In the fourth century, while Arians rallied around appropriate slogans such as ‘There was a time when he (the Son) was not’, the defenders of what was to be defined as true doctrine were led by Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, who adopted the term homoousios (of one substance) as the formula best suited to describe the relationship of the Son to the Father and to defend biblical faith in philosophical terms.
The Emperor could not allow the Church which he intended to be a unifying force within the Empire to be riven by doctrinal disputes. He convoked a Council of all the bishops of the Empire at Nicaea in 325 and presided over its deliberations. Arius was condemned and Christ pronounced to be of one substance with the Father.
But the argument went on, and in the reaction against the adoption of the novel, non-biblical term homoousios the Arians seemed likely to win the day. Not until the 360s did it become clear that the Nicene party would succeed in their defense of the decision of 325. By then fresh disputes were raging over the status of the Holy Spirit, whom extreme Arians were treating as a created being, subordinate to both Father and Son. (You can guess that this, of course, led to the Eastern Church’s complete and total opposition to the Western Church’s addition of the Filioque to the Creed. The Eastern Church believed that this addition in, some way, reflected the belief that the Spirit was subordinate to both the Father and the Son). It was the three Cappadocian fathers, Basil the Great, his brother Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus, whose Trinitarian teaching was approved at the Council of Constantinople in 381, clearly defining true Christian belief. God is one ousia, or substance, and three hypostaseis, or persons: The Father is God, the Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God: yet there are not three Gods, but one God. It was an affirmation of faith demanded by the biblical revelation and the Christian experience of God. (Remember that monotheism – belief in one God – was seen as an advancement over the polytheism – many gods – that much of the known world believed existed).
These Trinitarian disputes left their permanent mark on Eastern worship, particularly in the doxologies with which liturgical prayers concluded. The early Christian tradition had been to pray to the Father, through the Son, and in the Holy Spirit. But this tradition had been cited by the Arians in support of their teaching that the Son was subordinate to the Father. Hopefully the picture is becoming clearer!
Around 850 east and west were still in full communion with one another and still formed one Church. Cultural and political divisions had combined to bring about an increasing estrangement, but there was no open schism. The two sides had different conceptions of Papal authority and recited the Creed in different forms, but these questions had not yet been brought fully into the open.
In 1190 Theodore Balsamon, Patriarch of Antioch and a great authority on Canon Law, looked at matters very differently:
For many years [he does not say how many] the western Church has been divided in spiritual communion from the other four Patriarchates and has become alien to the eastern Church. So no Latin Christian should be given communion unless he first declares that he will abstain from the doctrines and customs that separate him from us, and that he will be subject to the Canons of the Church, in union with the Eastern Church.
In Balsamon’s eyes, communion had been broken. There was a definite schism between east and west. The two no longer formed one visible Church.
But Nicolas (Patriarch of Rome) realized that Photius had submitted voluntarily to the inquiry by the Papal legates and that his action could not be taken as a recognition of Papal supremacy. This (among other reasons) was why Nicolas had cancelled his legates’ decisions. The Byzantines for their part were willing to allow appeals to Rome, but only under the specific conditions laid down on of the Council of Sardica (343). This Canon states that a bishop, if under sentence of condemnation, can appeal to Rome, and the Pope, if he sees cause, can order a retrial; this retrial, however, is not to be conducted by the Pope himself at Rome, but by the bishops of the provinces adjacent to that of the condemned bishop. Nicolas, so the Byzantines felt, in reversing the decisions of his legates and demanding a retrial at Rome itself, was going far beyond the terms of this Canon. They regarded his behavior as an unwarrantable and uncanonical interference in the affairs of another Patriarchate. The basis for this attitude, you will recall, was how the early Church functioned. While each Church was in union with each other Church, there was no one Church that had supremacy over another. Consider that Peter and Paul, after their dispute about converting Gentiles, held a meeting of all the Apostles to solve the issue.
Another means of practicing God’s presence daily is by opening His personal letter to us, the Bible, and letting Him speak to us. The Bible has very aptly been called God’s personal love letter to us with a proposal for marriage and an R.S.V.P. You will recall that the relationship between the Chosen People – the Jewish nation, was always described as a marriage between Yahweh and His people. God is the bridegroom and we are His bride. I realize that this approach to the relationship between God and humankind may not resonate as well in today’s world, especially when we think about the high divorce rate and the apparent inability of modern humans to truly enter into a meaningful and intimate relationship.
How much more real God’s presence can become if we allow Him to speak to us for a few moments each day. The secret is never to put the Bible away without taking a promise from it and claiming it for yourself. For example, Lord, You are my rock and my fortress (Psalm 31:3). Take this promise and say it to yourself two or three dozen times during the day. It will do something to you. If you say it until your conscious mind accepts it, until it sinks down into your unconscious being, you will become aware that God is a real and living presence in your life. As you know, this is the approach of the Jesus prayer and of the Mantra that eastern religions in general suggest. Christianity learned from these religions and made these practices Christian. Never put the Bible away without memorizing at least one verse each day. Take it with you. Make it the controlling thought of the day. Return to it. Cling to it. Live with it all day. Reflect on it. Fall asleep with it at night. It is possible to carry the Bible around in your heart. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly (Colossians 3:16). We can keep our minds well stocked with beautiful thoughts from God’s word. They can become our daily companions bringing us strength, comfort and, truly inspiration when we need it. Those divine promises will come to our assistance when we need them. They will serve as life preservers when we find ourselves adrift and shipwrecked on the sea of life. When last have you picked up a Bible and read from it?
Paul’s communities were not only small but deeply committed and intentional. To become part of one was a serious undertaking. Jesus had been condemned and executed by Rome. Joining this movement meant risk – to call Jesus Lord and Son of God meant that the emperor was neither of these things. It meant becoming counter-cultural, rejecting the values of dominant culture and living in accord with another vision of how things should be. Paul referred to them as communities whose identity was in Christ and as the body of Christ. They were a new creation in the midst of this world that subverted this world.
The small size of these communities meant that they were intimate. Their members knew and were committed to taking care of each other. Paul’s frequent use of the language of brothers and sisters is not just affectionate. It is truly new family imagery. People who became part of one of his communities took on the same responsibilities for each other that blood brothers and sisters had. In the first century urban context in which many had lost their blood families because of migration and high mortality rates, this was a powerful image of community. It also meant that these were share communities: if you were part of this community, you would eat.
Paul’s relationship to urban Christian communities is the historical context of his letters. With one exception, the seven genuine letters of Paul were written to communities. The only one addressed to an individual is Philemon. But even it was to be read to the group of Christ-followers who gathered in his house. Again with one exception, the seven letters were written to communities Paul had founded and thus knew firsthand. The exception is Romans. When he wrote to the Christian community in Rome, he had not yet been there. But he planned to be, and Romans is to some extent an introduction to Paul’s way of seeing things for Christians whom he planned to visit.
From reading his letters, we find that the communities founded by Paul were sometimes conflicted, especially those in Galatia and Corinth. Though they were all committed to Jesus, they sometimes differed about what that meant. Some who were deeply conflicted wrote to Paul with questions.
His letters are correspondence in context – as all correspondence is. Letters are not meant for the world. They are meant for the person(s) to whom they are sent. They presuppose a relationship, a connection. And the context for understanding them is what we can know about that relationship.
The content of his letters, however, have great relevance for us today. We must think about what message he has for us who are now reading these letters in the 21st Century. They are relevant!
In the fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa was asked a difficult question about children who die young. The ascetic who asked this question was wondering what could really be achieved by his spiritual labors, when he knew for sure that he was going to commit sins that would hinder his entrance into the kingdom. So it seems like the child who died young was better off. Gregory’s answer reveals the basic orientation of Eastern Theology. He said, the human condition in the next life is not primarily a matter of justice, reward and punishment. God’s aim is rather to fulfill the purpose for which he created human beings, namely to participate in God’s life. The earthly life is for development and growth for this eternal communion. From this perspective it becomes truly understandable that according to Irenaeus, God originally intended that humans would enter into Theosis through a natural process of growth. This process would have involved an education in love, a free collaboration with God. As we have seen, a synchronicity between man’s free will and God’s loving opportunities and help. Unfortunately, sin – that is man’s self-centeredness – deflected humanity from this path and disrupted God’s purposes. Does this mean that God made a mistake in the initial design of humankind? No!
What then is the effect of the Fall in eastern theology? Rather than thinking in terms of Augustine’s transmittal of corrupted nature from generation, Eastern thought focuses on two interrelated effects of the Fall: physical death and the obscuring or distortion of the image of God. Adam’s sin was a personal choice and act, not a collective sin nor a “sin of nature”. Hence, inherited guilt is impossible. The consensus of the Greek Fathers, especially of our Fathers John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Athanasius the Great, Gregory of Nyssa and Maximos Confessor, emphasize this critical point quite often.
We must remember that we humans see all things in time. The Jewish nation, in the formulation of Genesis, tried to come to some understanding why life on earth is as it is. Moses, inspired by God, suggests that all of our difficulties began when the first couple to become like God, the Creator. Thy ate of the tree of truth and knowledge. They are cast out of the Garden because of this. This is a story that tried to help people understand why life is the way that it is, including the great mystery of death.
As stated in this article last week, humans were never created perfect. There could be no growth or free will if they were. We are involved in an eternal process of birth-growth-death-birth!
The heresy of Docetism led early Christian writers to reaffirm the reality of Christ’s existence on earth. Docetism promoted the idea that Jesus only appeared to be human but really wasn’t. His human form was an illusion. It was rejected, together with the thoughts of Arius, as heretical by Nicaea in 325. It was more theological reflection which led the Fathers to pay more attention to the nature of man which the Word did not scorn. We cannot say that the Fathers’ preoccupation with this was ‘devotion’ to Christ’s human nature or that they took a predominantly dogmatic view of it. The cult of the humanity of Christ is foreign to the Eastern tradition. In act I believe that this is when all of the prayers in the Eastern Church end with a doxology to the Trinity.
It is undeniably difficult to speak of an explicit devotion to the humanity of Christ during the early centuries. One thing astonished the pagans greatly: that such religious homage was being addressed to a crucified man.
It is also true that the function of the liturgy was to stress the divinity of Christ. At the same time, various feasts gave Christian poets an opportunity to compose hymns in honor of the God-Man. Pilgrims had the opportunity of visiting the localities of Christ’s life and venerating in particular the instrument of salvation, the cross, and later the “holy face” (the napkin or towel on which tradition tells us Christ left His image on the way to Calvary).
Slowly, Christian piety agreed to view Christ in his humiliations as a human being. John of Damascus justified this adoration: Christ, therefore, is one, perfect God and perfect man. Along with the Father and the Spirit, we worship him in one adoration together with his body, for to us his body is not unworthy of adoration. In fact, it is adored in the one Person of the Word. We do not do homage to what is created. We worship him not as mere flesh, but as flesh united with the godhead
I would ask you to join with me in asking Almighty God to grant eternal repose to our sister:
who died during this past week. I, unfortunately, got the call on the day of my
recent surgery was not able to celebrate her funeral.
In the Eastern Church, spirituality is lived dogma. That is why even in the midst of discussions that divide opponents we experience a spontaneous transition to personal attitudes closer to what we may call a devotion common to all Christians. Strictly speaking one should not pray to Christ but through Christ, as Origen warned us.
It comes as no surprise that Christians love Christ. But how? Ancient liturgies praised him, thanked him, worshipped and implored him. Tenderness and intimacy began to be emphasized only with some reservations in the early days: by the martyrs, by pilgrims to Jerusalem, in Syriac religious poetry. Yet even the Byzantines have An Office of the Most Sweet Jesus which antedates the Jubilus attributed to St. Bernard.
From the entire tradition, it is good that we quote at least one anonymous writer included in the Philokalia, who greatly praised the excellence of the famous Jesus Prayer.
This is the doctrine that has been handed down to us by our inspired Fathers. The whole effort of their lives was to fill themselves with the sweetness of Jesus. Their whole hunger was for Jesus. This is what filled them with indescribable spiritual joy. By calling on the sweet name of Jesus they received special charisms and were elevated above the cares of the flesh and of the world.
There are two paths which can lead to a tender love for the Savior: the sweetness of God because he is God; and his human amiability, because no man has ever spoken as did he. These two paths ultimately merge, for Christ is a single divine-human person.
It is our love of Jesus that allows us to join ourselves to Him in worshipping the Father in the Spirit. In worshipping the Father we, of course worship Christ and the Spirit. The complexity of the Trinity can be daunting. You will note that every prayer in our services ends with a doxology to Father, Son and Spirit. The Son taught us how to pray, saying, Our Father Who art in heaven