Today we celebrate our father among the saints, the God-bearing Cyril, Archbishop of Alexandria.
It was St Athanasius the Great and St Cyril who earned for the church of Alexandria the title of Lighthouse of Orthodoxy. While St Athanasius vindicated the place of the Son of God in the Holy Trinity, St Cyril vindicated the hypostatic union of the human and the divine in Christ, perfect man and perfect God, the Word of God in the flesh, and so taught us that the Blessed Virgin Mary is truly and literally the Mother of God.
Please go to my blog entry for this day in 2016 for an account of St Cyril’s life and witness. Here I will just mention that, after almost ten years’ labour on my Seven Councils project, I am now doing the research for my presentation of the 3rd Œcumenical Council, the Council of Ephesus held in A.D. 431 under the Emperor Theodosius the younger. This work has shown me vividly just how great has been St Cyril’s contribution to the Church, a contribution that earned him the title ‘the Seal of the Fathers.’ For anyone who would like a deeper understanding of this contribution, I can recommend highly St Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004), by the Romanian Orthodox priest and eminent church historian Fr John McGuckin.
I have just completed at long last the part of this project that takes me from the 1st to the 2nd Œcumenical Council. A recent article thus struck a chord, ‘The World Episcopate and the German Apostasy’ (First Things blog, 10 March 2021), by George Weigel, American scholar and author, Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.
He summons up the great Fathers of the Church whose struggles against heresy I have just been recounting. ‘As the names Ambrose, Augustine, Athanasius, and John Chrysostom suggest, the middle centuries of the first millennium, the era of the Church Fathers, were the golden age of the Catholic episcopate … Convinced that what happens in one part of the body has effects on the whole, bishops like Cyprian, Basil of Caesarea, Ambrose, and Augustine did not hesitate to correct brother bishops they thought were mistaken in their doctrine or disciplinary practice—and sometimes did so in forceful language.’
Weigel is afraid that the ‘German Synodal Way’ of the Roman Catholic bishops of Germany is leading to apostasy. He quotes its ‘Fundamental Text’: ‘… there is no one truth of the religious, moral, and political world, and no one form of thought that can lay claim to ultimate authority,’ and points out that ‘It is apostasy, and apostasy in service to the postmodern creed that there may be ‘your truth’ and ‘my truth’ but nothing properly describable as the truth. And lest you think that this approach will lead to a new tolerance of diversity, the Fundamental Text warns those who profess the Nicene Creed, rather than the postmodern creed, that they will be compelled to ‘support’ and ‘promote’ what they reject as departures from Christian faith.’
I am in complete sympathy with Weigel’s concern. The German bishops have forgotten Christ’s teaching: ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.’ (John 14:6) By rejecting the truth, they are prepared to change even the Christian understanding of marriage to something that has never before been heard of.
As St Irenæus of Lyons wrote in the 2nd century, ‘True knowledge is the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient constitution of the Church throughout all the world, and the distinctive manifestation of the body of Christ according to the successions of the bishops, by which they have handed down that Church which exists in every place, and has come even unto us, being guarded and preserved without any forging of Scriptures, by a very complete system of doctrine, and neither receiving addition nor curtailment … and [above all, it consists in] the pre-eminent gift of love, which is more precious than knowledge, more glorious than prophecy, and which excels all the other gifts.’ (Adversus Omnes Hæreses, IV.xxxiii.8)
The ‘German Synodal Way’ reminds us once again that the Church’s struggle against heresy requires constant vigilance and the willingness to chastise and correct, even at the cost to ourselves, as did St Athanasius, five times exiled for his condemnation of the Arian heresy.
Today the Church commemorates our father among the saints Theodosius, emperor of the Romans.
He was born in Spain in A.D. 347, the son of an army officer of high rank, also named Theodosius. As a young man he campaigned with his father in Britain, Gaul and North Africa. He was a devout Christian and was married to Flacilla, who is also commemorated as a saint, her feast on 14 September. When his father died in 375, Theodosius already held high rank in the army.
Up to the year 378, Gratian was Augustus in the West and his uncle Valens was Augustus in the East. On 8 August 378, Valens was killed in battle against the Goths at Adrianople and Gratian thus became emperor of the whole empire. Gratian appointed Theodosius Magister Equitum, commanding the Roman forces on the Danube frontier. This made Theodosius de facto ruler in the East, and Gratian raised him formally to Augustus on 19 January 379, with residence in Constantinople. Theodosius, firmly orthodox, was the first emperor to refuse the title of Pontifex Maximus. Gratian now followed his example and renounced the title.
The West was devoted to Nicene orthodoxy while the Arian heresy, promoted by Valens, was rife in the East. To establish orthodoxy throughout the empire and to suppress the Arian heresy, Gratian and Theodosius issued the Edict of Thessalonica on 27 February 380. This edict is often cited as making Christianity the ‘official religion’ of the empire, but this is an anachronism. See my blog entry for 27 February 2013 for more on this subject.
Theodosius also ended the pagan cults at last. They had been withering away in the Roman empire for several centuries. Legal prohibition of private sacrifices for purposes of divination or magic went back to pagan times and was continued by the Christian emperors. From about 350 public sacrifices for the purpose of divination were forbidden but not the sacrifices for honouring the gods or associated with festivals. Then in 382 sacrifices were forbidden but not other honours paid to the gods. About the year 380 state funding of pagan cults ended.
Theodosius brought paganism definitively to an end by two decrees issued on 24 February and 16 June 391, forbidding all pagan practices, public or private. (Codex Theodosianus, 16.10.10 and 11) However, it was not unlawful merely to be a pagan, and pagans, unlike heretics, did not forfeit their civil rights.
After his appointment as co-emperor, Theodosius arrived in Constantinople on 24 November 380. He summoned the 2nd Œcumenical Council to heal the Arian schism and confirm St Gregory the Theologian as Patriarch of Constantinople. The council met in Constantinople from mid-May to 9 July 381, reaffirming the teaching of the Creed of Nicæa that the Son of God is of the same essence and coeternal with God the Father, and declaring that the Holy Spirit is an equal Person of the Trinity with the Father and the Son.
Gratian died on 24 August 383. His younger brother became Augustus in the West as Valentinian II, but, as he was still a minor, Theodosius was effective ruler of the Roman world. When Magnus Maximus rebelled in the West in 383, Theodosius moved to Milan to suppress the revolt.
While in Milan, Theodosius came under the influence of St Ambrose, the bishop of the city. Theodosius, like all human beings, was a sinner, and his besetting sin was wrath. This led to an atrocious act when he was provoked by the murder of a magistrate by a mob in Thessalonica, as the Synaxarion recounts: ‘… in 390 when, having secured control of the Western Empire and moved his court to Milan, he decided to visit severe punishment on the city of Thessalonica for its rebellion and, despite the remonstrances of Saint Ambrose, ordered the massacre of several thousand innocent people in the stadium there.’ (Makarios of Simonos Petra, The Synaxarion, Ormylia, Chalkidike, 2001, III, p. 184.)
Ambrose forbade the emperor to receive the sacraments and imposed a heavy penance on him. In his funeral oration for Theodosius, Ambrose recounts what happened then: ‘I have loved a man who esteemed a reprover more than a flatterer. He threw on the ground all the royal attire that he was wearing. He wept publicly in church for his sin, which had stolen upon him through the deceit of others. He prayed for pardon with groans and with tears. What private citizens are ashamed to do, the emperor was not ashamed to do, namely, to perform penance publicly, nor did a day pass thereafter on which he did not bemoan that fault of his.’ (‘On the Death of Emperor Theodosius,’ para. 34, trans. Roy J. Deferrari, Fathers of the Church, Vol. 22, New York, 1953.)
Ambrose was the mentor of St Augustine and among the most eminent of the churchmen of his time. While implacable in condemning sin, he was just as capable of seeing into the heart of the sinner, and delivered this final judgement on Theodosius: ‘I have loved a merciful man, humble in power, endowed with a pure heart and a gentle disposition, a man such as God is accustomed to love, saying: ‘Upon whom shall I rest, unless upon the humble and gentle?’ … I have loved a man who in his dying hour kept asking for me with his last breath. I have loved a man who, when he was already being released from the body, was more concerned about the condition of the Church than about his own trials. I have loved him, therefore, I confess, and for that reason I have suffered my sorrow in the depths of my heart, and thought to be consoled by the delivery of a lengthy discourse. I have loved, and I presume upon the Lord that He will receive the voice of my prayer, with which I accompany this pious soul.’ (Op. cit., paras. 33, 35.)
St Theodosius was perfected on this day in the year 397 in Milan. After the funeral oration that St Ambrose delivered before his two sons on his fortieth day, his remains were carried to Constantinople for burial.
Today the Church commemorates our father among the saints, Gregory, bishop of Nyssa in Cappadocia III. St Gregory is one of the great doctors of the Church and, together with his brother, St Basil the Great and their friend St Gregory the Theologian, one of the Three Cappadocians to whom we owe our orthodox understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity.
St Gregory was the younger brother of St Basil, born in Cæsarea of Cappadocia around A.D. 335. Their father was St Basil the Elder, a learned rhetorician, and St Gregory received a thorough secular education from him. The Synaxarion says of him that he became ‘one of the greatest architects of the Christianization of ancient culture.’
When St Basil became bishop of Cæsarea in the year 370, he recommended his brother for election to the see of Nyssa, a small town in what is now central Turkey, in order to have his support in the defence of the Nicene faith against the Arian assaults of the emperor Valens. Upon St Basil’s death in 379, St Gregory and his friend and collaborator St Gregory the Theologian, bishop of Sasima, became the foremost defenders of the orthodox faith in the Trinity, which triumphed at last at the Second Œcumenical Council, held in Constantinople in 381.
St Gregory taught that, through our original creation in the image and likeness of God, and through our regeneration by baptism into the Body of Christ, we are freed for never-ending progress in a union without confusion with the infinite God. The Synaxarion quotes from St Gregory’s Seventh Homily on the Song of Songs:
‘Thus in the eternity of the age without end, he who runs towards Thee is always becoming greater and higher, always adding to himself by the multiplication of graces … but that which is sought is in itself boundless, the end and fulfilment of that which is found becomes, for those who ascend, the starting point of the discovery of more exalted blessings. And he who ascends never ceases to go from beginning to beginning by beginnings which have no end.’
(Hieromonk Makarios of Simonos Petra, The Synaxarion, Ormylia, Chalkidike, 2001, III, p. 105.)
Today the Church commemorates our fathers among the saints, Alexander, John and Paul, Patriarchs of Constantinople. The Kontakion for this feast is: ‘Set aflame by the love of Christ, O glorious ones, you took up the yoke of His precious Cross revealing yourselves as followers in His footsteps by your way of life, and you became partakers of His divine glory, divinely-wise Alexander, with wonderful John and glorious Paul. As you stand before His throne, earnestly pray for our souls.’
St Alexander was the first bishop after St Constantine the Great inaugurated Constantinople as the New Rome, succeeding St Metrophanes, last bishop of Byzantium. As archpriest under St Metrophanes, he represented the aged bishop, unable to attend in person, at the Council of Nicæa in A.D. 325. Soon after the council, he succeeded St Metrophanes.
‘After the Council, Saint Alexander, then aged almost seventy, became famed for his defence of Orthodoxy against the intrigues fomented by Arius and his partisans, and it is said that he undertook apostolic journeys to Thrace, Macedonia and Thessaly, and the islands, to preach the doctrine of Nicæa.’ (Makarios of Simonos Petra, The Synaxarion, VI: July, August, Chalcidice: Holy Convent of the Annunciation of Our Lady Ormylia, 2008, p. 658.)
St Alexander died in the year 337, not long after the emperor St Constantine. He was succeeded by St Paul, who also carried on the struggle for the faith of Nicæa, although he is not the St Paul commemorated today. His feast is 6 November. Today’s feast is for St Paul the New, patriarch from 780 to 784, who carried on the struggle against the iconoclast heresy leading to the 7th Œcumenical Council in 787.
I want to wish all the Alexanders χρόνια πολλά today, and especially our own priest, Fr Alex, who has laboured devotedly to carry on the services of the Church in this time of plague, even though he himself fell ill with the infection. May he have many years as head of our congregation!
Today the Church commemorates our father among the saints Anatolius, Patriarch of Constantinople. He presided over the Fourth Œcumenical Council at Chalcedon in A.D. 451, which addressed the question of how the humanity of our Lord and God Jesus Christ is related to his divinity—what is the connection between the man Jesus and the second Person of the Trinity.
As it happens, yesterday I completed my narrative of the events from the Council of Antioch in A.D. 341 to the twin councils of Ariminum and Seleucia in 360. There I comment that part of the letter written by Basil of Ancyra and his associates after the Council of Ancyra in 358 ‘opens a question of the relationship between the divinity in Christ and the humanity that had not been addressed heretofore, and would not be until later œcumenical councils.’
In fact it was the Council of Chalcedon, ninety years later, that answered the question for the Church definitively with its famous declaration that the human and the divine in Christ are ‘… in two natures, unconfusedly, immutably, indivisibly, inseparably united, and that without the distinction of natures being taken away by such union, but rather the peculiar property of each nature being preserved and being united in one Person and subsistence, not separated or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son and only-begotten, God the Word, our Lord Jesus Christ.’
For a fuller account of the events leading up to this council, and the life of St Anatolius, see my blog entry for this day in 2017.
Today the Church commemorates our father among the saints, Leo the Great, Pope of Rome. He was elected bishop of Rome in A.D. 440 and gave up his soul to God in 461. During his papacy, the western half of the Roman Empire was being overwhelmed by Vandals and Huns, and the church there was in disarray. Leo reformed the church and saved what could be saved from the barbarian hordes.
But what concerns us is his role in the Fourth Œcumenical Council, the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which clarified the natures of Christ. His story is a part of the same story as St Flavian, commemorated two days before, and of St Anatolius, commemorated on 3 July. As I suggested for St Flavian, you should go to my blog entry of 3 July 2017 for an account of the controversy.
What follows is a passage from the famous Tome of Leo, a key document in the history of Christian doctrine. St Leo himself was unable to attend the Council of Chalcedon but his letter, the Tome, was read out and greeted by the assembled bishops with the cry, ‘This is the faith of the fathers, this is the faith of the Apostles. So we all believe, thus the orthodox believe. Anathema to him who does not thus believe. Peter has spoken thus through Leo.’
‘Without detriment therefore to the properties of either nature and substance which then came together in one person, majesty took on humility, strength weakness, eternity mortality: and for the paying off of the debt belonging to our condition inviolable nature was united with passible nature, so that, as suited the needs of our case, one and the same Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, could both die with the one and not die with the other. Thus in the whole and perfect nature of true man was true God born, complete in what was His own, complete in what was ours. And by ours we mean what the Creator formed in us from the beginning and what He undertook to repair. For what the Deceiver brought in and deceived man committed had no trace in the Saviour. Nor, because He partook of man’s weaknesses, did He therefore share our faults. He took the form of a slave without stain of sin, increasing the human and not diminishing the divine: because that emptying of Himself whereby the Invisible made Himself visible and, Creator and Lord of all things though He be, wished to be a mortal, was the bending down of pity, not the failing of power.’
(Leo of Rome to Flavian of Constantinople, Letter XXVIII, cap. 3: trans. Charles Lett Feltoe in Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, XII, 1895. From the New Advent website, ed. Kevin Knight)
Today the Church commemorates our father among the saints Flavian, Patriarch of Constantinople. The date commemorates the translation of his relics to the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople in A.D. 451 by the Empress Pulcheria. He had died of the injuries he received in the riot terminating the ‘Robber Synod’ of 449, where he was unjustly condemned for heresy.
His story is one part of the struggle over the natures of Christ, whether two or one, which racked the Church until it was finally resolved at the Fourth Œcumenical Council held at Chalcedon in October 451. The story is told in my blog entry of 3 July 2017 for St Anatolius of Constantinople, which see.
Today the Church commemorates our father among the saints, Gregory the Theologian, who was Archbishop of Constantinople at the opening of the 2nd Œcumenical Council, held in Constantinople in A.D. 381.
For a fuller account of St Gregory’s life and work, see my blog entry for this day last year. For this year, I will merely quote the peroration of his farewell address on resigning from the see of Constantinople, in which he bids farewell to the city and people that he had served selflessly:
‘Farewell, mighty Christ-loving city. I will testify to the truth, though your zeal be not according to knowledge. Our separation renders us more kindly. Approach the truth: be converted at this late hour. Honour God more than you have been wont to do. It is no disgrace to change, while it is fatal to cling to evil.
Oration 42, para. 27. (Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., Nicene and post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, VII, trans. Charles Gordon Browne and James Edward Swallow, 1894. From the New Advent website, ed. Kevin Knight.)
St Gregory the Theologian
Today we commemorate our father among the saints Gregory the Theologian, God-bearing defender of the faith, who presided over the opening of the 2nd Œcumenical Council in Constantinople.
St Gregory was an outstanding champion of orthodoxy in the second half of the fourth century, during the ongoing struggle against the heresy of Arius—that God the Son is not truly God but a sort of creature—a struggle which began with the 1st Œcumenical Council, held at Nicæa in A.D. 325, before Gregory was even born, and which culminated at the 2nd Œcumenical Council in 381.
Gregory was born in the year 329 on the family estate near the village of Arianzus in Cappadocia, Asia Minor. (Arianzus is now the town of Aksaray in central Turkey, about 150 km southwest of Kayseri, the ancient Cæsarea of Cappadocia.) His father, also named Gregory, became bishop of the nearby town of Nazianzus. Gregory’s family is remarkable in that not just Gregory himself, but his father Gregory, his mother Nonna, his brother Cæsarius and his sister Gorgonia have all been recognised as saints by the Church for their exceptional piety.
Gregory received the best education, Christian and secular, available at the time, completing his studies at the university in Athens. There he met two other students from Cappadocia, Basil and his brother, also named Gregory, who would be commemorated by the church as SS. Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa. The three remained close friends for as long as they lived and are known to history as the Three Cappadocians, whose profound theologizing cleared away the semantic confusions that had bedevilled trinitarian debate during the Arian controversy, and gave us the orthodox dogma of the Trinity that has prevailed from that day to this. In particular, St Gregory the Theologian combatted the heretical teaching that the Holy Spirit is not a person of the Trinity but a sort of action or function of God.
In 364 Valens, a militant supporter of the Arian party, became Augustus in the East, doing everything in his power to weaken the orthodox. When St Basil, who along with St Athanasius was a prominent leader of the Nicene cause, became bishop of Cæsarea and so metropolitan of Cappadocia in 370, Valens responded by dividing the province of Cappadocia in two to reduce his influence. To ensure that the faithful in the new province of Cappadocia Secunda would have orthodox leadership, Basil campaigned to have his friend Gregory elected bishop of Sasima, a small town in the new province, even though Gregory far preferred the contemplative life of a monastic.
St Athanasius died in 373 and St Basil died at the beginning of 379. St Gregory the Theologian inherited their mantle as champion of the faith of Nicæa. Valens had died a few months before St Basil but the principal churches were still in the hands of the Arians. The orthodox of Constantinople invited Gregory to lead them and he began to teach in the Church of the Anastasis, virtually singlehandedly restoring the city to orthodoxy.
At the same time, Theodosius, a firm supporter of orthodoxy, became Augustus in the East. In 381 he called a council in Constantinople, which would be known as the 2nd Œcumenical Council, to confirm Gregory as patriarch of the city. The council went on to reaffirm the faith of Nicæa and vindicate the divinity of the Holy Spirit, which had been denied by the Arians. It brought the Arian controversy to an end after a tumultuous and sometimes violent half century. However, some of the bishops at the council disputed Gregory’s ordination as bishop of Constantinople because of his prior ordination as bishop of Sasima. Gregory, unwilling to fight over what he considered a trifle, resigned his see, being succeeded by St Nectarius, who presided over the conclusion of the council. Gregory retired to Nazianzus, then to the family estates, where he died in 389.
The following is a passage from St Gregory’s defence of the Holy Spirit in his Fifth Theological Oration:
‘What then, say they, is there lacking to the Spirit which prevents His being a Son? for if there were not something lacking He would be a Son. We assert that there is nothing lacking—for God has no deficiency. But the difference of manifestation, if I may so express myself, or rather of their mutual relations one to another, has caused the difference of their Names. For indeed it is not some deficiency in the Son which prevents His being Father (for Sonship is not a deficiency), and yet He is not Father … For the Father is not Son, and yet this is not due to either deficiency or subjection of Essence; but the very fact of being Unbegotten or Begotten, or Proceeding has given the name of Father to the First, of the Son to the Second, and of the Third, Him of Whom we are speaking, of the Holy Ghost that the distinction of the Three Persons may be preserved in the one nature and dignity of the Godhead … The Three are One in Godhead, and the One Three in properties; so that neither is the Unity a Sabellian one [with no distinction of persons], nor does the Trinity countenance the present evil distinction [of the Arians, in which the Son and the Holy Spirit are not of the same essence as the Father].’
[Oration 31, 9; trans. Charles Gordon Browne and James Edward Swallow, eds. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, Nicene and post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, VII, 1894. From the New Advent website, ed. Kevin Knight.]
Occasional comments by a convert to Orthodoxy.