. The Creed served as a personal profession of faith (which is why it begins with “I” rather than “We”) and was called the “Symbol of Faith.”
The Greek word symbolon (meaning “put together”) originally referred to an object broken in two, whose parts were given to different people. When the two people met and put together their individual pieces, the perfect fit served to ensure the identity of the persons. The Creed served this function, since the person to be baptized professed a faith that conformed to the faith of the Church. Thus, their identity was verified as a disciple of Jesus who embraced the fullness of faith passed on through the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. Only someone who believed what the Church believed could make such a profession.
When the age of persecution ended with the Edict of Milan in 313, the Church began to celebrate publicly and openly the faith they previously had to keep hidden and secret. This triumphant proclamation of the faith quickly led to its incorporation into the liturgy. As early as the sixth century, the Creed was being openly and publicly professed at Masses in some parts of Europe. In 1014, the Creed was officially accepted by Rome as an appropriate part of the Mass. Today we continue this ancient tradition of professing the Symbol of Faith by which we personally acknowledge our communion in one faith, one baptism and one Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 4:5).
We should also consider where the Creed is placed in the Mass. Why not begin our liturgy with the Creed to verify the communion of faith we are about to celebrate? Or profess it at the end to remind us of the faith we are to carry into the world? The Creed’s place immediately after the homily gives it particular significance.
The liturgy is a conversation between God and God’s people in which the priest serves as representative of both, and so speaks on behalf of both at different times. It is important to remember who is speaking and what is being proclaimed. In the biblical readings, God is speaking to the people. This conversation reaches a climax in the proclamation of the Gospel in which Jesus is proclaimed as the Word of God incarnate who now speaks to his body, the Church. For this reason, we stand for the Gospel and show other appropriate signs of reverence.
Following the Gospel, the priest or deacon proclaims the homily which continues the Word of God as it is applied to our daily lives, leading us more deeply into the Paschal Mystery we are called to live and the memorial of which we are about to celebrate in the Eucharist.
What a conversation God is having with us!
The Profession of Faith is our opportunity as God’s people to respond to the Lord’s self-revelation and salvation. The word of God must be understood and accepted, lest we be passive spectators rather than active listeners (James 1:22).
The Creed is how we say to God: We have heard you and we believe you! The Creed is a summary of Scripture. It expresses our faith in God who is a Trinity of Persons that has acted in historical events and is revealed definitively in the person of Jesus. This revelation continues to mature and grow through the Holy Spirit present in the Church. We are proclaiming that we believe all this revelation, not just part of it, and that God offers it to us as an effective testament of his saving and redeeming love for us.
What a conversation! What a gift! What a privilege to speak to God who has just spoken to us! What an active way to prepare ourselves to celebrate the Eucharist, which is opened to us through our baptism in which the Creed first united us to the Body of Christ, the Church.
The next time you profess the Creed at Mass, remember to whom you are speaking. Think about what God has just said to you in the Scriptures and in the homily. Reflect on what it means to be a member of Christ’s people accepting the fullness of what God has revealed and eager to witness Christ to the world — even when it means shedding our blood for Jesus who shed his blood for us.