Sunday, December 28, 2014

No confession, and no creed

December 26, 2014


Lessons & Carols at St. James Church on Madison Avenue. Sadly, I was not here on Christmas Eve.
Lessons & Carols at St. James Church on Madison Avenue. Sadly, I was not here on Christmas Eve.
I WAS a visitor this year at the midnight service on Christmas Eve in a venerable, colonial-era parish here in our fair Diocese of New York.
The distinguishing feature of the service, other than beautiful music, was its utter theological barrenness. There was, apart from what the layman could take for himself from the lessons (and, of course, the theology-heavy Christmas hymns), not a thing by way of instruction in “this thing which is come to pass.” Eucharistic Prayer D most certainly did not contribute any theological content, and the sermon was dead on arrival.
But the first sign that something was amiss came at the end of the Old and New Testament lessons, where, omitting the customary (and very fine) The word of the Lord, the bulletin instead enjoined the congregation to Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people.
As we have already dispatched this particular piece of liturgical stupidity, we proceed to the real red flag:
There was no confession, and no creed.
If a more poetic and succinct description of the current state of the Episcopal Church could exist, I have not heard it. In far too many cities, towns, and villages, the church is a place with no confession, and no creed.1
Consider this: the website of Emmanuel Church in Boston (not where I was on Christmas Eve) says that “Believing is not a condition of beloving or belonging here.” That is true, of course, but a social club of outcasts and losers sharing pot luck is the wrong model (as we have discussed) for the church. “But Jesus hung around without outcasts and losers!” the naysayers will naysay, and they are not incorrect, which is to say that they are only half right. Really, they are far less than half right, because what Jesus did was hang out with outcasts and losers and proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God. All of this before the real thing happened, which was his saving death and resurrection.
Had a creed been stated on Wednesday night, the assembled might have noted that the Council of Nicaea (and, later, of Constantinople), in boiling down the Christian faith to its absolute essentials, moves directly from Christmas to the Cross: Who for us men, and for our salvation came down from heaven, And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, And was made man, And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried, And the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures. Our faith is in not a nice man who was a prophet, worker of miracles, and friend of outcasts and losers; our faith is in the long hoped-for saviour of the nations, whose death and resurrection “our salvation hath procured.” As St. Paul tells us, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.”2 And lest we forget it, consider how Jesus admonished his own disciples on the road to Emmaus: “O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!”3
And so, beginning as we do at this time of year at the very beginning, we find John the Baptist echoing Isaiah’s prophecy that the Messiah, the Christ, he who would redeem Israel, is come among us, and it is time to get with the program. “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
Getting with the program is what the church is all about. The proclamation that “Jesus is Lord” remains as radical a thing in the twenty-first century as it was in the first. Caesar is long gone, but the lords of the world are still too much with us, and they are as hostile to the Gospel as ever they were. Status is lord. Position is lord. A new and cool car is lord. Money, our ancient nemesis, is lord. Consumer spending is lord. A locally sourced, healthy diet is lord. The world offers no shortage of gods to worship, and all, in the end, offer us nothing but more of the same. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Emmanuel Church may say that you don’t need to believe to belong, but with no confession, and no creed, there’s no way to turn belonging into believing. With no confession, and no creed, we run the risk of believing only in belonging. We run the risk of believing only in ourselves, which, as we learn from the example of old King Nebuchadnezzar, is the way of madness.4
Perhaps, though, the good people of Emmanuel Church are merely disingenuous. Perhaps they consider that a website is a marketing tool, and telling people they need not believe to belong will bring them to the threshold, and the power of the Gospel will move them to step through. You don’t need to believe to belong, but once you belong, you will come to believe.
Let us hope that this is what they mean, as that is a noble sentiment indeed.
At Christmas especially, when the Western world finds itself in the throes of empty consumption, of running itself ragged to exchange gifts just because that’s what you do at the holidays, the church ought to be in the business of bearing witness – in no uncertain terms – to what it is that we believe.
We believe Isaiah’s old prophecy:
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.5
We believe that the prophecy has come to pass in the person of Jesus Christ, the babe born in a manger in Bethlehem of Judea, a birth that is the only new thing to have happened since the foundation of the world.
And like that old agitator, John the Baptist, our call at Christmas is to bear witness to the light, that all men through us might believe. To do that, belonging is not enough. We need a confession, and we need a creed.
I BELIEVE in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, And of all things visible and invisible:
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God; Begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God; Begotten, not made; Being of one substance with the Father; By whom all things were made: Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, And was made man: And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried: And the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures: And ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of the Father: And he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; Whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, The Lord, and Giver of Life, Who proceedeth from the Father and the Son; Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; Who spake by the Prophets: And I believe one Catholic and Apostolic Church: I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins: And I look for the Resurrection of the dead: And the Life of the world to come. Amen.

1. It is worth noting here that the Prayer Book demands that the Nicene Creed be rehearsed “On Sundays and other Major Feasts” (p. 358). But maybe I’m wrong here; maybe Christmas is no longer a major feast in the Episcopal Church.
2. 1 Corinthians 15:14
3. Luke 24:25
3. Daniel 4:30
5. Isaiah 9:2, 6-7

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