By Daniel Martins
Praying daily in the same form for years upon years is a repetitive endeavor that, in my case at least, invariably evokes boredom, spiritual dryness. Yet, with perseverance, even out of this periodic desiccation come nuggets of insight. For me, as I look back over the pendulum swing between consolation and desolation in my spiritual life, it is the final few lines of the Apostles’ Creed, which crosses my lips daily, that keep calling attention to themselves.
The creeds are sometimes referred to as “symbols of faith,” not in the sense of a milquetoast “mere symbol,” as distinguished from a concrete reality, but as language that means more than it says. Along with the other two “symbols of faith” — the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments — the creeds are compressed catechisms, didactic “zip drives.”
The final line of the Apostles’ Creed expresses belief in “the life everlasting.” That is, of course, the end game of the life of faith, the soul’s journey from God and back to God (exitus et reditus), the beatific vision, the perfection of holiness, sharing the divinity of him who humbled himself to share our humanity.
But the life everlasting is contingent. It depends on a prior condition being met; namely, “the resurrection of the body,” which is, of course, the previous line in the creed. Pastors and teachers in the broad Catholic tradition are wont to say this frequently, yet, in the current climate of narratives from popular culture infecting Christian discourse, repetition never quite seems redundant: the Christian hope is not in the immortality of the soul (whether such immortality is part of the human soul’s inherent nature or the product of some operation of divine grace), but, rather, in the resurrection of the body. There’s a meme that keeps popping up in social media, attributed (falsely, I suspect) to an immensely popular Christian author: “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” As intuitively appealing as this notion may be, it is, as best, sub-Christian. To be disembodied is to be not quite completely human. Our bodies are not some sort of Shakespearean “mortal coil” which we look forward to being able to “shuffle off.” Bodies are the “operating system” in which the “app” redemption in Christ runs. This is prefigured in the very fact of the incarnation of the Word of God, who assumed our human flesh in order to redeem our human flesh.
But what makes the resurrection of the body possible? A resurrected body is one free of corruption, free of sin. So, we are driven back one more level to the previous line in the Creed, in which we profess belief in “the forgiveness of sins.” In the canticle Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel (Canticles four and 16 , Luke 1:68-79), Zechariah sings of the infant John the Baptist’s vocation to announce the coming of the one who would bring to the People of God “knowledge of salvation.” But this saving knowledge doesn’t arrive in isolation. It comes through a particular medium — namely, “the forgiveness of sins.” When the Apostle Peter publicly enunciates the gospel for the first time, as recorded in Acts 2:14-36, which we can probably take as representative of the early Church’s proclamation, and his hearers are “cut to the quick” and ask him what they should do in response, Peter responds that they should repent and be baptized “for the forgiveness of your sins.” The mystery of salvation in Christ is rich and multi-faceted, but any account of it that omits the forgiveness of sins misses the central point, the heart of the matter.
But the forgiveness of sins is not an abstraction, taking place in a vacuum. It presumes a necessary context in which people concretely experience such forgiveness, both vertically — God forgiving us — and horizontally — disciples of Jesus forgiving one another. The context in which forgiveness is possible takes us back yet one more level in the creed; it takes us to “the communion of saints.” The communion of saints is the fellowship of God’s holy ones — those who have been “sealed with the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” It is the fellowship of God’s “elect” who have been “knit together in one communion” (Collect for All Saints), and including both those whom we label as “living” and those whom we categorize as “dead,” though all are alive in Christ. Lately, in my daily intercessions, I have begun praying intentionally for those whom I feel have hurt me in the past, contributors to wounds that still cause me pain that may not be incapacitating, but is nonetheless palpably “there.” I do so aware that, as they have wounded me, I have probably also wounded them. This includes people whose mortal remains now lie in the ground as they rest in their resurrection hope. I pray for the grace to grow in my forgiveness of them, and I pray for forgiveness from them and from God. The communion of saints is the context that allows the forgiveness of sins to become real.
And from whence does the communion of saints flow? You guessed it… the Holy Catholic Church, the “body of which Christ is the head and all baptized persons are members.” (BCP Catechism). As Christ is — in effect, that “sacrament” of God — so the Church is the sacrament of Christ. It is the fount from which flows all the blessings of our redemption. It is the Church that provides the environment for the communion of saints to become a corporeal reality rather than an abstract concept. It is tempting to shy away from identifying the sacredness of the Church too closely with the institution of the Church. Yet, it is precisely institutions that give form and substance to human relationships; institutions make it possible for us to connect with each other in enduring ways. Within the institutional environment of the Church, sins can be confessed and forgiven.
Finally, we arrive at the fount of it all: I believe in the Holy Spirit. The Spirit shines dynamically from the inner life of the Blessed Trinity. If the Father is the giver and the Son is the gift, the Spirit is the giving. The manifestation of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost has often been spoken of as the “birthday of the Church.” There indeed may be reason to quibble with the ecclesiological adequacy of such a statement, but Pentecost was certainly the occasion on which the Church was energized for her ministry and mission. We call the second volume of Luke’s work the Acts of the Apostles,” but it might just as plausibly be called the Acts of the Holy Spirit, because it is the Spirit who is that “star of the show” from beginning to end.
Each line in the last section of the Apostles’ Creed, then, creates the condition that makes the next one possible. The Holy Spirit brings the Church into being and animates her life. The Holy Catholic Church provides the structure in which communion of saints can have an operational reality. The communion of saints creates the context in which the forgiveness of sins can reliably and sustainably happen. The forgiveness serves as the ensign of salvation, God’s persistent saving activity towards us, redeeming even the very bodies in which we experience our full humanity — redeeming them through resurrection. And it is in our resurrected bodies that we will know life everlasting.