Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

Today the Orthodox Church commemorates the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council. This council was convened by the emperor Constantine in 325 to put forth an official response to the Arian heresy, a new teaching which brazenly denied both the eternal deity of the Son of God and traditional Christian belief in the Holy Trinity. The council condemned the teachings of Arius, and put forth most of what we now know as the Nicene Creed, the balance being completed by a second council held 56 years later. We owe a great debt of thanks to these 318 Holy Fathers who labored so courageously to defend the apostolic faith and articulate it with such great precision. Their Spirit-guided efforts literally saved Christianity from extinction at its most vulnerable time.

Today, many people would take great exception to that statement. There are of course still heretics who insist that Arius was right and that the Council of Nicaea corrupted Christianity by “inventing” the doctrines of the Trinity and the deity of Christ. According to this fable, Constantine (who is always portrayed as a villain) saw the Arian controversy as an opportunity to seize control of the Church and further his own power. As the story goes, Constantine decided the best way to accomplish this was to elevate Jesus to the status of a God. The bishops of the Church--reduced to being shrewd minions of the emperor by this tale--allegedly recognized that this change would assure them a multitude of obedient followers and thus eagerly came onboard with his plan. Thus, with apparently little more than a wink and a nod the old “simple” Jesus was thrown out, and the new, Almighty Jesus became the latest God of the Holy Roman Empire.

To believe this fable, one not only has to ignore all the readily-available historical documents that describe the actual workings of the First Ecumenical Council, all the scriptures which clearly point to the deity of Christ, and all the writings of the second and third century Church Fathers who also upheld Jesus as God and presented teachings concerning the Triune Godhead, but one must additionally ignore--or in fact, impugn--the character of the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea themselves. To say the least, these men were not the types to cave in to pressure from any emperor, under any threat or promise.

The Holy Fathers who were present at the First Council of Nicaea were mostly all survivors of the persecutions of Diocletian and Galarius, the last Roman emperors to act as persecutors of Christians before the Edict of Milan put an official end to this policy in 313. These Fathers had known little more than persecution for their faith in the Son of God their entire lives, as had many Christians for generations before them. Many of the Holy Fathers who attended the council were Confessors, men who had been severely tortured but who had steadfastly refused to deny Christ as Lord. Some had eyes gouged out by red-hot irons, some had stumps where limbs had been chopped off. Quite a few of them came to Nicaea suspecting that the new emperor Constantine was gathering them together for a mass execution. Yet they came anyway, bravely facing potential martyrdom for the sake of Christ.

To their great surprise, Constantine greeted them with reverence, kissing their holy wounds and bowing down before them. Whatever else may be said about Constantine, he was a man who honored courage and held suffering Christians in high regard.

Are we to believe that these men who had endured so much rather than deny Christ and had already secured great eternal rewards from their sufferings, would--at the prospect of mere temporal power--throw everything away so readily to accept a new Jesus? If the deity of Christ and the doctrine of the Holy Trinity were “invented” at Nicea as the heretics claim, can we imagine that these saintly Holy Confessors just rolled over and accepted this presumably blasphemous change without a single objection? Furthermore, if they had not always believed that Jesus was the eternal Son of the Father, then why did they suffer for Him in the first place? Only those who believed that Jesus is the true God would have refused to offer incense to the false gods of ancient Rome. The tale the heretics tell to support their false beliefs simply makes no sense.

We might expect the heretics to invent such false stories. What is somewhat surprising and very disappointing is that so many of our contemporary Christian brethren, particularly those of the Evangelical tradition, also seem to have developed a false mythology concerning Constantine, the First Ecumenical Council, and our Holy Fathers. You would think that all Christians today who share a common belief in the Holy Trinity and in the deity of Christ would realize what thanks we owe to these men who preserved these beliefs for us. Sadly, this is not always the case.

Although it is historically inaccurate to do so, many Evangelicals mark the Constantine era as the beginning of Roman Catholicism, and thus regard with deep suspicion all church development between the 4th and 15th centuries. Although Rome had always been geographically and linguistically removed from the other Patriarchates of Christendom, it really didn’t become the separate entity we know today until many centuries later. But Evangelicals have a tendency to see the cathedrals, the complex liturgies, the ornate vestments, the altars and iconography and other things which flourished so visibly after this time and label them as “catholic innovations” that were supposedly unknown to the early Church.

However, a true reading of church history shows that Christianity was liturgical and sacramental from its very beginning. Archeological finds have supported this, having uncovered Christian altars and iconography in the ancient catacombs! What we see during and after the Constantine period is Christianity emerging from its underground hiding places and beginning to express itself in beauty in the world above. These developments do not represent a change of belief, but a flowering of belief. The beautiful cathedrals and such that followed the end of the persecutions represent the Christian spirit attempting to manifest the splendor and glory of the kingdom of heaven as best in can in this fallen world.

Not truly understanding the theology of ancient Christendom, and thus not recognizing these developments as genuine expressions of that theology, many Evangelicals see these things only as departures from the early Church, and tend to blame them on Constantine (who seemingly can’t escape being made a villain!).

But in addition to this, the Sola Scriptura inclinations of Evangelicals often lead them to insist that no church and no group of men could possible save the Christian faith. In their view, only a clear reading of the bible could do that. The historical reality however is that God did use a Roman emperor, as well as bishops, priests, and deacons of the Church to save the faith during this time. As St. Paul had charged the elders at Ephesus to watch over the flock and defend it from the savage wolves who would arise from their own midst, so the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council rose up to defend against the presbyter Arius and his false teachings, which by the way he based on his own private reading of the scriptures in disregard to the faith of his Christian forefathers.

Clearly there is a great deal of confusion and misinformation in circulation today about this council and the men who formed it. But what should we learn from our own commemoration of the Holy Fathers? At the very least, we should understand that our actions in life as the people of God have true meaning and purpose before Him, and often very long-lasting consequences to others. God did use holy men, their deeply-formed beliefs, and the bold actions they took, to save the faith for those who followed, just as He has used holy men and women in every generation to perpetuate the Christian faith and cause it to stand strong in a world so openly hostile to it.

So now it is our turn. From these examples we must understand that the pursuit of purity and holiness in our own lives is of first and vital importance if we desire to be of use to God in our generation, and of benefit to any generations which may follow. In this age of deep spiritual darkness and manifold temptations, holiness seems almost impossible. We seem to be living in those last, terrible days in which even simple faith in God is something of a miracle of grace. But let us not lose hope, remembering that it doesn’t take very much light to illumine a truly darkened room; even the tiniest candle can provide enough light for men to find their way. We must use whatever faith we have to resist the sins which so easily entangle us, and pursue purity and an increase of the Holy Spirit within us. We may never gain the holy wisdom to write creeds that will guide millions into a true knowledge of God, but we just might gain enough to guide our own children and grandchildren and godchildren toward the safe haven of salvation in God’s Church. Perhaps that will be our legacy, if we will allow it to be.

+To the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, May 03, 2010

The Good Struggle

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.
“Christ is Risen!”

Let’s imagine that we have been asked to fill out a survey evaluating our Orthodox Christian experience. The first question might be, Are you satisfied that your church provides you with the necessary environment and the spiritual tools needed to grow in your knowledge of God and in your communion with Him? I assume that most of us would respond positively, perhaps adding that Orthodoxy has exceeded our expectations in this regard, providing every imaginable means needed to cleanse us from all unrighteousness and help us draw near to God.

The next question might be, If yes, have you seen evidence that your fellow parishioners are benefiting spiritually from these things? Again, many of us would answer yes, adding that we have seen many people from a variety of backgrounds come together to discover a life of dignity and purpose in Christ. We have seen people find the peace that comes from knowing that God is in their lives, giving meaning to even the simplest actions, sanctifying their lives as they go about loving and serving others in humility, and quietly renewing their repentance each and every day.

The final question might be, Have you personally benefited and grown spiritually from your church experience? Here is where we might choke a bit on our answer, responding perhaps that Orthodoxy has certainly helped us to learn a great deal about ourselves--very little of it flattering I’m afraid--and feel that we at least know what we need to do, even if we don’t always find ourselves doing it as often as we should. None of us could say that the light we have been given is insufficient for illumination or the grace we have been granted is in any way lacking. We might simply have to conclude that with all the magnificent and gracious gifts God has bestowed upon us within His Holy Church, the only limiting factor in our own personal spiritual growth has turned out to be ourselves.

Not every person is so lucky, you know. We might remember what attracted us to Orthodoxy in the first place. Many of us were living in what author Matthew Gallatin has called a land of dry wells, thirsting for more of God but limited by the rational, man-made theology that characterizes much of modern Western Christendom. We wanted more than just abstract bible studies, light and frothy worship, or an approach to God that was largely cerebral and doctrinally-oriented.

When you get right down to it, we wanted to experience what Jesus had promised the woman at the well in today’s gospel lesson: the Living Water of the Holy Spirit, springing up within us unto eternal life. Like this woman, we likely had no idea in the world what that meant, but it sure sounded better to us than what we already had. Many of us felt spiritually dry and frustrated. We kept coming back to our respective church “wells” time and again, only to leave less refreshed each time. We knew there had to be a place where God’s water flowed, where souls are washed and renewed, and life is found in abundance. Like the woman at the well--who later would become known as St. Photini, Equal-to-the-Apostles--we said to the Lord, “Give me this Living Water, that I may not thirst, or come here to draw”. Like St. Photini, we were not quite prepared for what came next.

Our Lord knew that this woman was not yet ready to receive the Holy Spirit. She had certain, shall we say, “impediments” in her life that needed to first be addressed.

“Go, fetch your husband, and come back,” our Lord instructed her. “Uh, well, I have no husband,” she replied elusively. “You have well said, ‘I have no husband,’ for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; in this you have spoken truly,” our Lord exclaimed. Now Jesus certainly did not say this to shame the woman, but to show her that God is aware of every sinful obstacle that we place in our own path toward Him. We don’t know why this woman had gone through five husbands up to this point; perhaps they had all died of thirst while she was chatting away at the well every day! What we do know is that she was living immorally with a man she was not married to, and what Jewish stranger could possibly know this, unless He was the Christ?

Photini at first felt that her Samaritan religion was every bit as good as that of the Jews. But when Jesus showed her the possibility of something far better, she received the news with much enthusiasm. Then our Lord revealed her sins to her, to demonstrate that repentance is necessary before one can become a fountain of the Holy Spirit. Do we see any similarity between this and what has happened in our own lives?

How God must lament the spiritual blindness of men; the fact that we can live with such a high degree of sinfulness in our lives, and yet see no reason why this should prevent us from enjoying the fullness of God’s life and blessings. He must reveal our sins to us--in whatever degree it takes for us to get the message--in order that we might understand that the whole effort of our Christian life is to be cleansed of these sins to simultaneously allow the pure water of the Holy Spirit to flow forth within us, unpolluted.

Coming into Orthodoxy with much enthusiasm and spiritual thirst, and upon encountering the next vital and truly grace-filled step--the step which reveals our deeply-rooted sins--many of us were stopped cold by profound discouragement. Most of us find ourselves at a point in which, quite honestly, every day is a struggle to say our prayers, to come to church, to wrestle against our besetting sins and many temptations, and to keep our hope in God.

But we must ask ourselves: what were we expecting to happen? Did we imagine that we could blithely skip along God’s path to holiness without struggle? Having once been inspired by the stories of the saints and holy martyrs--like Photini herself in her later years--to believe that Orthodoxy represented authentic Christianity, did we think that we could gain the same grace as they without a share in their sufferings? Everything in this fallen world struggles to be born, to grow, to survive. God allows this as an illustration that life is not easy, and the spiritual life even less so. In many nations across the planet to this very day, multiple tens of thousands of Christians are still being persecuted and put to death each year. Yet we Americans seem to think we have a sacred right to an easy life, and an even easier Christianity.

Our experience of Orthodox Christianity might not be what we expected, but it has turned out to be exactly what God intended for us all along. In a religion that is defined by our God suffering and dying in the flesh for our salvation, we might fairly well expect that there will take place some struggle, some suffering, some dying in our own lives before we shall be raised triumphantly with Christ. Therefore, let us not be overly dismayed at the difficulties we encounter in our Christian life. Let us accept them as proof that we are on the genuine path to a real salvation, and continue to work out this same, great salvation with fear and trembling, knowing that it is God who is at work in us, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.


Those of us who are fans of the TV show Lost will remember an episode entitled “The Moth” in which one character, Locke (a fifty-something, wilderness survival-type guy who owns a lot of knives), was trying to help a young rock musician named Charlie to overcome his addiction to heroin. Locke had Charlie’s last bit of heroin, his “stash” as Charlie called it, in his possession. Charlie wanted it desperately but Locke told him, “If you come back to me and ask for it three times, I’ll give it to you”. Charlie asked for it immediately, to which Locke replied, “That’s once. Go away now, but come back twice more and it’s yours”.

Charlie went away, realizing that he could have his heroin, but that Locke was offering him a chance to save his soul. However, driven to near insanity by his addiction, he came back to ask for it a second time. “That’s twice,” Locke said grimly, then decided it was time to take Charlie to school. He walked him over to a tree and pointed out a cocoon hanging from it. “What do you think is in there?,” he asked. “Humph, I dunno; a butterfly?,” Charlie replied. “Oh no!,” Locke beamed, “It’s much more beautiful; it’s a moth!” Seeing the blank look on Charlie’s face, Locke continued, “It’s ironic: butterflies get all the attention because they’re pretty, but moths spin silk; they’re faster, stronger.” Charlie was unimpressed, yet Locke continued: “Right now the little insect inside this is struggling to free himself. He’ll expend all his energy to break out of that cocoon”. Locke raised his pocketknife to the cocoon and said, “Now I could help him. I could take the point of my knife and carefully open up the cocoon and the moth would be free”. Looking sideways at Charlie, Locke added, “But the moth wouldn’t live for long; he’d be too weak. You see, Charlie,” Locke concluded, “Struggle is nature’s way of making its creatures strong enough to survive. Now you’ve asked for your heroin twice; once more and it’s yours.” Finally understanding what Locke was teaching him, Charlie went away to continue his own terrible struggle. Returning at last a third time, he received the heroin from Locke and threw it into the campfire to destroy it, much to his mentor’s delight.

This little story has obvious spiritual implications. If we hope to survive in this life as Christians, we have to expect struggle, and not be dismayed when things seem so awfully hard. Our struggles are not a sign that God is uncaring, or that we are any worse than other Christians. Rather, they mean that God is strengthening us to survive in this fallen world and end with a faith that can endure even in the hour of our death.

Countless saints and martyrs have shown us one undeniable bottom line: no matter what we must endure, no matter how much pain we must suffer, it is worth every bit of it and infinitely more, for the great blessings God will reveal in the end. Let us choose to endure all not with complaining, but with thanksgiving, and unshakable hope in our Redeemer.

Illuminated by the Holy Spirit, All-Glorious One,
from Christ the Savior you drank the water of salvation.
With open hand you give it to those who thirst.
Great-Martyr Photini, Equal-to-the-Apostles,
pray to Christ for the salvation of our souls.

+To the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.