Today's feast of Saint Athanasius (297-373), Bishop of Alexandria, vigorous opponent of Arianism at the Council of Nicea (325) and after, and Doctor of the Church, seems a suitable occasion to recall (and even recite) the so-called "Athanasian Creed." More properly referred to by its title Symbolum Quicumque Vult, the so-called "Athanasian Creed" was almost certainly not composed by Saint Athanasius at all. The Creed's apocryphal association with Athanasius no doubt derives from its very strong affirmation of orthodox (i.e., anti-Arian) Christian faith in the Trinity, the faith Athanasius defended so forcefully.
Up until the middle of the 20th-century, the "Athanasian Creed" was traditionally part of the Sunday morning office of Prime, when it was said or sung after the psalms on Trinity Sunday and on all "ordinary" Sundays after Epiphany and Pentecost (unless a Double feast or Octave occurred). The pre-conciliar rubrical reform of 1960 reduced its mandatory recitation solely to Trinity Sunday, and it disappeared completely in the post-conciliar Breviary.
I first encountered this so-called "Athanasian Creed" in our religion textbook as a high school freshman in 1961, and I vividly remember our reciting it in unison in class. Its origin is obviously as liturgical text meant to be sung, and I remember the chant-like, sing-song way we 30 freshman boys recited it with our teacher (who read along with us, translating from his Latin Breviary). Even now, i can recall some of its repetitive verses:
The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated.
The Father infinite, the Son infinite, and the Holy Spirit infinite.
The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal.
And yet they are not three eternals, but one eternal.
And also they are not three uncreated, nor three infinites, but one uncreated and one infinite.
And so, on and on, it went, affirming the Church's faith in each Person of the Trinity.
So there is one Father, not three Fathers;
one Son, not three Sons;.
one Hoy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits.
The Creed continues after its long Trinitarian section with a strong Christological section, affirming the Church's orthodox faith in Christ, who is not two, but one Christ.
One, altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of Person.
For linguistically challenged moderns, for whom even the Nicene Creed's consubstantial with the Father is for some reason difficult, it is easy to see why the Church's third ancient Creed is increasingly unused.
Which is sad, however, because the language really is wonderful. And who nows what contemporary revivals of ancient heresies we might be better equipped to avoid if we were all more fully steeped in the ancient language of Trinitarian and Christological orthodox faith?
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