|44 - Holy Fathers of the First Six Ecumenical Councils, July 14, 2013|
Today we commemorate the holy fathers (i.e., the bishops) of the first six ecumenical councils. Let’s take a whirlwind tour this morning of these councils.
The First Ecumenical Council took place in the year 325 AD. It defended the faith against the heretical doctrine of Arius: that Jesus Christ is the first creature God created. The Second Ecumenical Council was convened in the year 681 and renounced the heretical doctrine that the Holy Spirit is the second creature created by God.
These first two ecumenical councils formulated the “Nicene Creed”, which we receive at our baptism, and which we recite at every Divine Liturgy and in many of the offices of the Church’s liturgical worship. This is the official creed of the Church that summarizes the Christian Faith. We believe it keeps the word Christ commanded His disciples to preach and to teach as they went out into the world, baptizing in the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (Mt 28). That is to say, we believe that this Faith of the Church does not come from man. It comes directly from God; because we have received the word of this doctrine from the holy apostles. They received it from Christ, and Christ Himself received it directly from the Father.
The “Nicene Creed” expresses the Ecumenical Faith that the Seven Ecumenical Councils upheld against all heresies. The essence of this Faith comes from St John: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God.” (I Jn 4:2) In other words, the essence of the Christian faith is belief in the Incarnation, that the Son of God became flesh and dwelt among us. Belief in the Incarnation, moreover, “opens” the heavens to reveal God as Holy Trinity: Father, Son (the one who is incarnate) and Holy Spirit.
The Gospel (Good News) of the Incarnation and of the Holy Trinity mean that just as God became “man”, so man can become “God” (Jn 10:34 & Ps 82:6) – not by nature, but by grace. In other words, man can become one with God as God became one with man. To be saved, to be healed and made whole is for us to live in God as God lives in us.
The Third Ecumenical Council was held in the year 433, in the city of Ephesus. It condemned the heresy of Nestorius, patriarch at the time of Constantinople. Christ, for Nestorius, was a kind of “ontological shell” that housed two “people”: Jesus, the Son of Man, and the Logos, the Son of God.
But, see how Nestorius’ doctrine denies the Incarnation. God the Word doesn’t become flesh. He simply joins a man, Jesus, to Himself. This denies the biblical witness that God has given to man the glorious destiny of becoming one with Him.
Nestorius’ heresy was expressed in his view of the Virgin Mary. Nestorius reasoned that, since Christ is God, He does not have a beginning and so He could not be born of the Virgin Mary. The one who was born of the Virgin was Jesus, the Son of Man joined to the Logos, the Son of God, by the “good pleasure of God” in a very tight conjunction to form the “Christ”. Nestorius, therefore, did not confess Mary to be “Theotokos”, Birthgiver of God. He confessed her as “Christotokos”, Birthgiver of Christ, meaning that she gave birth not to the Divine Logos but to Jesus, who was joined to the Logos to form the Christ.
Because Nestorius’ doctrine of the Holy Virgin Mary denies the Incarnation and so betrays the Christian Faith, the holy fathers of the Third Ecumenical Council condemned Nestorius and all who do not confess the Blessed Virgin Mary to be Theotokos, Birthgiver of God.
The Fourth Ecumenical Council convened in the city of Chalcedon in the year 451 to refute “monophysitism”. According to the teaching of this heresy, the human nature of Christ was swallowed up by His divine nature so that Christ is one nature only, the divine. But, see how this teaching, too, denies the Incarnation because it denies the reality of Christ’s human nature, making the Incarnation to be in appearance only. Against the monophysites, the holy fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council confessed that Christ is one “Person” existing in two natures: His divine nature, which He shares with God His Father, and His human nature, which He shares with His Mother, the Blessed Virgin Theotokos.
The Fourth Ecumenical Council (Chalcedon) was controversial, however. Many saw Chalcedon’s “one Person existing in two natures” to be little different from the “Christ” of Nestorianism. The Fifth Ecumenical Council was convened in the year 553 in Constantinople. There, the holy fathers made clear that the one Person of Christ who exists in two natures is Himself the Word of God. “Christ” signifies the Word of God who became flesh and dwelt among us. I.e., the Word of God does not join Himself to Jesus; He becomes flesh and, in the flesh, He is given the name, Jesus. Jesus is Himself, in His “inner” identity, the Divine Logos, existing perfectly in two natures, divine and human.
The Sixth Ecumenical Council convened in the year 681. The monophysitism of the fifth century interpreted the teaching of the Fifth Ecumenical Council to mean that the personal unity of Christ means that He has but one will, viz., the divine. There is no human will. This heresy is called Monotheletism – one will. It had a variant, Monoenergism – one energy. But, this, too, denies the Incarnation. If there is no human will or human energy in Christ, then the humanity of Christ is, de facto, non-existent; the Incarnation was an illusion. The holy fathers of the Sixth Ecumenical Council condemned Monotheletism and Monoenergism, and confessed that the two natures of Christ each had their own natural will and energy.
This “Ecumenical” Doctrine of the Orthodox Church “illumines” the “eye” of our body. We see in the light of this ecumenical doctrine that we are human only when we are one with God, and that we are alive, healthy and whole only when our will is to do God’s will, when the prayer of our heart is truly: “Our Father who art in Heaven, Thy will be done on earth, i.e., in us, as it is in heaven.”
We believe that the ecumenical teaching of the holy fathers of the Holy Orthodox Church keeps the word of Our Lord, which He commanded His holy disciples to preach and to teach just before He was ascended in glory. This is the word by which the Church has gone out into all the world baptizing the nations in the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – i.e. raising those who believe from death to life, from darkness to light, from sorrow to joy.
We believe that this word of the Church’s ecumenical dogma is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword. It is the Word that reveals, not a set of religious ideas we ascribe to, but Christ who is Himself the Word of the Father. This word of the Church’s ecumenical dogma, then, is holy, divine, and life-creating. It is “Christic”, i.e., soaking wet with the living waters of the Holy Spirit. When we receive it, it carries Christ into our body and into our soul. Living and active, it pierces to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerns the thoughts and intentions of our heart (Heb 4:12). We receive this word by praying it, mindfully, and when we keep it, when we live it daily, it rolls away the stone from the tomb of our heart; it enters the heart and illumines it with the light of Christ’s Holy Resurrection. Christ’s Holy Spirit reaches down and touches the soul lying dead there in its sins and trespasses; and raises it to life, creating in us a clean heart and breathing into us a new and right spirit, so that it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us, doing and acting in us according to His – not our – good pleasure.
It’s not necessary, therefore, for us to understand the word of the Church’s ecumenical teaching intellectually. It’s enough that we are in the Orthodox Church that is defined by that word, and whose culture and ethos lives in that word. In the Church, we are shaped by that word; we are “clothed” with the Church’s Robe of Light. We need not understand it intellectually, because when we keep it by doing it in our daily life, it acts on us not according to our understanding but according to its divine power.
This brings us to the word of the Lord in this morning’s Gospel: Do not be anxious, He says. The Father knows what you need even before you ask Him. So, seek first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness, and everything that you need will be given to you. Your Father will take care of you.
That is to say, in good times and bad, seek first to keep the commandments that Christ has given to us in His Holy Church. Use good times as an opportunity to strengthen your spiritual muscles by working to pray without ceasing, with thanksgiving in your heart. Use bad times as an opportunity to expose the bad habits you may have fallen into. Instead of giving in to fear and panic, “seek first” to engage the inner work of taking up your cross to follow Christ. Work to identify the bad habits of your soul, observe how you may tend to give in to self-pity, to blame-shifting, to resentment or anger, or how you may have developed the habit of seeking an escape from the discomfort of the bad times by retreating into fantasy. The Scriptures teach us that bad times serve to purify us. They expose the bad habits we “default” to that come from the impurities still lodged in our soul. During these times, we seek first the Kingdom of God by working to keep our trust in God and speaking and acting according to His commandments, not according to our fear or anxiety. As we “seek first” to keep the “ecumenical” Word of the Church in this way, Christ Himself pierces our heart to cleanse us and to illumine us so that our whole soul, and even our body become light, because we are uniting ourselves to Christ, and so becoming one with God as He became one with us in the mystery of His Holy Incarnation. Amen.