On this 7th Sunday of Pascha, we remember the 318 Holy Fathers of the 1st Ecumenical Council held in Nicaea in 325 AD. The Council was summoned by the Emperor Constantine the Great who also presided over the sessions. It was convened to deal with the issue of Arianism which was a divisive and heretical movement in the Church. Arius, the leader of this heresy, was a presbyter from Alexandria. He claimed that Christ was merely a creature and not divine.
It is fitting that we remember the Holy Fathers of the 1st Ecumenical Council on this particular Sunday, having just celebrated the Ascension this past Thursday. The Ascension of Christ underscores the relationship of the Son with the Father. Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father (Jn 14:12). Christ came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man.
Jesus completes His earthly ministry at His Crucifixion, is buried and rose on the third day. He appeared after His Resurrection to many, including His Apostles and Mary Magdalene. He ascends into Heaven and sits at the Right Hand of the Father. Now we wait for Him to send the Holy Spirit to us on Pentecost. The 1st Ecumenical Council confirms that Christ is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity and indeed Light of Light, True God of True God, Begotten not made.
Among the 318 Holy Fathers, there were three that were particularly instrumental and deemed the Champions of Nicaea I. It is called Nicaea I because there was a second Council held in Nicaea. This was in 787 AD, the 7th and last Ecumenical Council.
St Athanasius, born in 296 AD, attended the Council in Nicaea. He upheld the teaching that Christ, the Son of God, is ομοούσιος (“of one essence”) with the Father. Thus, he defended the divinity of Christ. Athanasius also was instrumental in Trinitarian theology in defending the divinity of the Holy Spirit which St Basil further developed.
Athanasius had a two-prong approach: to first, establish that Jesus was God and then to establish the basis for the Incarnation as a means of salvation for mankind. In His Incarnation, Jesus takes on flesh from the Virgin Mary, becoming ομοούσιος with humanity in the flesh while remaining ομοούσιος with the Father in His divinity.
In his treatise, On the Incarnation, Athanasius explains the purpose of why the Logos, Jesus Christ, took on flesh and dwelt among us (ibid, 1:14). He wisely said: God became man that man might become God. Christ who is God became Incarnate, beginning His earthly life as a humble Infant, in order to save mankind. The process which we become like God is called theosis (θέωσις); we become by grace what God is by essence. The purpose of the Incarnation is to establish full communion between God and humanity so that humanity may be restored back to Him. Saint Athanasius is known as the Father of Orthodoxy and the Thirteenth Apostle (6th Ode of Festal Canon).
Another prominent Holy Father of Nicaea was Saint Spyridon. At the Council, he had a dispute with a Greek philosopher. Saint Spyridon demonstrated the unity of the Trinity. He took a brick in his hand and squeezed it. At that moment, fire shot up from it, water dripped on the ground and only dust remained in the hand of the Saint. He explained that there was one brick but composed of three elements. Likewise, the Holy Trinity is one God in three Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Father is the source of the Godhead and both the Son and the Holy Spirit are of one essence (ομοούσιος) with the Father.
Let us not forget, Saint Nicholas of Myra who arguably is the most beloved Saint of the Orthodox Church. He too attended the Council and was notorious for having struck Arius across the face for his impiety and heretical teachings. Saint Nicholas was deprived of his episcopal rank but later restored back to it. The Holy Fathers believed that the audacity of the Saint was pleasing to God. His reaction was not out of hate and anger but rather feeling scandalized by disturbing words of Arius.
The Council of Nicaea I also established the 1st part of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed which ends with and He will come again to judge the living and the dead. The second part of the Creed was completed at the 2nd Ecumenical Council, held at Constantinople, in 381 AD.
Another development of the 1st Ecumenical Council was the assignment of the date of Pascha. The Council agreed that each year on the 1st Sunday after the 1st full moon after the Vernal Equinox (Spring), Pascha will be celebrated.
Today let us extol those God-bearing Fathers, whom we call the mystical trumpets of the Spirit, for when they declared theology, it was like they were playing harmonious music in the middle of the Church. They taught that the Trinity is one, unchanging essence and Godhead. They were the front-line defenders of the Orthodox, and they brought down the heresy of Arius. Now they always intercede with the Lord, that He have mercy on our souls (1st Doxastikon of Great Vespers)
He Has Ascended!
A graduate of Long Island University, College of Pharmacy, and Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, John works to share the richness and beauty of the Orthodox Faith with the wider community.
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BONUS: Y2AM has released a brand new ministry training course. And check out our "Live the Word" episode for the Sunday of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council: