BORN OF THE FATHER BEFORE ALL AGES
When Melanie Bettinelli announced that she was collecting writers to pick up a line from the Nicene Creed and discuss it for the Year of Faith, I asked her what lines had not yet been claimed.
This was my favorite of the orphans, and in fact is my favorite line in the Creed, so I grabbed it and did a little happy dance. Oh, my favorite line! I get to write about it!
Then I sat down and thought, “wait, what?” This is a mystery of mysteries, as profoundly deep and unknowable as the mystery of the Incarnation, which is not only about God taking on human flesh and “setting his tent among us” but about the notion of God condescending to serve his own Creation. You can spend a whole lifetime pondering that and never pierce an inch of it, but you can write something giving a general idea of the thing in 700 words. People get it, sort of; it’s familiar.
But “born of the Father, before all ages…” that sends me reeling in so many different directions. It send me first to the very beginning of John’s Gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.
No, that’s no good. It’s another beloved bit of scripture — words I often recite to myself in times of stress, to remind myself that I, and my life, are puny things — but these are words full of shiny things that pull my synapses in too many different directions. I want to talk about that first part — the Word being with God; that sounds like the ticket! But as usual, I find myself carried off by those last words: without him, nothing came to be.
On the one hand, they seem so obvious: Without a creator there is no creation. But then, taken another way: “without him ‘Nothing’…came to be.”
Considered that way, it’s a whole plunge into questions of voids and darkness. There could never have been “nothing.” God was always there, right? And God fills everything, down to the molecules and atoms which — if they stop moving, it’s all over.
So there can only be “nothing” where God is not.
Where God is not, is where “nothing” comes into being. And this can only be a spiritual thing — a spiritual state of nothing — an active willing-away from God that opens up to nothingness and the Being of Nothingness, who is the evil one.
No, that’s too scary. And too much depth of mystery in three lines of scripture! I want to think about it more, but it’s not getting me any nearer to “born of the Father before all ages.”
So, I turn to Saint Paul:
He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation. In him everything in heaven and on earth was created, things visible and invisible.
All things were created through him; all were created for him. He is before all else that is. In him everything continues in being – Col 1:12-17
That kind of…leads me back to John again, doesn’t it? Creation, Being; visible and invisible. The firstborn of all creation. He is before all else that is.
I can kind of wrap my head around that, as I tried to, here:
I think of Christ’s primacy as being akin to the old flashbulbs we used in cameras; there would be a blinding flash of light, and then something would come of it. Christ is the flash of light, but because there are no negatives in Christ his light brings clarity, not an aching blind spot. His Holy Light is the consent – every “yes” that allows life to blossom, rather than shrivel or suffocate and die. As John tells us in the beginning of his Gospel, without that Light, nothing exists. Life is carried on it, the way it is carried, joyfully, in the fizzy mist of the Shekinah. [. . .] Try to put that first image of the flashbulb into your head. There is a flash of light; his Divine “yes” and then, things come to be, because his light, his assent, came first.
A flash -a Divine “yes”- and a new life is formed. Flash! A new crocodile. Flash! A litter puppies. Flash! Maggots and flies. Flash! Springtime flowers. Flash! A new infant is conceived, life assented to, allowed to be created, thanks to the light; thanks to the “yes.”
Without the flash that is his light – nothing! Nothing comes because nothing is brought. No life.
That’s all fascinating, all-most accessible creational stuff, and yet there is this phrase in the Creed: Born of the Father before all ages.
We mumble it every Sunday, and we have a kind of instinctive understanding that it is correct, but who has time to stop and think about this? We’re standing at Mass, and the liturgy—like time and narrative—moves relentlessly, confidently forward; we’re watching a fidgety kid in the pew before us, and wondering if we remembered to bring the envelope we’d written out with our offering, and we’re saying these incredibly deep, mysterious words that are harkening us all the way back, past recorded history, past anything anyone actually knows, moving right on through Creation itself.
Because those words are pre-Creational.
With a single line we stretch back — back through time, through narrative — and touch original mystery so intimate and infinite that we cannot begin to fathom it. It’s too much to think about.
So we don’t.
We say the words, and we shift our weight to the other foot and we move confidently forward, on to the next line, on to the next moment, the next day, because forward is where God is, and where God wants us to be. If we cannot reach back to understand Him, we know that moving forward, we finally will. Forward is the key. Forward is where “I make all things new…”
And yet, next week, at mass, we will — like kids mindlessly exploring that wallplate with the mysterious holes that can give us such a shock — reach back once more, and touch our fingertips again into that place of sparking darkness and piercing light.
Born of the Father before all ages…
What are your thoughts? What else can we learn from “born of the Father before all ages”?
Elizabeth Scalia, aka The Anchoress, is a Benedictine Oblate and the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos. She is a writer, speaker and a regularly-featured columnist at First Things and at The Catholic Answer. Look for her book, Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life to be released in 2013, via Ave Maria Press.
Read all the entries in the Blog Series: Credo: Professing the Creed for the Year of Faith.