Epiphany? The Point of the Creeds?

Jan 5, 2021 | 5 comments

The Coming of the Magi – Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin

 

What is the point of the Creeds?   So asks Tony Flannery in From the Outside, his latest book. Given the apparent inability of Irish clergy generally to discuss that – or indeed any – important question, freely, it becomes by far the most important question of the present time. Everything depends on whether we Christians do, or do not, believe what these ancient prayers say.

And what they centrally say is that one historical person could not be judged or killed by those who judged and killed him – and that instead this person – Jesus the Christ (anointed one)  – is now himself the only judge who matters, of all who have lived or will live.

Everyone knows‘ by now that Christians are fractured by hesitations on the Creeds. At Christmas 2020 an RTE satirisation of the Christmas tale as a story of sexual abuse provoked Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh to denounce this as outrageous.

Archbishop of Armagh, Eamon Martin

Archbishop Eamon Martin's 'Tweets' - Jan 1st, 2021
I am shocked that producer/editor of ‘NYE Countdown Show’ didn’t realise how deeply offensive was a mocking ‘news report’ accusing God of rape & reporting his imprisonment. This outrageous clip should be removed immediately & denounced by all people of goodwill. To broadcast such a deeply offensive and blasphemous clip about God & Our Blessed Mother Mary during the Christmas season on ‘NYE Countdown Show’ & on Eve of the Solemn Feast of Mary, Mother of God is insulting to all Catholics and Christians.

[Jan 6th, 2021 – The Irish Times reported that Aengus MacGrianna of RTE had apologised for the sketch, agreeing that ‘It was wrong of me’.]

Yet ‘everyone knows’ also what lay behind this ‘outrage’ – the creedal statement that Jesus, the person who survived crucifixion – according to the Creeds – was conceived by the Holy Spirit. This does indeed imply some kind of divine impregnation of an unwed girl, so, from one perspective, the ‘outrage‘ was simply taking seriously what the Creeds insist upon.

And yet from Archbishop Eamon’s perspective this was outrageous because the attribution of anything remotely abusive to the Christian Trinitarian God – the seeming equation of that God with globally notorious abusers of young women such as Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein – is outrageous.

Would that RTE outrage have occurred if, over the past half century, Irish Catholics – people and clergy together – had been discussing, freely and honestly, how to interpret the Creeds in light of our evolving understanding of both human birth and human death and the dense mysteries that still surround both?

Between birth and death there is human consciousness. A depressive darkness threatens our consciousness when we contemplate the complete inability of our science to explore what happens to human consciousness when, physically and inevitably, we – apparently – die.

As we know that when that happens this physical carapace will begin to decay, and to need some kind of dignified disposal by those who observe this event, this threatens to add yet another level of dread to all of us. Born in 1943, on Jan 2nd, and therefore now seventy-eight, I cannot be unconscious of this.

And that is why, despite my inability to understand how Jesus could have been ‘begotten’ by the only God – and could also have survived Crucifixion – I say the Creed (both versions yet mostly the simpler) without crossing my fingers – and do that more than once daily – and don’t feel especially outraged by reports of the RTE satire.

For that prayer, and others that express the same faith, are utterly reliable when it comes to dispelling dread, whatever the circumstances.  When you no longer dread death at my age, nothing that RTE could put on to retain viewers could annoy or surprise you.

For God is indeed love, and love survives death, and love is God also – and cannot be mocked. It is not in the power of any existing shaper of opinion – this world of ‘media’ – to shame the Lord who, for those who pray, did survive crucifixion and teach us this. That mocking world is always, always, always passing away.

Nothing could be more paradoxical than an Ireland in which, at the very same time, while some persons are uttering what appear to be blasphemies they and their near relatives may well be risking their lives to save strangers – in perfect obedience to the Lord who was, in the Creeds, conceived without sin.

If everything we can see and measure has arisen from what science calls a ‘singularity‘, then what other word can be used to describe someone who identified with the least of his own time, who withstood the degrading power of the greatest  superpower and the envy of the religious elite of that time, who forgave all those who had tried to degrade him, and then gave birth, spiritually to so many who followed – utterly peacefully and selflessly?

Jesus of Nazareth, this babe in the manger, was another singularity in his birth, his teaching, his life, his death – which was not, somehow, a death at all.  How he was conceived lovingly and without sin – and became flesh – must ever be as mysterious as the singularity of everything.  We do not need to hesitate over the only words that the original authors of the Creeds could think of to explain that.

Just Come and See!

Sean O’Conaill
5th January, 2021

5 Comments

  1. Kevin Walters

    I stood amongst the stars, as a child with Guardian of great age
    With face like a Buddha or a babe
    No hair, eyes gentle shone, two pools of delight tenderness bright
    No word was uttered; he stood near, in right hand, test tube with seed
    My heart did read, it all started here I did perceive
    Then in garden of delight, tap of eternity running crystal clear
    He took me close and I did fear
    I was in ancient land amongst clamor, dust, and sand
    In spirit approaching from the rear, He turned;
    His sight stooped me in my flight
    Rabbi! two pools of delight, held me tight
    I entered cool room, within maid and future groom
    Pitcher pouring water, in hand, her beauty *shone from within*
    As if she had never seen sin

    “It must have happened when you touched my hand” (The Betrothal?)

    I saw the goodness in his manly face, no doubt did take place
    He was a true lover, who new goodness in another
    A holy family did take place in trust, love, gentleness, and grace
    There was no duty here; this was love in highest sphere
    The room grows dark; from two lovers I do depart
    Now on gloomy hill, all nature still, approaching the Cross,
    Shock! nakedness, such suffering
    All nature seemed to groin with pain, I was home again
    Numb with shock, such suffering cannot be forgot
    This in truth is what I saw, I make no comment I open a door.

    *It is fair to say that this same light shone from the Groom also*

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

    Reply
  2. Soline Humbert

    Thank you Sean, but I am quite puzzled by your mentioning twice Jesus being ‘conceived without sin ‘.

    This seems to me to go beyond the credal affirmation that he was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. I do not recall any mention of sin/ sinlessness in relation to his conception .

    For me the expression ‘conceived without sin’ refers to the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary.

    Reply
    • soconaill

      I suppose I am ‘extrapolating’ there, Soline – i.e. inferring from the insistence on Mary’s immaculate conception that the purpose of that insistence was that otherwise she could not have been the mother that a sinless Son of God must have. (I take it as agreed that the Gospels do concur on Jesus being ‘without sin’.)

      Here I must stress also that I do not interpret ‘original sin’ as having to do primarily with sexual desire but, as suggested by James Alison, as having to do with the problem of mimetic desire, of wanting what seems to give greater ‘being’ to someone else, originally the supposed invulnerable ‘being’ of the Gods. I see this as the basic problem of males in particular and the origin of all unjust inequality, rivalry and conflict.

      It follows that the ‘sinlessness’ imputed to both Mary and Jesus has more to do, I believe, with humility – the absence of ‘ambition’ – than with celibacy / virginity.

      The furore that arose out of the RTE skit points also to the Gospel emphasis on the sacredness of the conception of Jesus, both in terms of Mary’s worthiness and the delicacy of the invitation issued to her – which contrasts hugely with the pagan mythological accounts of divine / human coupling (e.g. Aethra / Poseidon in the case of Theseus).

      It was surely the need to emphasise the unique sacredness / sinlessness of the origin of Jesus that provided the impetus for the emergence of the doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary? I cannot otherwise understand why anyone would have seen a need for it.

      Even if our starting point is the mere humanity of Jesus, i.e. one of scepticism about ‘divinity’, we are left with the enormous historical conundrum of the foundation of the Christian tradition upon what then becomes the mere foolishness of Jesus in risking what he risked, for no observable gain, and the foolishness of all who followed, believing, mistakenly, that he had somehow not been defeated by crucifixion.

      Nothing can be clearer, I believe, than that the earliest Christians were NOT indulging in make-believe, so we are left with what I call a ‘singularity’ – a profoundly transformative and unprecedented historical event, to do with a totally mind-boggling person. It was from that historical event, I believe, that the Gospels developed, including the nativity accounts and the Marian doctrines. The a priori sceptical mindset that reduces the ‘historical’ Jesus to a brave but foolish ‘great teacher’, with the Resurrection reduced to merely fond memorializing make-belief, is not in the end as persuasive for me as the Gospels themselves. If Jesus’s trust in Abba was foolish then all of us Christians are fools.

      Reply
  3. Soline Humbert

    Thanks Sean for clarifying a few things about what you meant.
    I was wondering whether you had been referring primarily to the manner of Jesus’ conception
    ( the dogma of the Virgin Birth ) or to Jesus’ being sinless from his conception.

    I think there is often a lot of confusion in some people ‘s minds between the Immaculate Conception of Mary and the Virgin Birth of Jesus,with a belief that Jesus was sinless because there was no sex involved in his conception / birth…and Mary was immaculate because she was a virgin and conceived him without having sex. So this mix up/ conflation leads to something like that: (physical) virginity of Mary = immaculate conception of Jesus= sinlessness of Jesus ,
    and sexual intercourse of everybody else’s parents= sinful conception of children = sinfulness of all. Sex being the sinful element in that equation.

    Reply
    • soconaill

      You are quite right about that confusion, Soline. As Jesus’s claim was to have ‘overcome the world’ far too little attention has been paid to that in comparison to the emphasis on sexuality. It is from the world of others that we choose our desires from among the myriad of things that others desire.

      Even yet, more than half-a-century after René Girard began directing attention to the inherent dangers of our gift for imitation, Christian moral theology lags behind because of that fixation with sex. He has truly revolutionised our understanding of the 9th and 10th commandments of the decalogue, and provided a different ‘pair of glasses’ for rediscovering both the scriptures and the historical record. I have tried to get something of this across in a series of articles, e.g. ‘The Lost Sin’ – the Furrow, 2003. http://www.seanoconaill.com/2003/09/06/the-lost-sin/

      As Constantine’s desire was essentially no different from that of the founder of the Roman Empire, the Constantinian shift was what truly intensified the confusion you speak of – allowing clergy also to desire power, wealth and status. Necessarily, something non-clerical had to be the clerical ‘root of sin’ – and, especially in the second millennium, with the celibacy rule, that became sex. And clergy were then free to compete and conflict over office and status. Desiring to be ‘it’ was OK if ‘it’ was high office in the church.

      This is why the clerical sex scandals are to be seen less as a disaster than as an opportunity to rediscover Jesus as non-mimetic – as deliberately choosing not to desire what other kings desired – the temptations in the desert. Notice that none of those temptations was sexual – but nevertheless what he turned down became OK for others to desire – principally power and status – after 312 CE.

      This is all unwinding in front of us as the admirers of the Constantinian church seek to control the clerical system and unwittingly continue the reign of scandal. How did it come about that one could be ‘in persona Christi’ simply by imitating – or appearing to imitate – Jesus’s celibacy, when it was his rejection of power and status that was most remarkable?

      That is why Francis is so important, and so annoying to the lovers of Christendom, the powerful church.

      Reply

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