As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been working on a Confirmation class recently, and the lessons keeping popping up here on the blog. Here’s 1000 words on theology, using three phrases from the Nicene Creed as a framework.
…of all that is, seen and unseen
What I’m about to write ignores the fact that the Nicene Creed was originally written in Greek and then translated into Latin and then translated into English. Don’t panic – the following is about the current English grammatical structure of the phrase, which is influenced by, but not chained to, the original language.
Do you see that little comma between the words “is” and “seen”? Yes? Good. Now, think back to all the times you’ve ever heard the Creed recited during church and ask yourself if anyone has ever acknowledged that comma. No? Didn’t think so. The sentence usually sounds like this: “…maker of heaven and earth, of all that-is-seen-and-unseen.” But the sentence actually reads: “…maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, [slight pause] seen and unseen.” I imagine you are now rolling your eyes at my disconcerting attention to inane details.
This detail may seem inane at first, but I assure you, it’s not. For now, let’s ignore the phrase “seen and unseen” because it gets entirely too much attention when Creed-speakers unwittingly barrel through the defenseless little comma. With what are we left? “Maker…of all that is.”
Maker…of all that is. This “is” is the most important linking verb in the history of linking verbs, and probably other verbs, as well. We believe that God made all that is. Put another way, we believe that God is the very ground of our “is-ness” – or, to use a not made-up word, our “being.” [Disclaimer: The rest of this section assumes the reader knows the unwieldy conjugation of the verb “to be.”] In Exodus 3, Moses asks God what God’s name is. God responds: “I AM WHO I AM.” This awkward English rendering of the Hebrew preserves the root of God’s divine name, which is the verb “to be” (hayah in Hebrew). When Moses asks God what God’s name is, God responds with something like, “I have being and I bestow being and that’s all you need to know.” Look at the word “being.” Now add a hyphen: be-ing. The noun “being” is disguised as a present participle verb, a verb of continuing action. This points to the eternal continuity and abiding presence of God, who is the very ground of be-ing.
All grammatical gymnastics aside, the point is this: God created all that is, and creation’s existence depends on God’s continuing presence. As small bits of that creation, we receive our be-ing, our identity, our life from the foundation of that be-ing, the Holy One we call God.
Through him all things were made
“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ… Through him all things were made.” Okay, since I failed to return to the original Greek in the last section, I feel I must make up for it. John begins his Gospel account with this poetry: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him, not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life…”
You’ll notice that word be-ing from the last section crops up several times in just these few sentences. We said that God is the foundation for be-ing, and now we discover that the “Word” is responsible for translating that be-ing into life. Here’s the Greek bit.
The “Word” is the translation of the Greek word logos, from which dozens of English words take their root. Every time you see –ology at the end of a word (zoology, biology, epidemiology), that ending comes from the Greek logos. “Logic” also springs from this root. When something is “logical” it is ordered, it makes good sense. This is a good entrance into one understanding of logos. John says that the Word was in the beginning with God and through the Word all things were made. This “Word” is the “logic” behind creation, the “organizing principle” through which creation has come into being. In Genesis, God speaks creation into being (“Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.”). God uses words to organize creation, and John identifies “The Word” as God the only Son, who is incarnate in Jesus Christ.
So, the “Word” is creation’s logic or organizing principle. Creation, therefore, is not haphazard or accidental. You might be tempted to ask a question about “Creationism vs. Evolution.” But the unhappy dichotomy between these two positions breaks down when we see creation as both organized and continuous. My college chaplain was fond of saying: “If God stopped speaking, the world would stop turning.” The implication is this: the “Word,” the logic of creation continues to underpin and give life to all that is.
…he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man
As I said above, John identifies “The Word” as God the only Son, who is incarnate in Jesus Christ. “Incarnate” means “become flesh” (the –carn in the word is the same root as in the word carnivore, “meat-eater”). John’s use of “Word” connects to a strain of thought coming out of the Hebrew Scriptures. The “word of God” appears whenever a prophet is granted a new prophecy (The word of God came to so-and-so…). The Hebrew word for “word” (davar) means much more than the stuffy English equivalent. We think of “word” as something on a piece of paper or something spoken aloud. In Hebrew, however, the “word” is something that happens to people. It is an event, an action that calls for further action. When John uses the Greek form of “word” (logos), he purposefully links it back to this Hebrew understanding. The “Word” becoming flesh and dwelling among us is the ultimate example of the “Word” happening.
Here’s the thing to remember: the “Word,” through which God speaks creation into be-ing, is life-giving. Without the “Word,” life would not exist. When the “Word” became flesh in Jesus Christ, God gave us the gift of seeing how life is meant to be organized, meant to be lived. This means that the words Jesus speaks provide for us the means by which to organize our lives in order to be in deeper touch with God. The “Word” became flesh and lived among us. And now the “Word” continues to speak life into the world, disclosing the glory that is full of grace and truth.