The Birth of Mystery
The morning my second daughter, Eliana Susan, was delivered by caesarean section, I spoke the Nicene Creed over her. This act of devotion was unplanned on my part. Once the nurse had swaddled Ellie and handed her to me, my mind flooded with such relief and joy that the words bubbled up unbidden. “I’m going to tell you a mystery,” I said, as Ellie peered up at me from beneath her pink knit cap, “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen….”
Thus began a Rebholtz family tradition. I spoke the Nicene Creed again two years later when my second son, Enoch Lee, was born. And I did the same eleven days ago when Edith Grace entered the world. For my wife and I, speaking the Creed over our newborn children has become a foundational spiritual act. It’s part of the bond of faith and love that knits our family together. We see the Nicene Creed as more than a cherished liturgical inheritance and more than a venerated statement of Christian orthodoxy. We see it as an initiation. Spoken aright, we believe that the Creed immerses us in the very life of God.
Personally, I have always been struck by the way that words, especially those straining after truth, refuse to stay settled. I love how words cling to their ability to convey far more than their speakers intend. Words participate in, rather than simply imitate, our reality, and I think this is particularly true of the the words of Creed. The language of Nicea is as poetic as it is prescriptive; the spiritual vision which brought it into being brims with sophiological and doxological splendor. By nature and necessity, there are untapped imaginative and creative potencies within the Creed, potencies which far exceed what the great council of bishops was able to ask or imagine when they first hammered it out. And so, when I speak the Nicene Creed over my infant children, I have a sense that I am knocking boldly on the door of the universe, announcing that yet another human sojourner has entered the cosmos, daring to seek God where He is said to be found. It’s a wild and grand and irrepressibly hopeful experience. After all, the ancient cadences of the Creed are a sublime testimony to the Christian conviction that the mystery of God and the mystery of humanity are in fact one mystery, converging in a single, eternal telos. “God became man,” declared St. Athanasius, “so that man might become God.”
Not everyone, of course, is inclined to see the Creed in this way. The first time I told an old friend what I had done at Eliana’s birth, he took a long, disapproving breath. Wasn’t I worried that I might be constraining the mystery of existence? Wasn’t the creedless openness of a child far nearer to the heart of the Kingdom than my own formal, institutional, historically-bound Christian faith? As he spoke, I realized that his was a predictably modern response, but given the state of religion in the modern world, I also judged it to be a sincere one. Viewed from a certain vantage point, my juxtaposing the tender wonder of a mewing newborn with the complex and depressingly grown-up machinations surrounding the Nicene Creed makes me look guilty of an almost embarrassing bathos. It calls to mind the rebuttal of the old, hard-bitten RAF officer who challenged C.S. Lewis when he was giving the talks that would eventually become the chapters of Mere Christianity:
I’ve no use for all that stuff. But, mind you, I’m a religious man too. I know there’s a God. I’ve felt Him: out alone in the desert at night: the tremendous mystery. And that’s just why I don’t believe all your neat dogmas and formulas about Him. To anyone who’s met the real thing they all seem so petty and pedantic and unreal!
If the Nicene Creed was merely a collection of dogmas and formulas, perhaps my friend and the old RAF officer might have a point, but I think they are both mistaken. The Creed is not the sort of thing they imagine it to be. The words of Nicea are meant to do more than merely set the boundaries of worship or limn the horizons (however gloriously eschatological they may be) of acceptable Christian belief. Even Lewis’ well-known response to the officer—that creeds are like a trusted map which faithfully represents the real experience of many hundreds of thousands of people—doesn’t go nearly far enough. Map is not mystagogy. And that is precisely what the Nicene Creed is: an elucidation of the Christian mysteries. To be sure, the teaching is inchoate, existing in a beautiful yet embryonic form, but that is precisely where mystagogy unveils its true power. Sooner or later, the mystagogue must deepen every doctrine, and even when mystagogy aims to define and summarize, it does not encapsulate. True religious mysteries remain open. They illumine. They expand. The Nicene Creed, when received in the spirit of mystagogy, is an aperture wherein the radiance of the Divine passes through and discloses to us the vision of a higher world.
I suppose this is why I can’t deny that when I speak the Nicene Creed over my children, I am also speaking to myself. I am recalling my own initiation into the mystery. I am recommitting myself to walk the path alongside my growing sons and daughters. I trust that the words of the Creed are meant to unfold their power, truth and beauty within us because I have experienced this personally, at least in part. I know that there is such a thing as true Christian gnosis. The ancient and modern gnosticisms which present themselves as elite, convoluted, ad hoc deviations from the Church’s faith have little, if anything, to do with the far greater wisdom that arises from an inner and personal knowledge of that same faith. When we intone “God from God, light from light, true God from God…” we have already tiptoed to the brink of boundless illumination. If we date to look over the edge, if we allow ourselves to yearn for the Triune God whom we praise and adore, then the whole life of the Mystical Body of Christ opens before us: metaphysics, liturgy, symbolism, poetry, imagination, art, sacraments, doctrine, levels of prayer, the conditions and qualities of a richer, fuller, more God-centered consciousness…there is no end to the treasures kept within the Creed.
This, at any rate, is how the Rebholtz’s approach the matter. We pray and live the Nicene Creed as a family, guided by its prismate light, pleading for enough grace to embody at least some palpable measure of the joy and the glory it unfolds. And when we fail, we still trust that the words of Nicea are working on us and our children. Even now, we have a sense that the mystical depth of the Church’s faith is, to paraphrase Owen Barfield, attempting to “get at us,” to undermine all our idols and invite us “onto the long road of self-knowledge, with all the necessary humiliations it involves.” This is certainly no easy task, but it is, we believe, a holy one. By the power of those ancient words, we inscribe our family with the person of Christ, and by the light of Nicea, we embrace the birth of mystery into our lives.