The Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the First ecumenical council is celebrated the Sunday before Pentecost, following Ascension Thursday. When Christ ascended, He reiterated His promise of the Holy Spirit to the apostles. The Holy Spirit guided the church, and this guidance is magnificently made manifest in the ecumenical councils, when dogmas were confirmed and heretics were put to shame. As we await the celebration of the giving of the Holy Spirit, it is appropriate to think of the ways in which He guides the church. Through the Holy Spirit, who guided the Holy Fathers in the councils and confirmed their pronouncements in the mind of the Church, the Orthodox Faith, which is nothing less than the only correct and saving faith in the true God, was preserved.
The principle that hierarchs can meet and formulate doctrinal and disciplinary statements and resolutions that are the will of God and accepted by the entire church was established in the apostolic period, with the first RECORDED council, which was reported by St. Luke in His acts, with the famous statement which has become an anthem of sorts for the Orthodox: "For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us" (Acts 15:28).
There have been seven ecumenical councils, which were always convened when there was some heresy that was endangering the purity of the Orthodox faith. The First Ecumenical council was held in 325 AD in Nicea. It was called primarily to combat the heresy of Arianism.
Ye have become exact keepers of the apostolic traditions, / O Holy Fathers; / for in setting forth in council the dogma / of the consubstantiality of the Holy Trinity in Orthodox fashion, / ye cast down the blasphemy of Arius. / Then, after censuring Macedonius, the enemy of the Holy Spirit, / ye condemned Nestorius, Eutyches, Dioscorus, / Sabellius, and Severus the headless. / Wherefore, make ye entreaty / that we be delivered from their error, // and that our life be preserved blameless in the Faith, we pray. (Vespers for the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the First ecumenical council, The Litya Glory)
Today the brilliant city of the Niceans / hath called together to herself from the whole world / three hundred eighteen hierarchs against Arius, / him that uttered blasphemy and made little account of the One of the Trinity, / the true Son and Divine Rod; / and having thus deposed this man from pow'r, // the Fathers mightily strengthened the Holy Faith. (Matins for the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the First ecumenical council, Sessional hymn after the 3rd Ode of the canon, Glory)
The Symbol of Faith, the Nicean Creed, was authored in part in Nicea (the first seven articles were written). This was the first written expression of the unwritten Orthodox belief regarding the nature of God, and the internal relationship of the Father to the Son. It was the first document accepted universally defining what Christianity was. It was the first universal mean: it was the measure by which one could delineate Orthodoxy from Heresy. To vary from it meant that was had ceased to be Christian. Therefore, to this day, it is impossible for one to be a Christian if this symbol, which dogmatizes Divine Truth about God and His economy, is not believed.
"O ye assemblies of the Orthodox, / let us celebrate today with faith and piety / the annual memorial of the God-bearing Fathers / who, in the illustrious city of Nicaea, / came together from the whole inhabited world. / For with pious mind / they refuted the godless dogma of the grievous Arius, / and by synodal decree banished him from the Catholic Church. / And they instructed all to openly confess / the consubstantial and co-eternal Son of God, / Who existed before the ages. / This, in exactness and piety, / did they set forth in the Symbol of Faith. / Wherefore, following their divine doctrines / and believing with assurance, / we worship, in One Godhead, / the Father, Son, and All-holy Spirit, // the Trinity one in essence." (Vespers for the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the First ecumenical council, the Aposticha, Glory)
"The first gathering of Thy priests, O Savior, piously proclaimed Thee to be begotten and consubstantial with the beginningless Father and Creator of all. (Matins for the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the First ecumenical council, The Canon of the Fathers, Ode 3)
Having brought together all knowledge of things of the spirit / and made careful inquiry by the divine Spirit's grace, / lo, like godly scribes / the august Fathers wrote the celestial Symbol, / the august Creed of our holy Faith, / wherein they clearly teach that, like God the Father, / the Word of God is also unoriginate / and is consubstantial with Him in truth. / Thus did these all-blest and renowned and godly-minded ones / indeed follow in manifest manner // in that which the Apostles taught. (Praises for the Sunday of the Holy Fathers)
In essence, the heresy of Arianism, named after it's chief architect the former Protopresbyter Arius of Carthage, held that Christ was created, and not perfectly God. It set the model of a number of future heresies, all of which would in some way seek to either elevate the manhood of Christ to the expense of his Divinity, or elevate the Divinity of Christ at the expense of his manhood. The opposite extreme of this heresy was the Monophysite heresy, which states that Jesus Christ had only one nature, since His human nature was "swallowed up" into His divine nature.
The Orthodox confess that Jesus Christ is of one essence "homoousios" with God the Father, and that was never a time when He was not God, and there was a time when He became incarnate, and assumed human nature as well, and His divinity and humanity (two natures) coexist in one person, without confusion or intermingling. This dogma is not just a war of words, or semantics. If Jesus Christ did not assume our full human nature, unmingled with the divinity (as our nature is, since we are mortal creatures), His resurrection would not be effectual for humanity, because He would not have resurrected the human nature we possess.
"Ere the morning star from the womb wast Thou born / from the Father motherless ere the ages, / though Arius held Thou wast created and thus not God, / boldly and mindlessly identifying Thee, the Creator, / with things created, / thus storing up fuel for the eternal fire. / But the Council gathered in Nicaea / proclaimed that Thou, O Lord, art truly the Son of God, // one with the Father and the Spirit in rank."
"O My Savior, who hath thus rent Thy raiment? / Thou didst say: It was Arius / who sundered the Trinity's headship, / which is one in rank and honor. / That Thou art One of the Most Holy Trinity he disputed: / and he taught Nestorius the godless not to say Theotokos. / But the Council gathered in Nicaea / proclaimed that Thou, O Lord, art truly the Son of God, // one with the Father and the Spirit in rank." (Vespers for the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the First ecumenical council, Lord I have cried, Stichera 7 and 8)
Continued holders of the Arian heresy are the Mormons, Unitarian Pentecostals, Jehovahs Witnesses, and the Seventh Day Adventists.
The gospel read on for the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the First ecumenical council is from St. John (Jn 17:1-13), and consists of the words the Lord told His disciples just before His arrest on Holy Thursday.
His words shown below powerfully refute the heresy of Arius, as they show Him to be equal to the Father.
"These words spake Jesus, and lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify thee:" (John 17:1)
A reciprocal relationship is seen where each person has the capacity to equally glorify the other.
Christ's own words here: "And now, O Father, glorify thou me with Thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was." (John 17:5) directly refute the blasphemous idea, first proposed by Arius, that Jesus Christ was created.
The words of the prayer of Christ are also magnificently realized in the Holy Fathers, the successors to the apostles. Blessed Bishop Nicolai explains:
"Christ's prayer [`Holy Father, keep through Thine own name those whom Thou hast given Me, that they may be one, as We are.'] is not only for the apostles - although it is firstly for them - but is also for all those who have and will come to faith in Christ through their word. This prayer, then, was also for the hoily Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, that we commemorate today. `Keep them!' - the Lord prayed to His Father. And the Father kept them from the errors of Arius , and inspired, illumined and strengthened them by the Holy Spirit to defend and confirm the Orthodox Faith. This prayer is for all of us who are baptised in the apostolic Church and who have from the apostles and their successors, come to know the saving name of Christ the Saviour." Bishop Nikolai Velimirovic, Homilies, V. 1, on the 6th Sunday after Pascha.
Our Lord defined eternal life in His High-Priestly prayer to the Father: "And this is life eternal, that they might know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent." (John 17:3)
There were 318 Holy Fathers at the First Ecumenical council in Nicea, a number which also prophetically appeared in the Old Testament:
"And when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he armed his trained servants, born in his own house, three hundred and eighteen, and pursued them unto Dan." (Gen 14:14)This refers to the incident where Abram (later, renamed by God "Abraham") rescued Lot.
The First Council was particularly rich with Holy and God-bearing Fathers, among them being:
"Today the brilliant city of the Niceans / hath called together to herself from the whole world / three hundred eighteen hierarchs against Arius, / him that uttered blasphemy and made little account of the One of the Trinity, / the true Son and Divine Rod; / and having thus deposed this man from pow'r, // the Fathers mightily strengthened the Holy Faith." Sessional Hymn, Matins for the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the 1st Ecumenical Council)
The Holy Fathers descended with ferocity against the horrible heresy of Arius, because they understood it's implications, and the services faithfully capture the essence of this holy and violent battle: "Mindless, foolish Arius / once divided the All-holy Trinity's one dominion / and made thus three essences dissimilar and foreign. / Hence, the God-bearing Fathers gathered together in their fervor, / burning with zeal like to Elias the Thesbite, / and they cut down with the sharp sword of the Holy Spirit / the vile blasphemer, / who taught doctrines of shamefulness. // Thus did the Spirit reveal to them." Vespers, Lord I have Cried)
The battle with Arius became so intense that Nicholas the Wonderworker, filled with divine zeal, struck the blasphemer on the cheek in order to silence his torrent of filthy doctrines (The story of this event is in another of our Questions series, http://www.orthodox.net/questions/nicholas_1.htm)
In our ecumenical and compromising age, bishops often do not live as monastics, but act like politicians and heresies even worse than Arianism are winked at. Documents are signed which are wholly unorthodox, such as the infamous "Balamand Agreement", and foolish shepherds hold services and worship with wolves, and encourage their sheep to be commingled with these wolves, in blasphemous "inter-faith" services. Much of this false shepherding is done in the name of "love", actually the love of this world. Too many hierarchs no longer resemble the God-bearing Holy Fathers of the Holy Councils.
The formula for the celebration of Pascha was decided in the First council. This formula is somewhat complex, but in general, it assures these things:
The Church in Finland has wholly ignored the consensus of the church, and celebrated Pascha with the heretics. They follow the Western Paschalian. Those who follow the New Calendar innovation still celebrate Pascha with the Orthodox who have resisted this innovation; however, on their calendar Pascha sometimes falls in May.
The Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical falls within the festal period of the Ascension. Therefore, three things are spoken of in the services:
The church is guided by the Holy Spirit, and the members of her are also guided by this same spirit. Since the Holy Spirit never contradicts Himself, the individual must agree with the corporate consensus of the One Holy and Catholic Church. The mistake that sectarians make is that they have lost the consciousness of this consensus, and depend unwisely on their own private interpretations.
"The Holy Spirit provideth all things; He gusheth forth prophecy; He perfecteth the priesthood; He hath taught wisdom to the illiterate. He hath shown forth the fishermen as theologians. He holdeth together the whole institution of the Church. Wherefore, O Comforter, one in essence and throne with the Father and the Son, glory be to Thee."(Lord I have Cried, Vespers of Pentecost)
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