Preached at St. Vincent's Cathedral Church, Bedford, Texas.
"Let us make man in Our image, after Our likeness." From the First Book of Moses. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith.” That will make you sit up and take notice, won’t it? We twenty-first century Americans are no longer used to claims of absolute Truth. You and I live in a world that celebrates diversity and is wary of uniformity, especially in matters of belief. In this post-modern age the idea that there might be a single, ultimate Truth is increasingly seen as old-fashioned, simple-minded, or perhaps even dangerous. Any opinion may be held as a personal belief, as long as we don’t claim it is actually the “Truth” (with a capital “T”). You have your truth, based upon your unique genetic inheritance, cultural background and personal experiences, while I have my truth, also unique and equally valid. Recently Pope Benedict gave this post-modern mindset a name. He aptly called it “the dictatorship of relativism.”
Yet this morning we are haunted by words from a very different age. For centuries Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Anglicans have recited the Athanasian Creed on Trinity Sunday, and here at St. Vincent’s we continue that tradition today. And make no mistake about it, the Athanasian Creed does not shy away from truth claims. The claims it makes are exclusive and they are total. Since 500 A.D. this Creed has insisted that the Catholic Faith be kept “whole and undefiled,” lest those who stray from it “perish everlastingly.” No mincing of words here. Nothing less than the eternal fate of souls—salvation or damnation--hangs upon its carefully chosen and finely balanced phrases. Now I will be the first to admit that some lines of the Athanasian Creed make me feel a bit squeamish. Yet it is profoundly important that we engage these ancient words together on this holy day and that we take them to heart. The Holy Trinity lies at the core of our Christian faith, and this Creed has been the touchstone of Trinitarian doctrine for over a millennium. It is wisdom of the ages. We ignore it at our peril.
Doubtless the number of parishes where the Athanasian Creed is recited on Trinity Sunday shrinks every year. Admittedly, it is a bit long and repetitive, and some of the phrases sound rather odd to modern ears. But I suspect the main reason this Creed has fallen from favor is its exclusive tone. “This is the Catholic Faith, which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.” People hear that sentence today and are immediately confronted with the “good Buddhist” problem. What about a devout, kind-hearted Buddhist woman who has never heard the Gospel? If she lives a morally upright life, will God really damn her to Hell for not believing in a Christ she hasn’t even heard about? Is that what the Athanasian Creed is really means?
No. The Athanasian Creed was not composed to address the salvation of those who have never known our Lord Jesus. Christ is the world’s only Savior, but the salvation He wrought is greater than our feeble minds can comprehend. The Church has always recognized that God is free to apply the saving grace of Christ’s cross and empty tomb any way He chooses. That is why we pray here every Sunday for “those who have died in the hope of the resurrection, and those whose faith is known to [God] alone.” The souls of righteous non-Christians are in the hands of a loving and merciful Creator. The Book of Life is entrusted to the Lamb who was slain for the sins of the world. It is not our place to take a census of Heaven. You and I cannot know the eternal fate of the “good Buddhist.” We can hope and we can pray, but we cannot know what God intends for her.
There is, however, something that you and I do know with absolute certitude: those who hold to the Catholic Faith--those who have repented of their sin, renounced Satan, turned to Jesus Christ in faith and accepted Him as their Lord and Savior--those who have been baptized into Holy Mother Church and have partaken of Christ’s precious Body and Blood--they will be with God and enjoy Him forever. Now that is TRUTH in all capital letters! And that is what the Athanasian Creed is really about—the only saving Truth the world has even known. This Creed explains and clarifies our Christian Faith so we may know and worship God our Savior as He truly is, One God in Three Persons. It reminds us that the mystery of the Holy Trinity is the very foundation of our Faith.
God’s magnificent work of creation and redemption can only be properly understood in light of the mystery of the Trinity. The God of Heaven and Earth is not some distant abstraction of philosophers. He is not an impenetrable “Oneness.” Rather, the one true God is a God for whom relationship is central to His very being. Remember, St. John tells us that “God is Love.” John isn’t talking about some namby-pamby “feeling”. He means that the bond of Love within the Godhead Itself, the bond between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, is a Love that cannot be contained. This Trinitarian Love is the fount from which the whole of Creation springs. This is the divine love that the Creator built into our DNA—the love we are meant to return to God with all our hearts and souls and minds. It is the love of the Trinity that brought the eternally-begotten Son of God to the manger in Bethlehem, to the tomb of Lazarus, to a Roman cross at Golgotha. It is the love of the Trinity that rolled away the stone and brought forth “the first fruits from the dead.”
“Let Us make man in Our Image, after Our likeness,” the triune God said within Himself at the dawn of time. You and I were meant to be icons of the Living God, with the self-giving love of the Trinity imprinted on our souls, our Creator’s glory radiating from our very being. With the Fall of our First Parents in the Garden of Eden, however, the likeness of God within us became mired with sin and obscured in darkness. But God the Son, through whom all things were made, would not abide the destruction of His self-portrait within us. Becoming incarnate as our Savior Jesus Christ, the Great Artist Himself restored our likeness to Him, painting His divine image afresh in our hearts and minds and souls with the Blood of Calvary, making us shine with the new light of Easter.
In Christ’s sacrificial life and death, we see at once both the all-consuming Love at the heart of the Trinity and a flawless humanity that mirrors the divine nature completely. Christ’s perfected humanity now sits at the right hand of the Father and fully participates in the life of the everlasting Trinity. This is the image of Christ to which you and I are being conformed by the power the Holy Spirit. This is the divine Love we will take into ourselves in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar. This is the Triune God you and I will be with and enjoy forever! Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.