Every time we say the Nicene Creed we profess the world’s greatest scandal. God chose to become human. God chose to reveal himself through flesh and blood. God chose to enter this world in the usual way, to be born of a human mother the same as you and I were. God chose to live and die as one of us. God chose death as the way to new life. God chose to seat humanity at his right hand. Jesus Christ is the embodiment of this scandal.
The world is full of scandals: moral failings, political debacles, sexual infidelities, economic disasters. The list could go on and on. Scandals come in all sorts, shapes, and sizes. They are the subject of headline news, the content of editorials and opinions, and the topics of gossip, blogs, posts, and tweets. Human nature, human flesh, and human blood are at the heart of every scandal. It is the scandal of being human. The question is, from whose perspective do we view the scandal of being human? Ours or God’s? The perspective we choose, the one we most trust, will orient our relationship with God and determine the way we live and treat one another.
Far too often we use our humanity as an excuse or a justification. “I’m only human,” the scandalizer declares, as if his or her humanity was a deficiency and a barrier to God. As stated in the previous article, however, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, our ways are not God’s ways, and God’s ways and thoughts are higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8-9). For God, humanity is not a barrier to, but the revelation of his life and love. In Jesus Christ the fullness of divinity and the fullness of humanity exist and live in complete union. God does not act on humanity but in humanity.
The Church proclaims the scandal with these words:
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
This part of the Creed structures the scandal around two relationships and one overarching movement. These three components converge in our Lord Jesus Christ but with profound implications for us all. Taken as a whole these three components are the core of the good news, the Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The first relationship described is the one between Jesus and the Father. We declare that Jesus Christ is our Lord, meaning we can have no other. He is the one and only. In the Hebrew tradition “Lord” is synonymous with “Yahweh,” God. This is not only in name but also in being. The Church does not try to explain what God is. It declares that whatever God is, Jesus Christ also is. He is “God from God,” “Light from Light,” “true God from true God,” “of one being with the Father.” Jesus is and has the same “stuff,” whatever that might be, as God, the Father, the Almighty. Jesus is God. We’re not just saying it, we mean it!
The second relationship the Creed describes is between Jesus and humanity. “In assuming human nature, God intervenes in time and places himself in human history” (Christos Yannaras, Elements of Faith, p. 101). This intervention and placement happens through historic events and people: the annunciation of Mary’s pregnancy, Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, his crucifixion at the hands of a Roman governor, his suffering, death, and burial in the earth, his resurrection, and his ascension. The relationship is localized with particular people in a specific time and place. It is not, however, bound to or limited by those people or that time and place. While stated as historical facts, the events of Jesus’ life contain and reveal mythological truths; meaning the truths proclaimed are bigger than and beyond their historical context. Those truths touch all people, in all times, and in all places. All this, the Creed declares, not once but twice, is for us. It is “for our sake,” “for us and for our salvation.”
The overarching movement in this part of the Creed is one of descent and ascent. The descent began when “[Jesus] came down from heaven.” It continues with his death and burial. The ascent begins “on the third day [when] he rose again” and continues when he “ascended into heaven.” These are mystical not spatial descriptors. It is not a change in Jesus’ location but a change in our condition and relationship. It is a movement from God, to and through humanity, and back to God. In Christ our human nature is assumed by God and “seated at the right hand of the Father.”
That’s what the scandal of being human looks like from God’s perspective. What does that mean for us? It means we have not been abandoned. Nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ro. 8:39). God in Christ has accomplished for us what we could not do for ourselves. God sees us as more than the sum of our actions, successes, and failures. God always sees more in us than what we see in ourselves. When “we believe,” living the scandal and enacting the Creed, the way forward, though not necessarily easy, is open, clear, and beckoning us into endless possibilities for new life. This is where it gets really scandalous. Through Christ our humanity has become the way to our divinity. By the grace of God we can become fully divine and fully human. Irenaeus, a bishop in the second century, puts it like this:
The Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, … did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book V, preface).
Thoughts and Questions for Reflection:
- What has been your understanding and experience of human nature? Have you ever used your humanity as an excuse?
- This scandal has implications for our understanding of sin. Consider this. Sin does not arise from being “only human” but from living as less than fully human.
- The scandal also changes how we understand salvation. Rather than being saved from something, salvation is a process of becoming complete, more fully who we were intended to be, more like God.
- What would it mean for you to live the scandal? How might this change your relationships and the things you say and do?
This is the fifth post in a series of articles on the Nicene Creed originally written for Reflections Online and published by the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas. Previous articles in this series are as follows:
Part 1 - Repetitious Believing
Part 2 - Who Believes?
Part 3 - Communal Believing
Part 4 – Five Things We Believe About God