Today we commemorate the Holy God-bearing Fathers of the first Six Ecumenical Councils. We have a large group here today of many various people. And as many people as there are in Church today, there is probably the same number of various understandings regarding these councils.
There is a vast amount of Church history being commemorated today; the culmination of hundreds of years. One could spend the rest of their life learning about all the ins and outs of the Church’s councils—the various heretics and their heresies; the Saints who upheld and defended the truth of the Orthodox Faith; the many canons, their interpretations, and the various ways they have been applied to the life of the Church throughout the centuries, etc…
However, it seems that we should leave the education and knowledge about this vast history to each one’s own desire. Those who want to learn more about this complex and Spirit-guided history are encouraged to do so. Those who simply do not have time to do so or have no great need to dig into this endeavor can enter into the very heart of these councils by simply living their life of repentance, confession, humility, prayer, love, and worship. Let each one do as they are able and blessed by their spiritual father.
The most important thing to highlight today is how exactly these councils apply to us who are here in this Church.
Let’s start with a very sobering Patristic quote. The quote I am going to read consists of 2 questions and 2 answers. The one being questioned is St. Barsanuphius the Great of Gaza. In brief, for those of us who do not know this Saint, it is enough to point out that he lived in the 6th century. He was truly a God-bearing Father of spiritual stature equal to those many Holy and God-bearing Fathers that we praise today. His words are God’s words, and we should heed them as such. He could raise the dead, and was so filled with grace that—even without being a priest or bishop—he could absolve the sins of others—truly, a remarkable, unique and rare man.
However, that is not all: in his lifetime there was much war, even as there is today, and many heresies and persecutions of the Orthodox. And tradition tells us that he was one of only three people whose prayers were upholding the world from utter destruction, having such power and intimacy with God that his intercessions prolonged the history of the world and the human race. This is a great mystery, but we know that there must be such men of prayer still living.
This is the man being questioned, and this is the man who answers. Let’s hear his answers.
A Christ-loving layman wrote a letter to this great Saint, asking:
“If someone asks me to anathematize Nestorius and the heretics with him, should I do this or not?”
The Saint replied: “The fact that Nestorius and those heretics who follow him are under anathema is clear. But you should never hasten to anathematize anyone at all. For, one who regards himself as sinful should rather mourn over his sins, and do nothing else. Neither, however, should you judge those who anathematize someone; for one should always test oneself.”
The same man writes back, asking:
“But, if someone happens to think, as a result of this, that I believe the same as Nestorius, what should I tell him?”
He receives this answer:
“Tell him: ‘Although it is clear that those people were worthy of their anathema, nevertheless I am more sinful than every other person, and I fear that, in judging anyone else, I may actually condemn myself. Indeed, even if I anathematize Satan himself but happen to be doing his works, then I am in fact anathematizing myself. For the Lord said: ‘If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.’ And the Apostle says [in the 16th chapter of 1st Corinthians]: ‘Let anyone who loves not the Lord Jesus Christ be anathema.’ Therefore, one who does not keep His commandments does not love Him; and whoever does not love Him is under anathema. So then, how can such a person [who is already under anathema] anathematize others?’
“Say these things in response; and if that person still persists in this, then for the sake of his conscience, anathematize the heretic.”
This answer does not contradict the many hymns we heard last night which boldly anathematize all heretics. Rather, these answers of the Saint give us the very Orthodox frame of mind of understanding the content of these anathemas.
We can find two extremes, one to each side of the royal path of Orthodoxy: on one hand we can say: “Why all of this condemning of people?” “This is so harsh and unfair.” “I don’t think Arius is really in hell.” “Maybe these men weren’t so bad, maybe they were just misunderstood.”
We hear much of this today. If not in universities, books, or heterodox teachings, then maybe in our own mind and soul.
On the other hand, there is the opposite extreme of proclaiming these anathemas with utmost pride, all the while being completely blinded to our own sinfulness. Let us remember the great Saint’s words: “Even if I anathematize Satan himself, but happen to be doing his works, then I am in fact anathematizing myself.”
So, the first opinion wants to smooth things over, to gloss over the utter depravity and soul-destroying teachings which spewed forth from the devil’s own mind through the mouths of men who did not heed the countless loving admonitions of their fellow Christians and even the Christ-appointed pastors set over them.
This mentality wants to say that everyone is really okay. If pushed to the extreme, this opinion would like to do away with hell itself. There is some nobility in this. After all, God Himself desires that no one perishes in hell. But the question is not what God desires, but what we desire. This is not the time to discuss that great question of “if God knew that many would misuse their God-like freedom to forever rebel against Him without any repentance, then why did He create us?” There are many questions like this.
But let the un-lying mouth of God Himself be enough for us—even that mouth of Truth Incarnate, our Lord Jesus Christ, the only Lover of mankind, Who alone desires more than all else with a most fiery and burning love for man, that no one would turn away from Him—He Who wept with incomprehensible grief over His beloved children, billions of times greater than the grief of a mother over her dead child: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how many times I would have gathered you under My wings, even as a hen gathers her little chickens. But you would not!”
This same Lord, let His words be enough for us. He states that those who remain completely unrepentant “shall go away into everlasting torment, but the righteous into everlasting life.”
The first extreme of which we have been speaking wants to sacrifice the truth for the sake of love. But this is not love, but deception. Even as a man with a very healthy heart yet without any head is no man at all, so is love without truth.
The other extreme, truth without love—which is not truth at all—also infects many within the Church. We do not have to look very far for this phenomenon. How often might it be that we hear something done by a politician, a bishop, a fellow-monk, or a co-worker which was wrong? We might immediately become indignant and start condemning and judging them and then we go babble about it for hours.
But what shall we answer the most-merciful Christ at His judgment seat—Whose piercing gaze of utmost love and tender broken-heartedness transfixes our soul with holy reverence, as He asks us in meekness and sorrow: “on that day, at that hour, I allowed you some free time so you could be quiet and alone, and draw away from the bustle of the world. You could have read My holy words and prayed to Me, drawing closer to Me. I gave you time to see your own sins and to weep sweet tears of repentance before Me, and I would have graced you with My peace and purity. But you wasted this time and were preoccupied with another man’s sins, and see, I forgave him, because he did it in ignorance. But what excuse do you have, My Orthodox Christian, fellow-member of My very own Holy Body, communicant of My precious blood poured out for the life of the world for the love and forgiveness of every man?”
What shall we answer Christ? How shall we gain back that time? This awareness should be enough for us to start weeping for our constant unconscious sins which only God knows about.
This is exactly what the great Saint Barsanuphius wanted to convey. Yes of course, the revelation of the Church, which speaks the un-lying word of the truth of things, mournfully anathematizes all who have gone astray as Judas, “to their own place.” It is not the Church services that proclaim the condemnation of the heretics with pride, but it is rather the proud and spiritually insensitive soul which interprets them in this way.
When we hear Christ rebuke the Pharisees in the Gospel, we should not hear His voice as condemning and hateful when He cries out to them: “Hypocrites, blind leading the blind, children of the devil.” No! We must hear these words the same way as we hear those words we already spoke about, those mournful maternal words pouring forth from the pained and broken heart of Christ over those who do not want true life in Him, “How many times I would have gathered you in…but you would not!”
To Judas, whom He saw coming to betray Him in the garden of Gethsemane, Christ addresses him—not sarcastically, but—in pure love: “Friend.” If we only perceived the Love which spoke these words, we would never lift our thoughts or feelings or words or hands against anyone ever again, no matter how vile, murderous, or heretical.
Christ ever-calls out to everyone: “Friend!” We have been taught—as we often hear—“hate the sin but love the sinner.” And this fully applies to heretics: “Hate the heresy but love the heretic.”
And how is this love manifested. By prayer, painful prayer; weeping, sorrow over all those who will forever reject God with disdain, who—even though they are being tormented by their own pride and futile rejection of God’s truth and life forever—still never beg Him, “forgive me, Lord; have mercy on me, Lord! Make me new!”
This is what the Fathers did at the 3rd Ecumenical Council. After calling Nestorius to the Council three times, and after he refused three times to come and present his teaching before them and allow himself to be corrected by his fellow bishops, the Fathers proclaimed that they, with no other choice, and “after shedding many tears,” sorrowfully excommunicate and depose the second Judas, Nestorius. See, they wept over his self-destruction; they did not delight in cutting him off from the Church! They were left with no other choice, but they did not parade about their own victory in Orthodoxy, but mournfully wept over the spiritual suicide of the heretical Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius. Let this be an everlasting lesson for us today: “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear!”
St. John of Damascus—a great Father of the Church who lived after the six councils which we commemorate today, and gave us his holy little book “the Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith”, summing up their whole teaching—this father says something very striking:
“For all eternity, God is ever offering all of His good things, all of the riches of His eternal life, to sinners, even to the devil himself. But they will never humbly repent and accept His great gift.”
This is fearful! This is stubbornness, great pride, self-will, and conscious blindness. This is the very character of all the heretics: complete unrepentance which cuts one off from God, His Holy Church, eternal life, and from every other being for all eternity.
Therefore, in order to pronounce a fruitful anathema, let us anathematize all of our evil thoughts and feelings. Let us blame ourselves instead of other people, circumstances, or demons, or much worse: God’s providence which arranges seemingly-misfortunate events in our lives in order to turn us to Him.
What more can be said? What more must we do to confess the Holy Apostolic and Orthodox Faith in the Holy Trinity and the God-Man Jesus Christ, which was defended and expressed by the Ecumenical Councils? The Church teaches us this at every Liturgy:
“Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: the Trinity, one in essence and undivided.” Amen.