On the sixth Sunday after Pascha, i.e. the Sunday which is located between the Holy Ascension of the Lord and Pentecost Sunday, the Orthodox Church commemorates the Holy Fathers of the first Ecumenical Council who gathered in Nicaea in 325 AD.
The Gospel reading on this Sunday is from Evangelist John (17: 1-13) and is what is known as Jesus’ last Hierarchical Prayer before His holy passions and His death on the Cross. The Church arranged to commemorate these Holy Fathers after the Holy Ascension to affirm their teachings that the Lord Jesus Christ, who ascended in the flesh into heaven, is the true and complete God, and also a complete man in the flesh.
Within the Orthodox Church sits seven large assemblies called Ecumenical Councils, the first of which was held in Nicaea (now Turkey) in 325 AD, and the last of which was the Seventh Ecumenical Council, also held in Nicaea in 787 AD. The 318 Holy Fathers met in Nicaea to respond to the heresy of Arius (Arianism). Arius, the notorious heretic, began to blaspheme against God and His Son the Word, saying that the latter was not God consubstantial with the Father, but that He was created as a stranger to the Substance of the Father and His glory.
The Holy Fathers refuted the heresy of Arius and testified to the true Orthodox faith. They recognised that Christ is a true and perfect God and of one essence with the Father, and that He only can open the path of man’s union with God that is ‘Theosis” or Deification. The Lord Jesus as omniscient and full of wisdom, prayed, “This is the eternal life that they know you, the only true God whom Jesus Christ that Thou sent”.
The Holy Church pre-empted that any heresy or false teaching against the true knowledge will have catastrophic consequences on our salvation. Eternal life requires real and true knowledge (experience with) of God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ. Any prejudice within the Christian faith will inevitably lead to the loss of eternal life, that is, our salvation in the Lord Jesus. If Christ was not consubstantial with the Father, then He would not be able to save the world and bring it to God’s final providence which is known as Theosis, Deification or union with God.
The Ecumenical Council convened in 325, 12 years after the “Edict of Milan” on 313 AD, when public persecutions against the Church had stopped. These saintly Fathers attended each one, and every one of them bore on his body the “marks of Jesus.” That is the signs of the persecutions they had suffered to testify to the Victorious Lord. Most of them were marred with wounds from torture; clearly visible on their bodies. Others came with amputated and disfigured members. Their faith was not merely philosophical and theoretical theology, but just as much the fruit of struggle and martyrdom, it was a living belief in the teachings of the Lord and testifying to what he said: “If they had persecuted me before, know that they will persecute you,” and “In the world you will have tribulation, but trust, I have overcome the world.” For this reason, the Holy Church praises them as “a divine army, God-inspired soldiers of the camp of the Lord, ye most brilliant luminaries in the super sensuous firmament, ye impregnable towers of the mystical Zion, ye scented flowers of paradise, the golden lights of the Word.”
The Lord Jesus knows full well that heresies and all false and corrupt teachings are more dangerous for the Church than declared external persecutions, just like the weeds that choke the good fruits. In His last prayer to His father, Christ prayed for the unity of the Church, its unity around her Master and Savior, the Lord Jesus, saying, ” Holy Father, keep them in Thy Name, which Thou hast given Me, that they may be one, even as We are one.”
The Lord Jesus prayed in his last prayer for His disciples and also for those who believe in Him through them, saying, ” I am praying for them; I am not praying for the world but for those whom Thou hast given Me, for they are Thine; all Mine are Thine, and Thine are Mine, and I am glorified in them”.
Christ’s prayer, in principle, was for the disciples who accepted Him, but for our time, it extends to all those who accept Him throughout the generations, and who hear these words, preserving them and living accordingly.
When Jesus says, “I do not ask for the sake of the world,” this does not mean that He hates the world and does not pray for it. When Christ speaks of the world, he is referring to the corrupt and fallen world. The word “world” according to the Evangelist John carries several meanings, the first being the world in the sense of the universe as a whole, the creation of God. The second meaning is in the sense of the human being, the man who is the crown of all creatures, everything created for him and for his service. The third meaning represents the world of evil and sin, or as Christ, according to St John, calls Satan “the prince of this world” (John 14: 30,12,31,16,11); i.e. the fallen world of all those who follow the lusts it has to offer.
The Holy Father’s assembly in Nicaea formulated one of the greatest Orthodox confessions, what is now known as the “The Creed” or the “Statement of Faith”. The Creed makes the statement of faith about the Son of God through these words: “Light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one essence with the Father.” This was completed through the second Ecumenical Synod.
We are called today to be faithful to the teachings of our Holy Orthodox Church, the dogma which we received from the Lord Himself and after Him from the Holy Apostles, and which the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical formulated under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and continuing after them through all the subsequent Holy and Ecumenical synods.
Eternal life is to know Christ, to have a personal experience with Him, and this knowledge should be the truth as has been revealed to us by Him without deformation, distortion or change. When we change and distort this true knowledge, we lose the eternal life.
While celebrating on this day the holy Fathers’ memory, O all-compassionate Saviour, we pray to You by their entreaties to save Your people and Your flock from all the harm of heresies and thus make us all worthy to extol the Word and the Father, yea, and the All-holy Spirit”.
THE EXAPOSTEILARION OF THE HOLY FATHERS
+ Metropolitan Basilios