(From Makarios of Simonos Petra, The Synaxarion, (Ormylia, Chalcidice, 2003), IV, 91–96)
Today the Church commemorates our Father among the Saints, Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem. This entry is related to my previous blog posts for St Maximus Confessor (21 January) and St Agatho of Rome (20 February). Sophronius was born in Damascus c. A.D. 550, educated as a rhetorician but was attracted to the ascetic life.
On a pilgrimage to the holy places, he placed himself under the spiritual direction of a monk of the Monastery of St Theodosius the Great, John Moschus. They went to Egypt to learn from the ascetics there and Sophronius decided definitively to abandon the world and don the monastic habit. John Moschus and Sophronius visited many monasteries in Egypt and Palestine, including the Monastery of St Catherine on Mount Sinai, where St John Climacus was abbot, seeking to deepen their understanding of hesychasm—stillness and unceasing prayer. At the beginning of the 7th century, they went to Alexandria to assist with their theological learning and eloquence the patriarchs Eulogius and St John the Merciful in the struggle against monophysitism. Here Sophronius was cured miraculously of an eye disease by the Holy Unmercenary Healers, SS. Cyrus and John. In gratitude, he compiled a collection of their miracles.
In 614, the Persians occupied Jerusalem and threatened Alexandria. Sophronius and John Moschus fled for refuge to Rome, where John died in 619. Sophronius returned to Palestine but had to flee again in the face of Arab incursions, going to North Africa, where he met St Maximus Confessor, himself in flight from Constantinople. St Maximus became St Sophronius’s disciple, calling him ‘my blessed lord, my father and master.’ Previously, St Maximus had been concerned to refute the errors of Origen but, in dialogue with Sophronius, he realised that the most pressing question facing the church was the relationship of the two natures of Christ in the one person, and that the immediate threat to doctrine was the monophysite heresy in its most recent form—monotheletism.
St Sophronius returned to Egypt in 633 to continue the struggle against monotheletism but, finding the new patriarch of Alexandria, Cyrus, obdurate in heresy, he went to Constantinople to beg Patriarch Sergius to return to the doctrine of the Council of Chalcedon. The doctrine of one action or operation (energeia) in two natures, which Sergius had devised at the insistence of the Emperor Heraclius in an effort to reconcile the monophysites, had merely led the latter to claim, ‘It is not we who are in communion with Chalcedon, but Chalcedon with us.’ Sergius made the gesture of forbidding any mention of one or two operations in the two natures of Christ but this did not prove an adequate resolution of the controversy.
It was in response to this visit that Patriarch Sergius wrote a perhaps too clever letter to Pope Honorius I of Rome, saying that the Emperor Heraclius had used the expression ‘one operation of the Incarnate Word.’ He was, he said, himself uncertain of the orthodoxy of this expression but it had been used by his predecessor Mennas in a letter to Pope Vigilius. (In fact the letter was a monophysite forgery, but Sergius was not necessarily aware of this.) He asked for the pope’s opinion on his compromise, forbidding any discussion of the question. Pope Honorius replied in equally vague terms. ‘Following the lead of Sergius, who had said that ‘two operations’ might lead people to think two contrary wills were admitted in Christ, Honorius (after explaining the communicatio idiomatum, by which it can be said that God was crucified, and that the Man came down from heaven) adds: ‘Wherefore we acknowledge one Will of our Lord Jesus Christ, for evidently it was our nature and not the sin in it which was assumed by the Godhead, that is to say, the nature which was created before sin, not the nature which was vitiated by sin’.’ (Quoting from the Catholic Encyclopedia, New Advent website.) Sergius then made use of this ambiguous response to assure the other patriarchs that his compromise had papal support—what would lead in due course to the unfortunate Honorius’s anathematisation by the Sixth Œcumenical Council and to 19th-century debates about papal infallibility. (This mosaic portrait of Pope Honorius is a rare example of a contemporary portrait of a churchman. It is in the apse of the Church of St Agnes Outside the Walls, a church rebuilt by Honorius to replace a 4th century basilica.)
St Sophronius then in 634 returned to Jerusalem, where the patriarch, St Modestus, had just died. The clergy and monks constrained the elderly St Sophronius unanimously to ascend the patriarchal throne. As soon as he was elected, he wrote a confession of his faith to the Patriarchs of Rome and Constantinople, confessing one single Christ in two natures, divine and human, who implements the function of each nature according to their respective properties, the same Christ who, without confusion or admixture (as the monophysites claimed) and without division (as the Nestorians implied) works miracles as God and suffers as Man, thus offering to human beings the possibility of being united through him with God by grace.
St Sophronius was Patriarch when the Arab invasion swept over Jerusalem in 638. He prevailed upon the Caliph Omar to enter the city as a pilgrim rather than as a conqueror and to guarantee the safety of the Christian sanctuaries. Not long after, he gave up his soul to God, going to the Jerusalem that is above.
(From Makarios of Simonos Petra, The Synaxarion, (Ormylia, Chalcidice, 2003), IV, 91–96)
Today the Church remembers a ‘physician of souls, captain of the army of Christ and pilot of the ark of the Church buffeted by the storm of heresies’ in the troubled decades following the Council of Nicæa in A.D. 325. St Meletius, a humble and pious man, was elected Archbishop of Antioch, metropolitan see of the East, in 360 when the Arian Eudoxius was deposed.
The see had been racked by a schism ever since the earlier deposition of the orthodox St Eustathius in 330 but both the supporters of Nicæa and the Arians welcomed him, the former sure that his virtues could only be the reflection of purity of faith, the latter misled by his meekness to believe he would tolerate their heresy.
His enthronement took place before the Emperor Constantius, who favoured the Arians. The emperor proposed slyly that the bishops present expound the passage, ‘The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old’ (Proverbs 8: 22), the classic proof text of Arianism. George of Cappadocia, who had been placed on the patriarchal throne of Alexandria on the banishment of St Athanasius, and Acacius of Cæsarea (described by St Gregory the Theologian as the ‘hand’ and ‘tongue’ of the Arians), first gave the Arian interpretation of the passage, by which the Logos was a creature, although before Creation. St Meletius then gave the orthodox interpretation, as declared by St Athanasius, that in this passage ‘created’ could not be taken to mean ‘he was made’ but rather ‘he was begotten.’ An Arian archdeacon attempted to silence the archbishop by putting his hand over his mouth but St Meletius extended his own hand to the people with three fingers together and the thumb and little finger folded over, a gesture that said that the three Persons of the Trinity are equal in nature and one only God.
St Meletius was exiled to Melitene by Constantius but was able to return to his see at the emperor’s death in November 361. However, the orthodox faithful of Antioch had become divided in the year he was absent between those who supported him and those who viewed his election as invalid because of the participation of Arians in it. The latter had elected Paulinus as archbishop, creating a schism that would last eighty-five years, long after the death of both men—the notorious Meletian Schism that weakened the Church in its struggle against Arianism while it lasted.
He was responsible for turning from secular learning to sacred studies one John, born in Antioch in 349, who would earn the epithet Chrysostom and be canonized a saint. He baptized him and later ordained him deacon.
St Meletius was exiled once again by the Arian emperor Valens (reigned 364–378). He went to Cappadocia, where he had the opportunity to meet St Basil the Great, one of the ‘Three Cappadocians’ who clarified the doctrine of the Trinity, the other two being St Gregory of Nyssa, Basil’s brother, and St Gregory the Theologian, Basil’s friend.
The pious Emperor Theodosius the Great (reigned 379–395), just before his accession, had a vision in which St Meletius vested him with the purple and placed the diadem on his head. He determined to put an end to the Arian conflict, summoning the 2nd Œcumenical Council to meet at Constantinople in May 381, with St Meletius presiding. St Meletius gave up his soul to God not long after the council convened. St Gregory of Nyssa preached his funeral sermon, from which comes the quotation opening this entry. He was succeeded as president of the Council by St Gregory the Theologian, who had been made Patriarch of Constantinople by Theodosius shortly before.
Today we remember one of the greatest theologians among the Fathers, St Maximus (A.D. 580–662), who not only interpreted the faith, clarifying the Church’s christological doctrine and completing the doctrinal work of the first five œcumenical councils, but professed it and suffered grievously for it. His most important contribution to Orthodoxy was the refutation of the heresy of monotheletism.
(The icon of the saint is an 11th-c. mosaic in Nea Moni, Chios, from Wikimedia Commons.)
People today find almost incomprehensible the vehemence and sometimes violence with which Church and State debated the ‘persons’ and ‘natures’ of Christ for two hundred and thirty years between the Councils of Chalcedon in 451 and III Constantinople in 680–81. But the debate is closely tied to the Orthodox understanding of Christ’s sacrifice for our salvation. To save mankind, it is necessary that the Logos be both perfect God and perfect Man, therefore able to bridge the gap between the divine and the human that Adam’s sin had opened up in the Garden of Eden. In the words of Chalcedon, it is necessary that there be ‘one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, acknowledged in two natures which undergo no confusion, no change, no division, no separation; at no point was the difference between the natures taken away through the union, but rather the property of both natures is preserved and comes together into a single person and a single subsistent being.’
But some Christians, especially in Egypt and Syria, rejected the doctrine of Chalcedon, influenced by a misunderstanding of St Cyril of Alexandria’s formula ‘one nature [physis in Greek] incarnate of God the Word’ against the Nestorian heresy that Christ was two persons, and so insisted that Christ must be professed as having one nature (hence they were called ‘monophysites’ as opposed to the orthodox ‘dyophysites,’ ‘two natures’). The orthodox view was that St Cyril intended merely to emphasise that Christ was one person, using ‘nature’ to mean ‘subsistent nature.’
What made the debate difficult for persons at the time was an inconsistent use of the terms ‘person,’ ‘nature’ and ‘substance.’ People today find it even more confusing, since we no longer use these words in the way they were used before the modern period. In ancient and mediæval theology, their technical sense was that worked out by Aristotle in the 4th century B.C. ‘Nature’ is what makes a thing what it is, whether the thing actually exists or not. ‘Substance’ is what makes a ‘nature’ an actually existing thing, a ‘person.’ But people then as now were not always exact in their use of them.
The monophysite heresy divided the Church but it was not until the beginning of the 7th century that the division became a pressing political issue. The Persians invaded the Empire, capturing Jerusalem in 613 and Egypt in 618, and the Arabs were threatening invasion. The Persian success was due in part to the disaffection of the Empire’s monophysite subjects. The Emperor Heraclius wanted a compromise that would reconcile the monophysites and restore them to their allegiance. Sergius, Patriarch of Constantinople (610–638) devised a formula for the purpose that would preserve the wording of the decree of Chalcedon while emptying it of meaning. He professed the two natures in Christ, human and divine, but asserted that Christ possessed only one divine active principle.
As a political dodge, this assertion took two successive forms. Until 638, it was that Christ possessed a single divine ‘energia,’ to use the Greek term, after that, that he possessed a single divine will (hence the term ‘monotheletism’ from the Greek monos, one, and thelô, I wish). These terms also must be understood in the Aristotelian sense they were given at the time: ‘will’ is what results in action; ‘energia’ (sometimes, and misleadingly, translated ‘energy’) is the action. The change was made for political reasons, because too much controversy had arisen around the claim of a single divine energia, but the effect was the same—to deny that Christ was fully human.
By 630, Patriarch Sergius had convinced the Patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch (the Patriarch of Jerusalem was in Persian captivity for most of this time) to accept the compromise, which they interpreted correctly as the abandonment of Chalcedonian dyophisitism. However, in 634, a monk from Damascus, Sophronius, a defender of the doctrine of Chalcedon, was elected to the patriarchal throne of Jerusalem and denounced the compromise. The Emperor Heraclius attempted to suppress the debate by issuing a decree, the Ecthesis (638), ordering all the subjects of the Empire to confess one will in Christ. It also forbade any further reference to the doctrine of one energia in Christ, attempting thus to end the controversy roused by that term.
Meanwhile, St Maximus, who had been a monk of the Monastery of St George in Cyzicus on the Sea of Marmara and had been driven out with the other monks by the Persian invasion and sent wandering across the empire, was in Carthage in North Africa, where he met Sophronius, who was also in flight. He rejected the Ecthesis and led the resistance to monotheletism, clarifying the theological issues definitively. He argued that our salvation depends on Christ being true Man and true God, two natures in one Person, as Chalcedon had decreed. How could he be said to be truly Man if his human nature was switched off, so to speak, by being deprived of will and action?
The Emperor Constans II, who succeeded his father Heraclius in 641, had no interest in the doctrinal issue but wanted to end the debate finally. In any case, the Arab conquest of Syria in 634 and of Egypt in 641 had rendered moot the need to reconcile the monophysites. He issued a decree known as the Typos in 648, making it illegal to discuss in any manner the topic of Christ possessing either one or two actions, or one or two wills: ‘the scheme which existed before the strife arose shall be maintained, as it would have been if no such disputation had arisen.’
Most of the patriarchs were prepared to go along with the Typos for the sake of a quiet life, but St Maximus would not accept that true doctrine could not be professed and rejected the Typos. Arrested, brought back to Constantinople and put on trial for sedition, he was asked, ‘What Church do you belong to, then? To Constantinople? To Rome? To Antioch? To Alexandria? To Jerusalem? For you see that all are united with us.’ He replied, ‘To the Catholic Church, which is the right and salutary confession of faith in the God of the universe.’
He was condemned, his right hand was cut off and his tongue cut out, and he was paraded through the streets of Constantinople covered in blood. He died not long after, on 13 August 662, but his teaching was vindicated twenty years later at the Sixth Œcumenical Council, III Constantinople.
Today is the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the 7th Œcumenical Council. The feast is kept each year on the Sunday falling on 11 October or next after.
The Council, which was convoked by the Empress Irene and presided over by St Tarasius, Patriarch of Constantinople, met at Nicæa in Bithynia, 24 September–13 October 787. It anathematised the impious and ignorant men who refused to honour the holy icons and accused the Church of idolatry for requiring their veneration, who had persecuted the faithful, especially the pious monks, for over seventy years under the iconoclast emperors Leo the Isaurian and Constantine V Copronymus.
At the conclusion of the Council, the Holy Fathers declared, ‘Just as representations of the holy and life-giving Cross, so should the venerable holy images, as well the image of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, as the images of our immaculate sovereign Lady the Mother of God, of the holy Angels and of all the Saints, whether represented in paint, mosaic or any other appropriate material, be placed in the holy churches of God, on the sacred vessels and vestments, on walls and boards and in the streets … But as incense and candles are offered in honour of the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross, of the holy Gospels and of the other sacred things [whose veneration the iconoclasts had permitted], so we do the same in honour of the holy icons, according to the pious custom of the elders. For the ‘honour paid to the image goes up to its prototype’ [quoting St Basil, On the Holy Spirit, cap. 18, para. 45] and whoever venerates an icon thereby venerates the hypostasis who is represented by it. By so doing, we maintain the teaching of our holy Fathers and the tradition of the Catholic Church which has proclaimed the Gospel from one end of the world to the other.’
The Synaxarion says, ‘The second Council of Nicæa is the seventh and last Ecumenical Council recognized by the Orthodox Church. This does not mean that there may not be ecumenical Councils in the future, although, in holding the seventh place, the Council of Nicæa has taken upon itself the symbol of perfection and completion represented by this number in holy Scripture [as in the seven days of Creation]. It closes the era of the great dogmatic disputes which enabled the Church to describe, in definitions excluding ambiguity, the bounds of the holy Orthodox faith. From that time, every heresy that appears can be related to one or other of the errors that the Church, assembled in universal Councils, has anathematized from the first until the second Council of Nicæa.’ (Both quotations above from Hieromonk Makarios of Simonos Petra, The Synaxarion, Ormylia, Chalkidike: Convent of the Annunciation, 1998, I, 368–369.)
The Gospel reading for the Feast is, appropriately, Jesus’s parable of the Sower in Luke 8: 5–15: ‘A sower went out to sow his seed: and as he sowed, some fell by the way side; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it. And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. And other fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bare fruit an hundredfold …
‘Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. Those by the way side are they that hear; then cometh the devil, and taketh away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved. They on the rock are they, which, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, which for a while believe, and in time of temptation fall away. And that which fell among thorns are they, which, when they have heard, go forth, and are choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection. But that on the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience.’
Today is the feast of St Amphilochius, Bishop of Iconium.
He was born around A.D. 340 in Cæsarea (modern Kayseri, Turkey) in the province of Cappadocia in Asia Minor. He studied rhetoric at Antioch under Libanius, the famous pagan sophist who was also the teacher of St John Chrysostom, and became a barrister in Constantinople. He abandoned the practice of law in the capital, however, and returned to Cappadocia to care for his aged father.
His aunt (his father’s sister) was St Nonna, the mother of St Gregory the Theologian. Back in Cappadocia, he came to know the friends of his theologian cousin: St Basil the Great and St Basil’s younger brother, St Gregory of Nyssa, who, together with his cousin, would be known to future generations as the Three Cappadocians, the inspired theologians who gave definitive shape to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
He became the disciple of St Basil, who dedicated his treatise, ‘On the Holy Spirit,’ to him.
When in 373 St Basil was asked by the citizens of Iconium (modern Konya, Turkey) in Lycaonia, the province just to the west of Cappadocia, to find them a bishop, he proposed Amphilochius, who accepted with humility. In his pastoral office, he relied on the advice of St Basil until the latter’s death in 379.
The Emperor Theodosius the Great, who had become Augustus in the East in 379, summoned a council to meet in Constantinople in 381 to restore orthodoxy in the Church against the heresies of Eunomius, bishop of Cyzicus, and Macedonius, who had been Patriarch of Constantinople several decades earlier and who had died in 364. This came to be known as the 2nd Œcumenical Council.
Eunomius led the extreme Arian party, holding that the Son was unlike (anomœos) the Father in every way. Macedonius was a semi-Arian whose followers had formed a sect, referred to as the Pneumatomachi, which denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit.
In company with SS. Gregory the Theologian and Gregory of Nyssa, St Amphilochius attended the council. Together with the other God-bearing fathers present, they reaffirmed the Nicene declaration that the Son is consubstantial (homoousios) with the Father. They also affirmed the full divinity of the Holy Spirit, joining in the declaration of it as consubstantial with the Father and the Son.
At the council, St Amphilochius met St Jerome, who commented, ‘[he] recently read to me a book [St Basil’s?] On the Holy Spirit, arguing that He is God, that He is to be worshipped, and that He is omnipotent.’ (De viris illustribus, cap. 133)
He fell asleep in the Lord around the end of the 4th century in his episcopal see.
The Feast of the Holy Fathers of the Seventh Œcumenical Council is commemorated on the Sunday falling on or after 11 October.
The council, which condemned the heresy of iconoclasm, was convoked by the Empress Irene and presided over by St Tarasius, Patriarch of Constantinople. It met at Nicæa in Bithynia from 24 September to 13 October 787. As it was the second œcumenical council to meet there, it is sometimes called ‘II Nicæa.’
The Emperor Leo III the Isaurian had forbidden the veneration of icons in A.D. 730 and was also opposed to monasticism. His son, the Emperor Constantine V Copronymus, summoned a council in Constantinople in 754 under the presidency of Patriarch Constantine of Constantinople that declared images of Christ to be blasphemous, as his divinity could not be represented, and all images, including those of the Mother of God and the saints, to be pagan and idolatrous. It anathematised the defenders of icons, Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople from 715 until deposed by Leo in 730, John Damascene (c. 675–c. 750) and a monk, George of Cyprus. Following this synod, the persecution of iconophiles and monks redoubled.
The Seventh Œcumenical Council confirmed the orthodox teachings of Patriarch Germanus and Saint John Damascene—to claim that the divinity of Christ cannot be iconised is to deny the two Natures in the one Person of the Incarnate Word—and anathematised Anastasius, Constantine and Nicetas, the Patriarchs of Constantinople who had supported iconoclasm.
From the Decree of the Council: ‘… we keep unchanged all the ecclesiastical traditions handed down to us, whether in writing or verbally, one of which is the making of pictorial representations, agreeable to the history of the preaching of the Gospel, a tradition useful in many respects, but especially in this, that so the incarnation of the Word of God is shewn forth as real and not merely phantastic …
‘We, therefore, following the royal pathway and the divinely inspired authority of our Holy Fathers and the traditions of the Catholic Church … define with all certitude and accuracy that, just as the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross [the only sacred image allowed by the iconoclasts], so also the venerable and holy images, as well in painting and mosaic as of other fit materials, should be set forth in the holy churches of God, and on the sacred vessels and on the vestments and on hangings and in pictures both in houses and by the wayside, to wit, the figure of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, of our spotless Lady, the Mother of God, of the honourable Angels, of all Saints and of all pious people.
‘For, by so much more frequently as they are seen in artistic representation, by so much more readily are men lifted up to the memory of their prototypes, and to a longing after them; and to these should be given due salutation and honourable reverence, not indeed that true worship of faith which pertains alone to the divine nature; but to these, as to the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross and to the Book of the Gospels and to the other holy objects, incense and lights may be offered according to ancient pious custom. For the honour which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who reveres the image reveres in it the subject represented.’ (Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, XIV, p. 550.)
Unfortunately, the council did not succeed immediately in putting an end to the iconoclast heresy. The Emperor Leo V the Armenian resumed the persecution of the iconophiles in A.D. 814 and it was not until the Empress Theodora restored the veneration of icons on the first Sunday of Lent in 843, ever after the Feast of Orthodoxy, that the heresy was finally expelled from the Church.
‘The second Council of Nicæa is the seventh and last Ecumenical Council recognized by the Orthodox Church … [I]n holding the seventh place, the Council of Nicæa has taken to itself the symbol of perfection and completeness represented by this number in holy Scripture … It closes the era of the great dogmatic disputes which enabled the Church to describe, in definitions excluding all ambiguity, the bounds of the holy Orthodox Faith. From that time, every heresy that appears can be related to one or another of the errors that the Church, assembled in universal Councils, has anathematized from the first until the second Council of Nicæa.’ (Hieromonk Makarios of Simonos Petra, The Synaxarion (Ormylia, 1998), I, p. 369.)
Seventeenth-century icon of the Seventh Œcumenical Council. The holy fathers are assembled in the nave of the Church of Hagia Sophia in Nicæa, with the Gospel book in their midst. The iconostasis behind them bears the customary icons of Christ and the Mother of God to either side of the Royal Doors and above them the Deesis, the icon of the Mother of God and St John the Forerunner praying to Christ. Above the Deesis in turn is the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove. In the town behind the church are laypeople and monastics with icons on their walls. (Icon of the Novodevichy Convent, Moscow. Photograph from Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain.)
Today, the Sunday closest to 16 July, is the Feast of the Fathers of the First Six Œcumenical Councils.
‘Most glorious art Thou, O Christ our God, since Thou hast established our Holy Fathers as luminaries upon the earth and through them hath instructed us all in the true faith. O Most merciful One, glory be to Thee.’
– Troparion of the Fathers in Tone VIII.
‘The preaching of the Apostles and the dogmas of the Fathers have confirmed
the one faith in the Church. In the garment of truth woven by theology from on
high, she rightly divides and glorifies the great mystery of piety.’
– Kontakion of the Fathers in Tone VIII.
‘Blessed art Thou, O Lord, the God of our Fathers, and praised and glorified is Thy name unto the ages of ages.’
– Prokeimenon of the Fathers in Tone IV
Following the 6th Œcumenical Council, held in Constantinople in A.D. 680–81, the need was first felt to bring together the decrees of all the councils held up to that time. A council was duly convened in 692 by the Emperor Justinian II, and issued 102 canons, summarising the teaching of the Church to that point.
The council was held in the same place as the 6th council, in the great domed hall—the Trullo—of the imperial palace, and so came to be called the Council in Trullo. It was not an oecumenical council, although the Eastern church has viewed it as a continuation of the 6th council.
A number of the canons were intended to strengthen the Church’s discipline, for example, concerning whether or not clergy could be married. Unfortunately, by highlighting some of the differences in custom between the Eastern and Western churches, this contributed to the already deepening divide between East and West.
Evidently today’s feast was established before the 7th Œcumenical Council was held in 787. It seems reasonable to suppose that the dogmatic labours of the Council in Trullo were its inspiration.
The first canon of the Council in Trullo recapitulated the teachings of the first six councils:
‘That order is best of all which makes every word and act begin and end in God. Wherefore that piety may be clearly set forth by us and that the Church of which Christ is the foundation may be continually increased and advanced, and that it may be exalted above the cedars of Lebanon; now therefore we, by divine grace at the beginning of our decrees, define that the faith set forth by the God-chosen Apostles who themselves had both seen and were ministers of the Word, shall be preserved without any innovation, unchanged and inviolate …
‘[The First Œcumenical Council] … revealed and declared to us the consubstantiality of the Three Persons comprehended in the Divine Nature …
‘[The 2nd Œcumenical Council] … accepting their decisions with regard to the Holy Ghost in assertion of his godhead …
‘[The 3rd Œcumenical Council] … teaching that Christ the incarnate Son of God is one; and declaring that she who bare him without human seed was the immaculate Ever-Virgin, glorifying her as literally and in very truth the Mother of God [Theotokos] …
‘[The 4th Œcumenical Council taught] … that the one Christ, the son of God, is of two natures, and must be glorified in these two natures … [without] division … [or] confusion …
‘[The 5th Œcumenical Council] … anathematized and execrated Theodore of Mopsuestia (the teacher of Nestorius), and Origen, and Didymus, and Evagrius, all of whom reintroduced feigned Greek myths, and brought back again the circlings [transmigration] of certain bodies and souls … [and] what things were written by Theodoret against the right faith and against the Twelve Chapters of blessed Cyril …
‘[The 6th Œcumenical Council] … taught that we should openly profess our faith that in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, our true God, there are two natural wills or volitions and two natural operations; and condemned by a just sentence those who adulterated the true doctrine and taught the people that in the one Lord Jesus Christ there is but one will and one operation …
‘And, to say so once for all, we decree that the faith shall stand firm and remain unsullied until the end of the world as well as the writings divinely handed down and the teachings of all those who have beautified and adorned the Church of God and were lights in the world, having embraced the word of life … For our decrees add nothing to the things previously defined, nor do they take anything away, nor have we any such power.’
Canon I of the Council in Trullo, A.D. 692. [Philip Schaff, ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series.]
Canon CII, the last of the council’s canons, addresses those who will apply them. John McGuckin has commented: ‘The text is an interesting reflection on the “philosophy” of canon law, subordinating it in its scope to the pastoral care and development of the faithful. The legislator is called upon to be a physician [not a judge], knowing when to administer a severe remedy and when to relax a strict regimen, because of the individual needs of each … The great list of regulations end, therefore, in the spirit in which they were begun, with the primacy of pastoral care to the fore and with a profound sense of legislative discretion afforded to the bishops as canonical adjudicators.’
[John A. McGuckin, The Ascent of Christian Law: Patristic and Byzantine Formulations of a New Civilization, Yonkers, New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2012, pp. 231–32.]
Constantine, son of the Cæsar Constantius, was raised as a pagan although his mother was a devout Christian. On the death of his father, he was proclaimed emperor by the army at York in Britain on 26 July 306, but did not become sole ruler of the Roman empire until A.D. 323.
On the eve of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge on 28 October 312 against the usurper Maxentius, Constantine received a vision in a dream, revealing that he would be victorious if he fought under the symbol of Christ--In hoc signo vinces. Following his victory, he issued the Edict of Milan, proclaiming for the first time religious toleration in the Roman empire, thus establishing the Peace of the Church and ending the great persecution begun by the Emperor Galerius in A.D. 303.
He became the champion of orthodoxy by ending the Donatist schism in North Africa and by summoning the first œcumenical council at Nicæa in 325 to condemn the Arian heresy, although, like many Christians at the time, he was not actually baptized until he was on his deathbed.
Inspired by his pious mother Helen, he founded many churches, most famously the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem at the place where St Helen had found the True Cross.
Despite his great services to Christianity and the Church, St Constantine has become controversial in modern times. Many Protestant theologians and a few Roman Catholic theologians blame him for an alleged fall of Christianity into worldliness and hierarchy. (To some present-day theologians ‘hierarchy’ is self-evidently a bad thing.)
John Howard Yoder, theologian at Notre Dame University and Mennonite pacifist, is a notable example of this position, identifying the submission of the Church to the State, and of Christians to the secular world with Constantine. (The Politics of Jesus, 2nd ed., 1994, p. 210)
Yoder’s position was examined critically by Peter J. Leithart, a Presbyterian theologian, in Defending Constantine (2010). He pointed out that, although Constantine did attempt to influence the Church in the interest of political stability, he never attempted to reduce it to an integral part of the State, as the ancient Roman sacrificial cult had been. He ‘desacrificed’ the Roman political order because he understood that Jesus was the end of sacrifice.
Henceforward religion would have a degree of independence of the State that it had never before possessed, setting the stage for the modern notion of the separation of Church and State.
At the same time, in a society in which Christians were the majority, it was no longer possible for them to treat the State as something wholly alien—willy-nilly, they had become responsible for it. The theological implications of the new situation institutionalised by Constantine would be worked out in the next century by St Augustine and become the basis for Christendom, the form of Western society until just a century or so ago—and to which we owe more than many are now prepared to recognise.
Today is the feast of one of the great saints and doctors of the Church, whose name is indissolubly linked to that of the First Oecumenical Council at Nicaea.
About the year 319, an elderly priest of Alexandria named Arius, although well respected and a famous preacher, became suspect of subordinationist teachings concerning the Christ. Archbishop Alexander of Alexandria asked him to clarify his views. Arius asserted that, although the Son was not a creature in the sense that we are creatures, since in fact he created us, and although he was not created in time, since time itself is a part of his creation, there was nonetheless a 'then' when he was not. Originally there was only the Father and the Son was in some sense created by the Father and so could not be of the same ousia, roughly translated, 'substance,' as the Father. (By 'ousia' or 'substance' is meant that which makes us what we are.)
The controversy spread rapidly and divided the church of the East. In 325, the Emperor Constantine summoned the first oecumenical council to resolve it. The aged Archbishop Alexander was accompanied by a young deacon, barely thirty, Athanasius, who served as his secretary. Athanasius, a strong believer in the coeternity and coequality of the Trinity, by his cogency, consistency and pertinacity became the champion of the orthodox party at the council, asserting that the Son is 'homoousios' with the Father—of the same substance. This became the key term of the Creed formulated by the council, ruling out the subordinationist doctrine of the Arians.
In 328, the young Athanasius succeeded Alexander on the throne of Alexandria. In a long and tumultuous life, he defended the 'homoousios' and the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. He died in 373, just before the 2nd oecumenical council of 381 vindicated his christology.
Edward Gibbon, although no friend of the Greek church, was impressed by his sheer doggedness and said of him, 'The immortal name of Athanasius will never be separated from the catholic doctrine of the Trinity, to whose defence he consecrated every moment and every faculty of his being … his long administration [his 46 years as Archbishop of Alexandria] was spent in a perpetual combat against the powers of Arianism. Five times was Athanasius expelled from his throne; twenty years he passed as an exile or a fugitive; and almost every province of the Roman empire was successively witness to his merits, and his sufferings in the cause of the Homoousion, which he considered as the sole pleasure and business, as the duty and as the glory of his life.' (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, cap. xxi)
Although today is known as the feast of the translation of his relics, in fact it commemorates the day of his perfection in death. His relics were transferred to Santa Sophia in Constantinople at an unknown date. At the fall of Constantinople in 1453, they were taken to Venice.
Today, the first Sunday in Great and Holy Lent, the Church commemorates the triumph of Orthodoxy—the restoration of the veneration of icons by the Seventh Œcumenical Council.
The feast was first kept on the first Sunday in Lent, 11 March 843, when the Empress Theodora re-proclaimed the decree of the 7th Œcumenical Council of 787 commanding the veneration of icons, which had been ignored by iconoclast emperors since 814. The restoration of the veneration of icons following the iconoclast controversy has become the type or symbol of the triumph of orthodoxy over heresy.
The iconoclasts claimed that the Mosaic prohibition, ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth,’ (Exodus 20: 4) forbade icons.
St John Damascene replied, ‘Human nature was not lost in the Godhead but, just as the Word made flesh remained the Word, so flesh became the Word remaining flesh, becoming, rather, one with the Word through union. Therefore I venture to draw an image of the invisible God, not as invisible but as having become visible for our sakes through flesh and blood. I do not draw an image of the immortal Godhead—I paint the visible flesh of God …’ (First Apology for Images, 5–6)
The iconoclasts, forbidding the iconising of Christ, were denying that Christ had become at once True Man and True God, as was necessary for our salvation. They therefore repudiated the orthodox Christian faith.
Ever since, this day has been kept as the Feast of Orthodoxy. During the Vespers service, icons are carried in procession and the Synodikon of the Seventh Œcumenical Council condemning all heresies is read:
‘As the Prophets beheld, as the Apostles taught, as the Church received, as the Teachers dogmatized, as the Universe agreed, as Grace illumined, as the Truth revealed, as falsehood passed away, as Wisdom presented, as Christ awarded:
Thus we declare, thus we assert, thus we proclaim Christ our true God and honour His saints in words, in writings, in thoughts, in sacrifices, in churches, in holy icons, on the one hand, worshipping and reverencing Christ as God and Lord, and on the other hand honouring and venerating His Saints as true servants of the same Lord.
‘This is the Faith of the Apostles, this is the Faith of the Fathers, this is the Faith of the Orthodox, this is the Faith which has established the Universe.’
Icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. The Empress Regent Theodora and her infant son, the Emperor Michael III, are at the top left, St Methodius the Confessor, Patriarch of Constantinople, and monks at the top right. The Hodegetria icon (‘She Who Shows the Way’—the Holy Virgin showing us her Son, an icon believed to have been written originally by St Luke) is between them, held up by two angels. Below, bishops, monks and a nun hold up icons.
(Written c. 1400 and now in the collection of the British Museum. Image from Wikipedia in the public domain.)
Occasional comments by a convert to Orthodoxy.