Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Athanasian Creed in the Liturgy

The Athanasian Creed is one of the great symbols of the Church. Has it become mere empty 'symbolism,' however? In some ways, unfortunately so. For creeds, the truly great ones anyway, are meant to be part of the life of the Church; they are meant to be taught, rehearsed, and prayed. They are meditated upon in the quietest moments of the Christian's prayer life, which implies also that they are prayed aloud by Christians gathered together. When one of the classic creeds is not treated in these ways, one can in a certain sense claim, with sadness, that it has become no longer a true, but an empty symbol and creed. This, then, has the danger of leading to a second way in which it can be an empty symbol, namely, that the faith itself expressed in the creed begins to erode amidst a church that no longer prays the faithful sayings of old. There is both a positive promise, and a negative warning, embedded in the classic dictum Lex orandi, lex credendi. Why is the faith in the Triune God so frail and endangered today? Why is the doctrine of the Incarnation of Christ, and the personal union of His two natures, so weak, and in many churchly quarters openly contradicted? There indeed are many devilish reasons which has contributed to this state of affairs; one of them, in my view, is that one of the most brilliant and classic statements of the Faith, the Athanasian Creed, does not play much of a role in the life of the Church today.

We Lutherans at times lament how infrequent the Athanasian Creed is heard in the Church, anyway I am one of them. Yet before we develop that line of thought, it is good to make sure we have the broad perspective, not only historically, but also in terms of how we compare with others. For example, it is a sad fact that the Athanasian Creed has not survived the liturgical "reforms" of the modern Roman Rite at all. I do not say this out of any triumphalism; nonetheless, it is important for us to appreciate and be thankful for the fact that despite having slavishly followed the liturgical trends of the Roman Church of the last couple generations in such a myriad of ways, American Lutheranism has managed, probably quite despite itself, to hang onto the practice of confessing the Athanasian Creed in the liturgy every year. I will argue below that there are problems with this practice, liturgically speaking, yet the answer to or reform of the situation must never involve trashing the people's exposure to the Creed. That has happened, and I fraternally urge that it is a rash, and pastorally poor avenue to take.

As I say, the Athanasian Creed has fallen from its formerly lofty status in the Roman Rite. This change has happened in stages over the past century. In the liturgical reforms of Pope Pius X of 1911, the Creed was reduced to once a year, down from almost weekly. Before 1911, it was part of the regular Sunday Divine Office at the 'hour' of Prime, on all of the Sundays after Pentecost, and after Epiphany, ie. the green Sundays plus Trinity Sunday. It was also part of the traditional rite of exorcism. Its place in the Divine Office of the Roman Breviary was eliminated in the modern era, as any glance at the so called Liturgy of the Hours bears out, for the Office of Prime itself was suppressed after Vatican II (a nice term for abolished). In fact, the Creed does not even survive in the new rite of exorcism, which gives the option of using the Apostles' or Nicene Creed. We must happily add, however, that the door to the Athanasian Creed is now once again open in the Roman Rite, in light of Pope Benedict XVI's motu proprio, Summorum Pontificum, of 7 July, 2007, which allows priests the free use of the older rite (or the older 'use' of the Roman rite).

Among the Lutherans the Athanasian Creed is confessed usually in the Mass on the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity. As I say, it is very good that we have kept the confession of this Creed to this extent at least. My concern regarding this practice, however, is twofold. One is that it is much too infrequent. The other is that its place is not, properly speaking, in the liturgy of the Mass. It belongs, rather, in the Divine Office.

I have heard of cases where a pastor, having become convinced of the second point above, decides simply to end his parish's practice of confessing the Athanasian Creed in the Mass once a year, and thereby takes this Creed away from his people. This is thinking the issue through too well by half (is that how the saying goes?). It is poor foresight. It is poor catechetically, liturgically, and indeed, spiritually & pastorally.

There are other answers. For example, if I understand rightly, from the little notice I saw at Fr. Eckardt's blog, what he did this year at St. Paul's parish in Kewanee, IL, was to have the Creed confessed before the Mass. As another example, my own pastor, Fr. May, at St. Stephen's, had us go through it together during the Bible study hour between Masses this year. I would personally argue that the best approach is to use this situation, this need, as an occasion and opportunity to introduce a healthy parish practice of the Sunday morning Divine Office.

(I must devote another entry to the virtues of the Divine Office. But any thoughtful priest, pastor, and theologian, can immediately think of some of the major benefits to such a practice in the parish. The Psalms, to which we pay such lovely lip service, and which are indeed prayed in some of our parishes on midweek evening services, can actually have a chance to gain real ground, for example.)

The true home of the Creed is the Office at Prime, which is actually a beautiful form of prayer. It can be employed without a lot of difficulty. If, however, one finds it for a variety of possible reasons, that it is preferable to simply use one of the orders of prayer contained in the pew service book which is currently in vogue, Lutheran Service Book, or some other Lutheran service book and or hymnal, and thereby use the order of Matins found there, that is certainly an option.

Allow me to reiterate, or make explicit, a point I think is worthy noting here. The Athanasian Creed is not only proper on Trinity Sunday, but also on all other Sundays in the green part of the year, as it were. This means that it is not too late to take these thoughts into consideration. The holy Creed, despite what some think after making their way through its articulations, is not an overly cerebral take on the faith, or overly intellectual. Rather, it is inherently and profoundly liturgical, which is to say that it is meant to be prayed and upon it the Christian will be inspired to meditate day and night.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting, I too wish the Athanasian Creed was more prominent in our liturgy. I've heard of a Lutheran church where the Athanasian Creed is said whenever there is a fifth Sunday. This is an intriguing way to increase its frequency, but of course it goes against your second point.

Also, I believe the Athanasian Creed was still said during Prime on most Sundays of the year until the reforms of John XXIII around 1960 when it was limited to Trinity Sunday.


Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Dear Eric,

I wrote this post quite late during my overnight shift, and I don't know what got into me, because you are right, the change from doing the Athanasian Creed on all the Sundays after Pentecost, etc, down to just once a year, was not Pius X's doing. It happened in 1955 as part of the early stages of the liturgical "reform" of Archbishop Bugnini.

Indeed, the Divine Office at the time of Pius X, even, in other words, after his revisions of 1911, can be rightly considered a revised edition of the classic breviary of Pius V of 1568. By contrast, the changes that take place in the Roman Rite between 1950 & 1975 amount to, in my view, not a revision, but a new rite altogether.

Dcn. Muehlenbruch said...

Your remark "Why is the faith in the Triune God so frail and endangered today?" got me to thinking about the purpose and content of the Proper Preface in the liturgy, especially during the Trinity season.

The historic liturgy directed that the preface for Holy Trinity be used on all Sundays, unless that Sunday had an assigned preface. TLH and the Service Book and Hymnal followed this rubric. LW established that the preface for the Sundays after "Pentecost" be use during this season.

Now, except for Trinity Sunday, the Holy Spirit is not specifically mentioned in any of the other prefaces.

The Common Preface in LW strongly reflects the understanding that every Sunday is a "Little Easter." I have no problem with this, for this is the reason why the Church has decided to worship on the first day of the week, in honor of the Resurrection. But I do lament the displacement of one of the historic, and most Trinitarian, prefaces to a once-in-a-year celebration.

Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Good point, Deacon, and well made. Much running around today, but there will be more to say.

mlorfeld said...

Good thoughts on this...

I had an interesting conversation on this with someone from my home congregation after we confessed this Creed... and it touches on what you said about thinking through something well half way (a phrase I have not heard before). This person has been taught well... well enough to have a fairly good grasp on that which we confess in AC IV. Herein lies the problem for her, not in the cerebralness of the first part (though she admitted not quite understanding the significance of all of it), but she took issue with the "those who do good..." part. In a way, I wanted to commend her for thinking about what she was confessing, however, this showed that our catechesis on this matter (as I'm sure she's not the only Lutheran to think this) has been severely lacking. If out of some miracle we could have daily offices reintroduced to our churches, a Laudable preach this creed throughout the week of Trinity in the same service as we pray and confess it.

Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Thanks for the comment. Indeed, with the rise of the Daily Office, which will take place in our time, God will work a miracle, and subsequent spiritual wonders will result, such as the catechetical benefits we can only dimly perceive now.