The monumental event we celebrate today needs little introduction. In the wake of the great persecutions of the first three centuries of the Church’s life, after the pious emperor Constantine gave privileged status to the Christian Faith within the borders of the Roman Empire, the Church was troubled from within by a much more pernicious threat than pagan persecution. Arius, an influential presbyter in the most theologically influential church, the church of Alexandria, began trying to propagate his own subtle reasonings as the authentic teaching of the Apostles, claiming that Jesus, the Son of God, was not divine with the same divinity as God the Father. According to Arius, the Son was merely a creature—the highest of God’s creatures, but a creature nonetheless. This opportunist famously spread his false teaching with catchy jingles that his followers would sing in the marketplace, with words like, “There was a time when he—that is, the Son—was not.”
Every faithful Orthodox Christian, though they may be unable to refute all of Arius’ theological subtleties and plausible scriptural quotations, ought to feel a visceral reaction to the magnitude of his blasphemy. We may not be able to articulate it clearly, but we should sense deeply and instinctively that our faith, and the promise of salvation it brings, is bound up entirely with the issue of the divinity of Jesus Christ our Savior—that our eternal fate hangs on how we answer the Lord’s question to his disciples: Whom say ye that I am? (Mt. 16:15).
If we know this so well, we may wonder why Arius’ teaching became so popular, how so many Christians were confused by it and led astray. But imagine trying to engage in theological dispute without the guidance of not only the first, but of any Ecumenical Council, and the significance of the holy event we remember today will become clear. We live and worship in the temple of God that these holy Fathers built, protected from false teachings by the sure signposts they have laid down for us. Without them, we would surely be just as lost as the many who were taken in by Arius’ teaching.
But for the vast majority of our contemporaries, the matter at the heart of the First Ecumenical Council is not a live issue. It is a matter of puzzlement, rather, why religious doctrine would ever be considered so important. What difference does it make, after all? At the Council, there was only one letter—a single iota, the proverbial “jot”—that distinguished Orthodoxy from heresy. Even for many who call themselves Christians, such dogmatic disputes of no relevance—all that’s important is just to love Jesus, or to follow the Bible. And among totally secular people, the same attitude is often broadened in scope to include all religions, so that, it doesn’t matter what you believe, just as long as you’re a “good person.” To such a mindset, it is insufferable arrogance to make definitive dogmatic statements; for who can claim to know absolute truth, if it even exists at all? To do so is nothing more than narrow-minded fanaticism that displays a lack of charity. This contemporary indifference to truth and tolerance of every falsehood always takes the guise of “love and compassion.”
We must bear in mind, then, the essential connection between the Nicene Faith that we hold so dear, and love—true love, love which is according to God. For such love is only possible through faith in Jesus Christ—true faith, right faith, faith in Christ as he is and as he revealed himself, and not faith in a false Christ, an antichrist. And in turn, all of the authentic dogmatic expressions of our faith were born out of a communion of love between the holy Fathers present at each Council, whose genuine spiritual fellowship allowed the Comforter, the Spirit of truth, to come into their midst and act, and guide them into all truth. To the blind and perishing world, nothing is more intolerable than this love and this truth, which it hates, and which it so ironically calls “hate.” But this should come as no surprise to us. Marvel not, says the Lord, if the world hate you; for it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own, but since ye are not of the world… therefore, the world hateth you (Jn. 15-19).
It is only fitting that before the solemn recitation of the Nicene Creed at every Divine Liturgy, we are exhorted with these words: “Let us love one another that with one mind we may confess Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Trinity, one in essence and undivided.” Here we repeat the crucial word that was at stake at the Council of Nicaea, homoousios, consubstantial, of one and the same essence. The Church is constantly reminding us that we can only rightly confess the true faith if we heed the Lord’s commandment to love one another; for God is love, and so he that loveth not knoweth not God (1 Jn. 4:8). We cannot rest content with simply celebrating the salvific dogma that triumphed at the Council, honoring it in words and hymns only. We must strive to make this dogma our own, to apprehend it ourselves, by striving to fulfill the Lord’s commandment of love. The world which is indifferent to truth will not be impressed by right dogmas. But, as the Lord says, by this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another (Jn. 13:35).
The world needs nothing more desperately than for us to show forth this love, because iniquity abounds, and the love of many has grown cold. We live in uncertain times, without precedent in living memory. Our country grows ever more bitterly polarized politically, economically, and socially, with no signs of turning back. The unrest brimming just beneath the surface of our society shows itself, and if it is a harbinger of things to come, then we ought not to find Fr. Seraphim Rose’s prediction far-fetched, that what began in Russia will end in America. But in the face of a global pandemic, civil unrest, wars and commotions, we should not give way to apocalyptic fears or indulge in wild speculations about the nefarious forces at work. Christ tells us not be troubled by such things, for they must come to pass (Mt. 24:6). Ye know that in the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (Jn. 16:33). And as the holy Apostle John assures us, this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith. Who is he that overcometh the word, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God (1 Jn. 5:4-5).
So let us cherish our faith, which we have inherited from the holy Fathers of the Nicene Council, and rooting and establishing ourselves in it, let us strive to make it living reality in and among ourselves; for the all-conquering grace of the Son of God, consubstantial with the Father, can overcome our passions and weaknesses and enable us to love according to the commandment of the Father. Then will be fulfilled in us the prayer of the Savior read in today’s Gospel: Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are. Amen.