My goddaughter and I are preparing for her spring confirmation by going through the Nicene Creed, one article at a time. We began with “I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.”
We spent a good bit of time with the phrase, “of all things visible and invisible.” Was this, I asked her, a statement, or a restatement?
The creed does not make us experts, the category to which we cling, but believers, the ground on which we stand.
She thought. “Restatement,” I think, “because doesn’t ‘heaven and earth’ mean everything that is? The visible and the invisible?”
I had looked for some teaching on this phrase and hadn’t found anything. I knew, for instance, that I was on solid ground talking with her about God as eternally engaged in creation. I had St. Irenaeus of Lyon to back me up. But with the concluding phrase, all I had to offer was my own reflection. I don’t offer it to her as authoritative, but I offer it still, with the wonder and joy I experience as I reflect upon it.
I think this phrase is a work of the Holy Spirit, a way of acknowledging and allowing for all that the Nicene fathers could not know, bound as they, and we, are by time and space, by the limits of culture and language. They could speak of the heavens, the sun in the day and the moon at night, but not one of them could imagine all that we mean when we speak of the heavens, of outer space and the solar systems and star systems. None of them could envision a human walking on the surface of the moon, or pictures of that planet being sent back to us by a machine we had put there for that purpose. None of them could imagine a manned space mission to Mars. We not only imagine such a thing, but plan and train and build for it. How could a person in the fourth century think of photography of any sort? Or rocket ships? Or computers?
In the same way, few of us know the sky as did people of the fourth century. We are bound by modernity and the allure of its inventions. We huddle inside at night, safe from the elements but also cut off from them. Darkness is banished. Our faces are lit by screen glow and not star light. We can not name the stars our ancestors studied. Nor can we plot the stars’ journeys through the seasons. If a celestial star rose in the east, we would probably not see it (“Dancing With the Stars” is on!), but, if we happened to glance outside and see it, we would likely not understand, or even wonder, at what we saw.
Perhaps, I told my goddaughter, this is a way of saying, “We do not know all the mysteries of heaven and earth. Some of the mysteries have been forgotten. Not everything that can be seen has been seen. Or remembered. The realm of the invisible may be greater than we know. Even so, God is its creator and all of it is under God’s sovereignty.”
There are multitudes within the creed: history and poetry, prayer and theology, and, nestled there at the beginning, both warning and comfort, a statement of our limitations and our ignorance, our misunderstandings and grand standings all laid before God, the maker of all things visible and invisible.
My goddaughter has many questions about the accounts of creation we are reading in Genesis, over and against the theories and findings she is encountering in her science classes. “Which one is true?” she asks me. I think of the 17th century British scholar, John Lightfoot, who used scripture to calculate the date of the creation of Adam and Eve: October 23, 4004 B.C. at 9 AM. This was a man uncomfortable with the expansiveness of the Nicene fathers, the expansiveness of a creed that acknowledges “all things visible and invisible,” known and unknown, knowable and unknowable, discovered and hidden, within our realm and beyond it.
I remind her that Genesis is not a statement of how or when, but who and what. I remind her of what John Paul II said, that “The Bible speaks to us of the origin of the universe and its make-up, not in order to provide us with a scientific treatise, but in order to state the correct relationship of man with God and with the universe.” We know who made us, know the right relationship between the Creator and the creatures, and then are free to explore that creation.
The creed does not make us experts, the category to which we cling, but believers, the ground on which we stand. Believers, who stand and declare God as the Author and Creator, the Maker, the Artist who forms, the Poet who speaks “heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.”
– Melissa Musick