Singing the Creed

Singing the Creed

Homily for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

August 27, 2023

Singing the Creed

Homily for August 27, 2023
Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Matthew 16:13–20

This morning I’m going to speak about the Nicene Creed.  We say the Creed every Sunday; we will say it momentarily when I finish the homily.  We “say” the Creed, and this morning I’m going to talk about “singing” the Creed.  But first, let me define what I mean by “sing” by speaking about songbirds.

While some birds already can make adult sounds as soon as they hatch, a true songbird—birds such as sparrows, thrushes and warblers—needs to train and to practice if they are to sing their song.  Training begins already in the nest, when hatchlings listen to a so-called “tutor,” often the father, on whom they model their song.  And—just like human babies learn to talk—songbirds learn to sing in stages.  The first stage, often called “subsong,” is when baby birds “babble.”  Their “babbling” is soft and unstructured, and if ever you’ve had a nest close to the house, perhaps you’ve heard the babies’ “babbling,” or subsong.  The young birds then move to the so-called “plastic” stage, in which they begin to sing recognizable fragments of their adult song, though they are still wobbly and uncertain.  Finally, after much practice, juveniles sing “crystallized” songs that are well-formed and repeated with little variation.  Allow me to share with you several songbirds’ songs…

  • Yellow warblers learn a roughly one-second song of 6–10 whistled notes that accelerate and tend end on a rising note.  The mnemonic for the yellow warbler’s song goes:  “Sweet, sweet, sweet, I’m so sweet.”
  • The white-throated sparrow (which is increasingly rare, but whose song you may remember): sings a roughly four-second song of even notes that usually moves down  a minor third (though sometimes up) by the second or third note:  “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody.”
  • The Eastern Towhee sings “Drink your tea,” with “tea” trilled.
  • The voluble Indigo Buntings sing all day long!  Their bright, lively song of clear, high-pitched notes lasts about two seconds, and birders say it sounds a bit like, “What?  What?  Where?  Where?  See it!  See it!  See it!”
  • The Brown thrasher, a true “rock star” of the bird world, can sing well over 1,000 songs.  The song is typically a long series of doubled phrases with no particular beginning or end, and—unlike mockingbirds, who tend to repeat their phrases three or more times—the thrasher typically sings phrases only twice before moving on.  The handy mnemonic for the thrashers’ song is:  “Plant a seed, plant a seed, bury it, bury it, cover it up, cover it up, let it grow, let it grow, pull it up, pull it up, eat it, eat it.”

In today’s Gospel, the apostle Peter takes the Church’s first steps in singing the “song” that would later develop into the Creed.  I quote:

[Jesus] asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”  And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”  He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”  [And here is the beginning of the Church’s learning to “sing…” ] Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” said Peter.  In bird terms, Peter’s words represent only the “subsong” stage of the Creed, a soft, unstructured “babble.”  But Jesus, like an encouraging bird parent (like the so-called “tutor”) cheers Peter on:

Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.

Over the course of the Gospels, the Church continued to practice its “song” that eventually would develop into the Creed.  And—perhaps because he is the “rock” on whom Jesus would build his church—the “song” often features Peter as the “singer”:

  • “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” says (or “sings”) Peter in today’s Gospel.  As if to say, “We believe in one God.”
  • In John chapter 6, Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, to whom can we go…. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God’” (6:70).  As if to say, “We believe in… Jesus Christ, the only Son of God.”
  • And from Acts chapter 10:  “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word” (10:44).  As if to say, “We believe in the Holy Spirit.”

And throughout the Acts, we witness the Church move from the “subsong” to the “plastic” stage of learning to “sing,” with larger and more recognizable fragments of what later would become the Creed.  For example, from Acts chapter 2:

  • “But Peter… raised his voice and addressed them… ‘Fellow Israelites…. Jesus of Nazareth… you crucified and killed’” (2:14, 22, 23).  Which might be like practicing to say, “He was crucified under Pontius Pilate.”
  • “But God raised him up, having released him from the agony of death” (2:24).  As if to say, “On the third day he rose again.”
  • Or, “In the last days… everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (2:17, 21).  As though Peter were practicing to say, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”
  • Or again, “‘Repent and be baptized every one of you… that your sins may be forgiven,” (2:38).  As if to say, “We acknowledge one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”
  • Or still again Peter said, “There is salvation in no one else… there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (4:12).  Which might be like saying (or singing), “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”

In the Gospels and in the Acts, we witness the Church learning from our “tutor,” the Holy Spirit, how to sing our “song” of the Nicene Creed.  It would take another three hundred years of practice for the Church’s song to “crystalize” into the Nicene Creed that we are about to say this morning.

Even though the Creed may have crystalized for the Church, the Creed may not have “crystalized” for us.  We may find it difficult to say, for example, “We believe… He became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man”; or we may find it hard to say, “We believe… he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”  If even songbirds need to practice in order to sing their songs, so, too, do we need to practice in order to sing our song that is the Creed.  If the Creed hasn’t crystallized for you, not to worry.  But do keep coming Sunday by Sunday to practice.  To practice:  by hearing the scriptures, by praying the prayers, by reciting the Creed, by receiving the sacraments, by being surrounded by fellow Christians, by taking part in the work and ministry of the parish, and by taking advantage of its formation opportunities (such as EFM) until someday, as we continue faithful in our practicing and with God’s help, we will discover that we are able to “sing” the Creed.  And—who knows?—it could be that our ability to “sing” brings such satisfaction and is so rewarding that—like songbirds singing their songs every morning, repeating them again and again—we, too, will continue to come week by week to sing and to sing again, and to sing yet again.  And our singing will bring us joy, peace and consolation, and a felt knowledge of the love of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

So, I regaled you with my “songs” of yellow warblers, Eastern towhees, and white-throated sparrows.  In a moment—as soon as Tim cues us—let’s regale the Holy Spirit by practicing the Church’s “song,” the Nicene Creed.

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