Sunday of the Fathers of the First Council
On Thursday of this past week, we celebrated the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ. Having accomplished all that was necessary in His earthly ministry, having conquered death and appearing to many over the course of 40 days, our Lord ascended back up to heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father. He assured His disciples that He would not leave them orphaned, that the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth would be revealed to them and would guide them in all truth.
Next Sunday we will celebrate this descent of the Holy Spirit – on Pentecost, Trinity Sunday. Today the Holy Church commemorates the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council - a gathering of the bishops of the Orthodox Church in the year 325 in the town of Nicea. They had gathered to meet in council to clarify and more clearly define the truths of our Holy Faith. This was done in response to many false teachings which were beginning to be seen in the early life of the Church.
Just as Christ had promised, these great fathers were guided by the Holy Spirit to rightly define and defend the truth of the Orthodox faith.
In order to assure that these teachings were clear and known to all, the Council composed a short statement of these essential truths of the Orthodox faith – what we know as the Creed or Symbol of Faith. All Orthodox Christians should know the Creed by heart… it is part of our morning prayers and it is proclaimed at every celebration of the Divine Liturgy.
The Creed teaches us that we believe in One God, Who is also Three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This distinction and revelation of God as Trinity is uniquely understood by Christianity and is the key to a correct understanding of the nature of God, a loving Union of Three Persons in One. There are many false teachings that reject this pillar of truth. We learn that God created the heavens and the earth - the complexity and beauty of things did not just randomly evolve through nature. We learn of the nature of Christ, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, begotten, not made; that He was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary; that he did indeed suffer and die and rise again. We learn of the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, the Giver of Life, Who is equally worshipped and glorified. We declare and proclaim that there is one, holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church and we can confidently trace the unbroken teachings and succession of our bishops all the way back to Christ and the Apostles. We confess one baptism for the remission of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead and life of the age to come.
I cannot emphasize strongly enough how foundationally important it is for us to have an Orthodox understanding of the basic tenets of our faith. This is not a matter of equipping ourselves to be persuasive in a debate, or of congratulating ourselves in holding the right and historic faith… Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, gaining a clear understanding of the truths of our Orthodox faith is a matter of aligning and purifying our mind and heart and soul for salvation.
For example… the discussions of the first several Councils of the Church centered around the clarification of the Who Christ is. Was He fully God? Was He fully Man? Did He have but one nature or did He have both a divine nature and a human nature?
These are not academic theological questions. The correct understanding of these questions has profound consequences on, not only Who Christ is, but also what He accomplished in His life and death and resurrection.
If we deny or diminish in any way the Divinity of Christ, we miss the mark in understanding the breadth and the depth of the love of God – Who deigned to become incarnate as a poor and vulnerable child, Who submitted Himself to the struggles of a human life. That it was God, None-Other than the Creator of all things visible and invisible, Who walked among us, Who, through the power of His Divinity, healed the blind and lame, Who expelled the demons, and Who, though He was fully God, willingly endured arrest, beatings, crucifixion, and death.
If we deny or diminish in any way the humanity of Christ, we miss the mark in recognizing and understanding the pain and loneliness that He suffered. We completely lose sight of the agony that Christ went through in the Garden of Gethsemene… where His very real human fear and suffering caused Him to sweat blood. We must never deny the victorious sufferings of the Man Who hung upon the cross and Who breathed His last saying ‘It is finished.’
Our salvation hinges upon this correct understanding of the fully Divine undergoing and overcoming the fully human. Christ takes on our humanity, He experiences it in all its pain even unto death. And because Christ retains the fullness of His Divinity, He heals and renews all aspects of the human experience – even triumphing over death by His death. And because the human experience has now been touched and healed by Divinity, we have the possibility of entering into that healed and restored humanity. The process of our salvation is the process of uniting ourselves to Christ, Who, as the Holy Councils have clearly proclaimed, unites the human and the Divine.
It is no coincidence that we celebrate the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council on this Sunday that bridges the accomplishments of our Lord Jesus Christ and anticipates now the descent of the Holy Spirit. We take stock today to glorify those holy fathers who defined and defended the truths of our faith. Let us reflect today and in the coming week on the wondrous revelation of all that God has given us. This Orthodox understanding provides the firm foundation upon which the seed of the fullness of the Grace of God can flourish and grow.
Through the prayers of our holy fathers may Christ our Lord have mercy on us!