Melkite Greek Catholic Church
ON THE SUNDAY AFTER THE ASCENSION, our Church remembers the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council which met at Nicaea in ad 325. It was convoked by the first Christian Roman emperor, St Constantine the Great, in response to an appeal by a synod of Spanish bishops. Its principal task was to promote the unity of the Churches in the Empire by insuring that all the Churches believed the same faith and observed the same practices.

Before the Council of Nicaea

We might ask, “Why did it take three centuries for the Church to address these issues?” In fact, it was only in the fourth century that Christians received toleration and then recognition as an “institution” in the Roman Empire. Prior to the time of St Constantine, matters of concern to the Churches were addressed locally. When issues arose which affected more than one local Church, they were dealt with by Church leaders coming together in council.

The first such gatherings are recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. The first issue addressed by the disciples after Christ’s ascension was the defection of Judas (Acts 1:15-26). The Church at that time was simply the community of believers in Jerusalem around the Apostles and it was this community which nominated two men to replace Judas. “Then they prayed, ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.’ 

Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles” (Acts 1:24-26).

As the Church grew and spread beyond Palestine to places like Cyprus and Asia Minor, it was forced to address a potentially divisive issue – through a council of the Apostles and elders (Acts 15:1-31). Some Jewish Christians were opposed to the practice at Antioch where converts were not obliged to be circumcised or to follow Jewish dietary rules. The council decided to affirm this practice and informed “the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia” (Acts 15:23) of their support by letter.

From the middle of the second century regional councils became common, particularly in Christian centers such as Italy and Asia Minor. These councils addressed suspect teachings (such as Montanism) and conflicting practices (such as observing Pascha on a fixed date) which were felt to affect the unity of the Churches. Regional councils often established common policies on questions such as penances for returning apostates or rules for clerical marriages. While these policies directly affected the participating local Churches, they were communicated to Churches in other regions which often adopted them as well.

The Ecumene

St. Constantine’s council brought together bishops from throughout the Roman Empire (the “Ecumene”) and hence was called an Ecumenical Council. Its decisions were given the force of law throughout the empire.

Representatives from the Kingdom of Greater Armenia (a Roman vassal state) and from the Persian Church attended also. Since the Roman and Persian Empires had been rivals for centuries, it was only in ad 410 that the Persian Church (the Church of the East) formally adopted the creed and canons of the First Council of Nicaea.

Our liturgy speaks of the Council Fathers as 318 in all. This number actually refers to the 318 trained men of Abram’s household who fought the kings of Sodom and Gemmorah (Gen 14:14). The Council Fathers were seen as the “trained men” of the Church.

Arianism and the Creed

The Spanish bishops who had proposed the council were struggling against Arianism, a view that Christ was like the Father, but was not of the same essence. Arians believed Him to be the first of God’s creatures. This doctrine had been articulated by an Alexandrian teacher named Arius and opposed by another teacher, St Athanasios of Alexandria, who pointed out the fallacy of Arius’ teaching: “If the Father begat the Son, then he who was begotten had a beginning in existence, and from this it follows there was a time when the Son was not.”

The council examined several creeds used in local Churches then prepared its own, reflecting an anti-Arian Christology. Although this creed was widely accepted, Arianism persisted, particularly in the West, for some time.

During the Protestant Reformation some sects rejected the trinitarian doctrine of Nicaea and adopted one or another form of Unitarianism. Later American sects, such as the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of God adopted teachings which have been described as neo-Arian.

The Nicene Creed which we recite at baptisms, the Divine Liturgy and some other services is actually the version which was completed at the second ecumenical council, (Constantinople I). The version composed at Nicaea ended with the words “and in the Holy Spirit.”

Church Structure

By the third century many local Churches had come to be organized as regional provinces with the bishop of the major city designated as the “Metropolitan” or regional primate. The Nicene Council confirmed this practice. It also decreed, “Let the ancient customs in Egypt, Libya and Pentapolis prevail, that the Bishop of Alexandria have jurisdiction in all these, since the like is customary for the Bishop of Rome also. Likewise in Antioch and the other provinces, let the Churches retain their privileges...” (Canon 6).  

Soon after the Council, the new imperial capital of Constantinople (“New Rome”) was established. Its bishop was given the second place in honor after Rome, and Jerusalem was given the fifth place because it was the “Mother of all the Churches.” These five sees would eventually be called the “pentarchy”, and their bishops designated as patriarchs.

The Date of Pascha

As the Churches sought to manifest their unity in the new Christian empire of Constantine, they sought to unify the celebration of Pascha, a controversial issue for over a century. Most Churches celebrated this feast on a Sunday, “the first day of the week” (Matthew 28:1), the day on which Christ’s tomb was found to be empty. Some Churches celebrated it on the 14th of the Jewish month of Nisan, the day the lambs were sacrificed for Passover. According to the Gospel of John, that was the day on which Jesus was crucified.

Contemporary sources agree that the Council Fathers decided that all the Churches celebrate Pascha on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. The Church of Alexandria was to determine the proper date of Pascha and communicate it to the other Churches.

This rule is universally observed today. However, most Eastern Churches calculate the vernal equinox based on the Julian calendar, whereas the Western Churches calculate the vernal equinox according to the Gregorian calendar. In addition, most Eastern Christians also specify that Pascha must be celebrated after the Jewish Passover.
THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES, which our Church reads publicly from Pascha to Pentecost, climaxes with the trial of St Paul and his journey to Rome where he would ultimately be beheaded. The story of his conflict with the Jewish leadership, his arrest and the various hearings which followed is told in Acts, chapters 20 to 28.

After what has come to be known as his third missionary journey, St Paul resolved to return to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage feast of Pentecost. Paul traveled south and landed at the port of Caesarea, the Roman military center in the region. There “a certain prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. When he had come to us, he took Paul’s belt, bound his own hands and feet, and said, ‘Thus says the Holy Spirit, “So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man who owns this belt, and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles’” (Acts 21:11, 12). Despite this and other warnings Paul was determined to return to Jerusalem.

St Paul’s reputation was well known among the Jews of Jerusalem. His doctrine that Gentiles who became Christians did not need to be circumcised was particularly offensive in their circles. To devalue circumcision and the Jewish dietary laws was “to forsake Moses” (Acts 21:21) and undermine the very basis of Judaism.

Knowing the animosity of the Jewish leaders, who considered Paul an apostate, St James and the elders of the Christian community in Jerusalem devised a plan to keep Paul safe. They urged him to “…do what we tell you: We have four men who have taken a vow. Take them and be purified with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads, and that all may know that those things of which they were informed concerning you are nothing, but that you yourself also walk orderly and keep the Law” (Acts 21:23, 24).

St Paul complied, but “Jews from Asia, seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him, crying out, ‘Men of Israel, help! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against the people, the Law, and this place; and furthermore he also brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” (For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, whom they supposed that Paul had brought into the temple” (Acts 21:27-29). St Paul was seized and had to be rescued by the commander of the local garrison.

What followed was a series of hearings which would determine St Paul’s fate, fulfilling Agabus’ prophecy concerning him. As Christ had been tried before the Sanhedrin (the religious leaders), King Herod (the Jewish ruler) and Pontius Pilate (the Roman Procurator), Paul’s trial followed a similar route. He first was tried by the high priests and their council, the Sanhedrin, as recorded in Acts 22. Paul began his defense before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem by tracing his personal religious history: “I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, taught according to the strictness of our fathers’ law, and was zealous toward God as you all are today. I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women, as also the high priest bears me witness, and all the council of the elders, from whom I also received letters to the brethren, and went to Damascus to bring in chains even those who were there to Jerusalem to be punished” (Acts 22:3-5).

Paul was then taken to the current Roman governor, Antonius Felix by the Jewish authorities to validate their judgment against Him. Once it was clear that Paul was a Roman citizen, however, he was taken from the Sanhedrin by the Romans. He was not subject to their jurisdiction.

Citizenship in the Roman Empire

While full Roman citizenship was restricted to those born in Rome and its environs, people from associated states were granted a form of Roman citizenship, without some of the rights which full citizens enjoyed. Judaea, however was a conquered province with none of those rights. Although a Jew, St Paul had been born in Tarsus, a city of Cilicia, in Asia Minor, and the citizens of Tarsus were eligible for Roman citizenship.

When St Paul revealed that he was a Roman citizen, the Sanhedrin knew that they could not touch him. It was illegal to whip or torture Roman citizens who could only be put to death for treason, and never by crucifixion, a punishment for slaves and subject peoples. As a result, some Jewish activists, with the blessing of the chief priests and elders, planned to kidnap Paul and kill him. When the Roman military commander in Jerusalem learned of the plot, “he called for two centurions, saying, ‘Prepare two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearmen to go to Caesarea at the third hour of the night; and provide mounts to set Paul on, and bring him safely to Felix the governor’” (Acts 23:23, 24). Acts continues describing St Paul’s time in custody under Felix and his journey to Rome to be tried before Caesar. During the journey the ship carrying St Paul is shipwrecked off the coast of Malta. After three months on that island, St Paul continues his journey to Rome, meeting with Christians along the way, showing how the Church had spread into Europe even before the death of the last apostles. Acts ends with Paul in Rome, telling us that “Paul dwelt two whole years in his own rented house, and received all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him” (Acts 28:30, 31).

A New Identity in the Making

In addressing Felix St Paul used the original term to describe the Christian faith among its Jewish adherents. This term, “the Way” suggests that the earliest Jewish-Christians did not consider that they had abandoned Judaism. Rather, their Way was simply a recognition that the prophecies in the Torah, the Psalms, and the other Scriptures had been fulfilled. They saw themselves as observing a “completed Judaism,” to use a modern term, not a different religion.

Contemporary authors often point out that “the Way” suggests a way of life, not a new set of beliefs. The followers of “the Way” had the same Scriptures as other Jews, worshipped in the temple and celebrated God’s promise of a Messiah. The difference between them was that the followers of Jesus believed that He was the Messiah. The uniqueness of their Way was that Greeks as well as Jews were welcome in their company if they accepted Jesus as Lord. As we read in Acts 11, it was among the “Greeks,” the Gentiles in Antioch, that the term “Christian” was first used. Many commentators hold that Christian was originally a term of derision. It contrasted these followers of Jesus with the Caesarians, who patriotically worshipped the Roman emperor. It was certainly used in that way by King Agrippa, who told St Paul sarcastically, “You almost persuade me to become a Christian!” (Acts 26:28)

The third ancient term for believers in Acts is found in chapter 24. Paul is brought before the Roman procurator and is accused by the Jewish spokesman Catullus of being “a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes” (24:5). Paul and his company were called Nazarenes because they followed Jesus of Nazareth. While “Christian” became the common name for Christ’s followers in the Greco-Roman world, the Aramaic/Semitic world generally preferred the term Nazarene (Nasrani). Thus the members of the Syriac Churches of India are called Mar Thoma Nasrani, because they trace their identity to the mission of St Thomas the Apostle who brought the Gospel to their nation
“HOLY FATHER, KEEP THROUGH YOUR NAME those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are” (John 17:11). As His earthly life was approaching its end the Lord Jesus offered this prayer for His disciples. The questions it raises have preoccupied the Church for centuries: how are the Father and the Son “one” and how can the followers of Christ be one “as We are”?

The Unity of God

The distinguishing mark of God’s people throughout the Old Testament is expressed in the Shema, the invocation which might well be called the Jewish creed: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). This passage is recited daily in the morning and evening services of the synagogue and expresses the monotheism which set Jews apart from others peoples in the ancient world. Many devout Jews hope to be able to recite it with their dying breath. How conflicted must have been those Jews – including Jesus’ own followers – who heard Him say “The works that I do in My Father’s name, they bear witness of Me…I and the Father are one” (John 10: 25, 30). The Jewish leadership saw His claims as blasphemy and condemned Him to death for it. The followers of Jesus accepted it, particularly after His resurrection, without being able to express it with clarity. The question of how the Lord Jesus could be one with the Father was raised again in the fourth century in the context of a dispute between a charismatic Libyan priest, Arius, and his bishop, Alexander of Alexandria. Arius challenged Alexander for teaching that the Son was eternally begotten of the Father, before earthly time began. Arius countered that “if the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence: and from this it is evident, that there was a time when the Son was not. It therefore necessarily follows, that he [the Son] had his substance from nothing” (quoted in the fifth-century Ecclesiastical Histories of Socrates Scholasticus as describing the essence of Arius’ doctrine). In a local council of his presbyters Alexander deposed Arius and exiled him. Arius, however, had supporters among other bishops and the controversy threatened to disrupt the unity of the Churches in the Roman Empire which had only recently come to look on Christians with favor. This is where the emperor, Constantine the Great, stepped in.

The First Council of Nicaea (325)

For almost twenty years Constantine had been consolidating his position of power in the Roman Empire. At the time of Diocletian (284-305) the empire had been divided into four districts, a move which proved disastrous in the long run. Constantine had defeated all rivals and secured complete control of the empire by the year 324. He was not about to see it plagued by divisions among the Churches. Constantine invited all the bishops of the empire (the “ecumene”) to a great council to be held at his summer palace in Nicaea. He provided them and their attendant priests and deacons with travel and lodging at imperial expense with the understanding that this gathering was to help unify the Churches of the empire. Bishops, traditionally numbered at 318, came from as far east as Nisibis, on the border of the Persian Empire, and from as far west as Spain and Gaul (France). The Council’s chief theological task was to express the Churches’ common faith in the relationship between the Father and the Son. The Fathers referred to the Creeds of the various local Churches which were their rule for instruction and baptisms. The bishops ultimately subscribed to a creed based on the baptismal use of the Churches of Palestine. They inserted the term homoousios (one in essence) to describe the relationship of the Father and the Son and appended the following anti-Arian censure: “But those who say: ‘There was a time when He was not;’ and ‘He was not before He was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’—they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.” The Nicene Creed would be completed at the Second Ecumenical Council and it is that form – with some minor variations - which is used in the Liturgies of all the historic Churches. The Nicene Council also addressed administrative and disciplinary issues intended to strengthen the unity of the Churches. Among them was the attempt to unify the method of celebrating the resurrection. While most Churches observed Pascha on a Sunday calculated after the spring equinox, some observed it following the computation used to determine the Jewish Passover. The Council endorsed the first of these options and called for all Churches to comply. It also affirmed the practice of not kneeling on Sundays or during the 50 days between Pascha and Pentecost in celebration of the resurrection. Finally the council recognized an order of precedence among the principal sees in the empire: Rome, Alexandria and Antioch. It also recognized that a special honor be given to the Church of Jerusalem, “the Mother of all the Churches.” This order would be amended at the Council of Chalcedon when Constantinople, the “New Rome,” was given the second place. Constantine’s Council did not achieve the unity he sought at once. The next two emperors favored Arianism; it would be his third successor, Theodosius I, who affirmed the Nicene decision once and for all in AD 380. American Protestants seem ambiguous about Arianism according the Protestant group, Ligonier Ministries. According to a recent online survey of 3000 Western Christians which they conducted, almost all evangelicals say they believe in the Trinity (96%) and that Jesus is fully human and fully divine (88%). But nearly a quarter (22%) said God the Father is “more divine” than Jesus, and 9 percent weren’t sure. Further, 16 percent say Jesus was the first creature created by God, while 11 percent were unsure.

Nicaea III (2025)?

On May 26, 2014 the Pope of Rome and the Ecumenical Patriarch met in Jerusalem to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the 1964 meeting of their predecessors Paul VI and Athenagoras, the first such encounter in centuries. At that meeting Patriarch Bartholomew proposed that they gather again in 2025 for the 1700th anniversary of the First Council of Nicaea. The patriarch proposed that they meet at the site of the council, now the Turkish city of Iznik. The patriarch said that he and Pope Francis had “agreed to leave as a legacy to ourselves and to our successors, to celebrate together a gathering in Nicea in 2025, after 17 centuries, the first truly ecumenical synod, where the Creed was first promulgated.” Should such a commemoration bring together representatives of all the historic Churches which accepted this council, that in itself would be a momentous gesture. At their historic 1964 meeting the first hierarchs of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches prayed that their brotherly gesture, after “so many centuries of silence…may be the sign and prelude of things to come for the glory of God and the enlightenment of His faithful people.” Nicaea in 2025 may outdo them.
IN MONASTIC OR RELIGIOUS CIRCLES it is common for spiritual leaders to leave their followers a “spiritual testament,” an outline of the teachings and instructions which they want uppermost in their disciples’ minds. Christ’s prayer in John 17 is a kind of spiritual testament. In it the Lord expresses His holy will for Himself, for His apostles, for the Church and for all mankind on the eve of His crucifixion. The Time of His Glorification– The prayer begins with Christ praying for Himself: “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify You” (verse 1). What the Scripture calls Christ’s “hour” refers to the time of His redeeming sacrifice. Christ prays that He would be glorified by the completeness of this self-emptying. He totally enters into our experience of suffering and death in order to be one with us in all things except sin. His glory would not be the earthly idea of glory – power and might – but the glory of absolute and unconditional love. Jesus as the Eternal Word Made Flesh – The prayer continues: “glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with You before the world began” (verse 5). The heavenly glory, known to the angels, was to be manifested to us on earth through the cross. This reference brings us back to the proclamation of who Jesus is, which is found in the very first verse of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word…” The Gospel proclaims Jesus as the pre-eternal Word of God who is glorified with the Father before all ages. Jesus is not simply a prophet or inspired teacher – He is the One whom the Gospel says “…was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him and without Him nothing was made that was made” (John 1:2, 3). This portrait of the eternal Word as one with the Father shows us a God who is in an eternal relationship and who is, therefore, love by His very nature (cf., 1 John 4:8). God’s relationship is, first of all, with the true and entirely appropriate object of His love: His divine Word who is glorified with Him from all eternity. Based on the words of this prayer the Church would go on to speak of Christ as “equal in glory with the Father.” Combining this with Christ’s teaching on the Holy Spirit, later believers would express this relationship as the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Our Re-creation is in Christ – Between verses 1 and 5 we find a third concept recorded in the Gospel: “…You have given Him authority over all flesh that He should give eternal life to as many as You have given Him” (verse 2). The Word of God, through whom all things were made, is now incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth as the agent of a new creation. Mankind is given a new life which is, in fact, a second chance at the life intended for him from the beginning as described in the book of Genesis. This life is then described: “And this is eternal life: that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (verse 3). Eternal life, authentic life is communion: that knowledge which flows from a relationship with God. It was a relationship of communion which Genesis describes as God “walking with Adam” in the Garden. That fellowship, once lost, is restored through Christ. Some scholars believe that this verse is the Evangelist’s commentary on Christ’s prayer, an aside in the text, since it refers to the Lord in the third person. There were no quotation marks, punctuation or even paragraphs in first-century Greek manuscripts so it is possible that this is so. This verse does make an excellent commentary, a kind of liturgical refrain not only to this prayer but to our entire life in Christ. All of the Church’s life – our liturgies, icons, practices – draws its power from the relationship which we have with God. When we are in a living communion with Him, everything that we do as Christians shows forth that life. Our interior eyes gain the power to see what is present in the Scriptures, the Eucharist or the saints. They become means for us to deepen the life which comes from our relationship with God in Christ. If we are not living in that relationship then these practices are simply outward forms which will increasingly bore us. Prayer That His Disciples Be One – The prayer continues: “I have manifested Your name to the men whom You have given me out of the world…. and they have believed that you sent me” (verses 6, 8). The apostles had been called forth by Christ to leave their families and their livelihoods to follow Him. They were about to see Him arrested, humiliated and killed. They in their turn would face similar ends. Yet He prays, not that they remain steadfast, but that they remain one. “Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given me, that they may be one as we are” (verse 11). The unity of the apostles in Christ would be more significant that the physical lives of any one of them, because from that communion would come the ongoing life of the entire Church. Prayer for the Church and the World – A few verses later we find a similar prayer for the whole Church and the world as well: “I do not pray for those alone, but also for those who will believe through their word that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me and I in You that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me” (verses 20-21). This mutual interaction of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the Trinity is extended to humanity in the Church. The bond we have with God is no longer simply that of creature to Creator; it is the filial relationship of the Son to the Father. “as You, Father, are in Me and I in You.” The Church, then, is not simply a human association of Jesus’ followers but an organic union of those who are “one in Us.” Finally, the world’s conversion to Christ is tied to the communion of the Church with God. This passage is often explained to mean that when Christians are united to one another the rest of the world will believe. It is perhaps more accurate to say that when the Church in “one in Us” – finding the source of its unity in the life of the Trinity rather than in authority, political power or other external factors – people will be drawn to it.

The Icon of Our Communion with God

The icon which most perfectly expresses this vision for the communion of the Church as being “one in Us” is the adaptation by St Andrei Rublev of the traditional image, “The Hospitality of Abraham.” The patriarch himself and other details from the Genesis story are deleted and all we see are the three guests whom he entertained, seated around a table. In Genesis 18:2 these visitors are described as “three men” but Rublev depicts them as angels. In fact Genesis 18:13 and verses following refer to Abraham’s company as “the LORD,” causing the Fathers to see this visitation as an early indication of the Trinity. Their eternal relationship is expressed by the fluid motion of their gestures. The fourth place at the table, included in these gestures, is set for us. Through baptism we have been brought into the eternal relationship of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The single vessel on the table suggests the means of our ongoing communion with God, the Eucharist.

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