|Homily for the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council|
In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen. Glory to Jesus Christ, glory forever!
There are times when we have holidays or commemorations that we don’t really understand or even pay much attention to. Columbus day has become a day for the postal workers to take some time off. Few, I’m sure, ponder for very long the legacy of Christopher Columbus. Arbor Day is not celebrated with much ardor these days. It has been supplanted by Earth day, which many people disregard as well. These days are, admittedly, secular commemorations and are not on the level of a religious observance. On this day the Church has chosen to commemorate the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council. Even so, there are probably many in the world that would shrug their shoulders and say, so? The memory of the Fathers of the first Ecumenical Council seems likely to go the way of Columbus Day. It’s on the calendar, but do we really pay it much attention?
On the Orthodox Calendar, of course, every day commemorates something or someone important in the life of the Church. Why should this day be remembered any more than any other? Look through the shelves of your local bookseller or video stores and you’ll understand, perhaps, why it is still necessary and relevant for us to keep the memory of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council alive. Look in the religion section and you’ll find best sellers that will try to teach you that the Bible isn’t true, and that the dogmas of the Church were all the results of politics and power grabs. In the aisles of the fiction section you’ll find so-called “historical” novels which will claim to portray an accurate and true depiction of these times. Check out the magazine sections and you’ll see special editions of popular weekly magazines that will claim to have new evidence that the Church doesn’t know what it’s talking about….you’ll hear about new gospels that have been found, secret knowledge suppressed for centuries. If you watch a History Channel documentary these days, make sure to check up on the so-called experts they are quoting or interviewing on any number of Church subjects: often you will find, as I did, that they are writers on the occult. I had a most interesting evening watching about the history of early Christianity and googling the experts as they came up. Most of them were involved with occult research.
This is the society we are living in. People like to get their information from the best selling sensationalist authors rather than from the solid, if boring, historians. One can read, hear, or see outrageous claims made in books, magazines, on the radio, and in videos and films about the life of the Church. Usually they can be refuted within five minutes with a good encyclopedia or the right key-words search on “google.”
Two archaeologists and “Bible Scholars” turned fiction authors wrote a book which claims to be a fictionalized, though factually true, account of Christ’s life and the early Church around the time of the First Ecumenical Council. These so-called experts even footnoted their novel like any scholar would. At the end of the book was an extensive bibliography and an interview which was actually a reprint from New Age Journal (and we begin to understand that there is an agenda here). They say in the interview:
By the time the gospels-and there were hundreds of them-reached the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325 where the New Testament would be officially determined (books thrown out, certain versions accepted), the real life of Jesus had largely been lost. And to make certain of it, Emperor Constantine ordered that the books of “heretics,” meaning Christians who held minority opinions about the gospels, be hunted out and destroyed. He also declared that anyone found copying them would be officially charged with heresy, which was a capital offense punishable by death.*
The major problem with this was that it is simply not true. Yes there were many false gospels circulating. Most dated to the 3rd century or later. Many of them had outlandish and even bizarre information about Jesus in them. Many were not even Gospels, but just a collection of sayings. That is not really important right now, though. The main error in their statement was that the First Council in Nicaea, which we are celebrating today, did not determine which books were in the New Testament. It was not part of the agenda at all. The Council met to combat the heresy of Arianism and the teachings of its founder, Arius, who had been a priest in the Eastern Empire. It also met to unify the Church’s practice concerning the dating of Pascha.
Let us look at the teachings of Arius, though, because that is what concerns us most today. Arius taught that the Logos, who incarnated as Jesus Christ, was not divine, but that He was a created being…an exalted created being, yes, but not equal with or consubstantial…of one essence…with the Father.
This teaching is obviously in conflict with the teachings of the Church. It was an attractive teaching for many, though, because, let us face it…the Trinity is hard for the mind to grasp. Arius took Greek philosophy and attached it to theology and fell into heresy and error. His philosophy was wrapped up in popularized jingles and songs and poetry that were easy to remember and was cleverly written, much like today’s novels and popular movies. The Church decided that to keep good order and proper belief within her ranks, she needed to confront this threat to the apostolic faith ‘once delivered to the Saints (St. Jude 3).’ The heresy of Arius was defeated (Arius was given a chance to defend his beliefs), and he was exiled for his heresy. Exile is hardly a death penalty. Within a few years he was recalled back to the empire, though his excommunication was not lifted. At one point those sympathetic to Arius were about to restore him to communion in Constantinople 11 years after the Council, when Arius died suddenly of dysentery…which the last time I checked, was not a punishment that the emperor could decree. His heresy continued to plague the Church for several generations, popping up here and there until it was finally and completely stopped, but not without great spiritual and theological struggle within the Church.
The only statement that the so called experts make that is true is that Arius’ works were ordered destroyed. Since obviously none of those who were accused of heresy (Arius had 22 supporters out of 325 present) were executed (many were later reinstated for various reasons), we can discount that aspect of this historical account.
Why does this matter to us? Why should we know our history? If one were to look at the readers’ reviews of these books on Amazon.com, one would hear scorn heaped upon the Church and its so called politics. You will hear people who think that they have found a reason not to trust the word of the Church. Why? Because authors with a long list of degrees behind their name tell them they can’t trust the Church or their scriptures. Our children will be, and even now are, exposed to this kind of secular anti-Church rhetoric in the popular culture and worse, in our Universities. We need to be able to calmly and clearly teach our people and others the truth of our faith, of our history. If we don’t know it, if we cannot defend our doctrines, the enemy has won a victory; and the prize is not political power, not really. The prize is tearing precious souls from the hands of our Lord and handing them over to the wolf of souls. Old heresies, not just the teachings of Arius, in a very real way, are making a comeback in our society. We cannot in our society have the works of our opponents destroyed. We can, however, know our history and our teachings and fight back on the academic and cultural battlegrounds.
There is one major problem with the thinking of the modern scholars, though, and this is our greatest strength. They cannot fathom that the truth that the Fathers of the Church defended at the Council was revealed to the world and maintained by the presence of the Holy Spirit. Archaeologists and scholars today are looking at merely the dry dust, fossils and bones of the days gone by. They do not see the flesh on those bones. They do not feel the blood of life coursing through the veins of the Tradition quickening it. In the Orthodox world Tradition has been called the life of the Holy Spirit within the Church. Our Fathers were not making things up. They were defending the truth and Tradition passed on to them, as St. Paul said, by word or by epistle (1 Thess. 2:15). They were defending the truth that they had experienced. We call the Fathers, the Godbearing Fathers. It is no accident that we celebrate their memory on the Sunday before Pentecost, for it was at Pentecost that the Church was imbued with power from on high, when she was given truly the Holy Spirit to dwell within our hearts. It was and is the Holy Spirit that will strengthen our faith to withstand these modern Arians who assault the God-revealed Truths.
St. Paul knew that the Church would be assailed by those who did not have the Holy Spirit but would use the Church for their own ends and try to lead us astray. We heard today in the book of Acts, St. Paul exhorting those who were elders of the Church:
28 Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. 29 For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. 31 Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears. 32 “So now, brethren, I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. 33
The Church Fathers were not playing political games. They were not playing intellectual one-upmanship with Arius. These were men who had held fast to the truth that had been handed down to them and for which they had suffered. Many of the bishops present bore on their bodies the marks of the Roman persecutors. They were men who had held fast under torture and persecution when there was no secular power to gain, no political victory to be had. The only victory was that of eternal life. It had only been about a decade earlier that Christianity had even been made legal within the Roman Empire, and it would be another 55 years before Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire. Power was not the currency that the Fathers traded in. The Fathers were motivated by love. They loved the Lord and they loved their flocks and as all shepherds would they defended their flocks with their lives.
When he was writing about the life of Moses, St. Gregory of Nyssa, one of the Great Fathers of the Church who was born not too long after the First Council, tells us of the great prophet experiencing the light of God in the Burning Bush. He writes, “A person like this becomes able to help others to salvation, to destroy the tyranny which holds power wickedly, and to deliver to freedom everyone held in evil servitude.” This is a perfect explanation of what the Fathers of the Church do…for we still have holy Godbearing Fathers…they find salvation, they experience the Truth, and they can lead others to that Truth and that experience as well.
It is said that there are no new heresies…and this is true. The heresies of today are all restatements of those from years gone by (for example, the Jehovah's Witnesses are just rehashing the Arian Heresy with a few peculiarities of their own). The vocabulary may change a bit at times, but the same spirit is behind them, the spirit of error and tyranny. Fortunately for us, the Spirit which taught the Fathers of the Church and which sustained Her for two millennia, is the same Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth Who is everywhere present and fills all things. We have nothing to fear from those who oppose the Truth, for we have the Fathers of the Church who have left us their God-inspired writings and teachings…and we have the Spirit of Truth to sustain and guide us.
That beats Columbus Day…hands down!
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory Forever!
2009 Fr. Philip Kontos