The Eternally Present Moment - Anamnesis and the Holy Fathers of the Six Ecumenical Councils (2023)

The Eternally Present Moment - Anamnesis and the Holy Fathers of the Six Ecumenical Councils (2023) - Holy Cross Monastery





Anamnesis is a term which describes how past events are brought into the present moment; however, it is more than remembrance or recollection. In effect, it is the removal of the historical aspect of an event or events which in turn makes all of time (historical and future) an eternally present moment. As one Byzantine scholar notes:

The basis for liturgical anamnesis is not psychological recall but theophany, an active, faith encounter now with the present saving activity of Christ. For what Christ was and did, he still is and does; it is he who preaches the Word, he who calls us to himself, he who binds the wounds of our sin and washes us in the waters of salvation, he who feeds us with his own life, he who is the pillar of fire leading us across the horizon of our own salvation history, lighting our sin-darkened path . . . In this theology, church ritual constitutes not only a representation, but also a re-presentation - a rendering present again…[1]

The Orthodox Liturgical scholar, Fr. Michel Najim, affirming the same understanding, notes that within our Orthodox Liturgy, there is no past, present or future for the Liturgy exists outside of time because it is in the presence of Christ, the presence of Him who is Eternal and Infinite.[2]

St. Gregory the Theologian (329-390), in his Theological Orations, draws his congregation towards this reality, when, in his Nativity Oration, he says,

Christ is born, give glory; Christ is from the heavens, go to meet him; Christ is on earth, be lifted up. (38.1)

And again in his Paschal Oration, when he says,

Today salvation has come to the world, to things visible and to things invisible. Christ is risen from the dead; rise with him. Christ has returned to himself; return. Christ is freed from the tomb; be freed from the bonds of sin. (45.1)

And also,

Yesterday I was crucified with Him; today I am glorified with Him; yesterday I died with Him; today I am quickened with Him; yesterday I was buried with Him; today I rise with Him. (1.4)[3]

What was past now becomes present, and what is future comes to us now. Moreover, all of the saints join in each Divine Service, and especially the Divine Liturgy, their whole lives being present before us in their person. As this awareness is the foundation to our lives and to our worship, let us now look to the Fathers of the six Ecumenical Councils for their work which has become foundational to the whole Christian world.

What is an Ecumenical Council?

In the early life of the Church, Ecumenical Councils were convened to articulate the position of the five Patriarchates, but, more importantly, they defined the Church’s teaching on the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith – the Trinity and the Incarnation. As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware notes, all Christians regarded these fundamental doctrines as “mysteries” which are beyond human understanding and language, therefore, the bishops of these Councils did not imagine that they had extensively defined these doctrines, but instead articulated the proper ways to speak and think about them thereby protecting the faithful from deviating into error and heresy. “They drew a fence around the mystery,” he writes, “that was all.”[4]

However, the Ecumenical Councils should not be regarded as the highest authority in the Church as Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev notes, for what did the Church do before the First Ecumenical Council in 325, and what has it done since the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787; the answer: relied on its head, that being either the Patriarch, Metropolitan or Archbishop and its Synod. “Each local Church settled its own day-to-day agenda at the local level,” he writes, “The decisions of Ecumenical Councils were not binding to the Churches until approved by their own local Councils.”[5] “Very often the local Council of an individual Church and not an Ecumenical Council became the highest authority in addressing the main questions of the Church’s life and theology,” he notes.[6] “The decisive point was not the Council itself but the inter-Orthodox consensus about its reception. Normally this consensus was reached after the Ecumenical Council and it was based on the decisions of local Councils.”[7]

What does an Ecumenical Council do?

They refute heresies and produce canonical rules.

And how does this relate to the lay person or clergy? Simply put, heresy impedes salvation because it cuts one off from Christ, the source of life.

As Christians, we understand we are to share in God’s glory, and are to be one with God, as the Lord Himself says in John 17,

That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me. (vs. 21-23)

 This “oneness” we call “deification,” that is, we are called to become by grace, what God is by nature, or as St. Athanasius the Great says, “God became human that we might become god.”

Only because Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human, do we believe in deification for no one less than God can save humanity, and only if Jesus Christ is fully human as we are, can we participate in what He has done for us. In the person of Jesus Christ, the God-Man, a bridge is formed between God and humanity.

Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human, and every heresy which has arisen within the Church attempts to undermine this. Therefore we see heresies which explain that Christ is less than God (Arianism), or that his humanity was so divided from His divinity that He was two persons (Nestorianism) or that He is less than human (Monothelitism, Monophysitism).[8]

Apart from refuting heresies, Ecumenical Councils also produce “canonical rules”, otherwise known as canons. Canon Law professor, Reverend Dr. Patrick Viscuso, writes,

Canon Law is the attempt to apply dogma to practical situations in the daily life of each Christian. From this point of view, canon law expresses God’s truth given the time and circumstances. The canons are a divine-human reality parallel to the two natures of the Savior and an extension of God’s saving work and divine redemption. As an incarnational reality, canon law is the expression of the Church’s pastoral life.[9]

The function of the Bishops at these Councils was no small matter. They were called on to delimit the dogmas of Christianity for the whole Orthodox world and to institute canons which guided the moral life of Christians. In short, they found themselves shepherding the whole Church, making clear the way into the Kingdom of Heaven. This they knew, for as the Apostles would act and say, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us (Acts 15.28), so these Fathers, inspired by the same Holy Spirit also began their work saying, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.”

Why are these Fathers significant?

In total, the six Ecumenical Councils had approximately two thousand attendees; therefore, in light of our time constraints, we will only highlight a few of them. However, these Bishops, these Church Fathers, these Saints, are not dead but living and worship with us. How much we should revere them for the sacrifices they made to uphold Christian doctrine, a sacrifice that affects each one of us today.

St. Athanasios of Alexandria (296-373), at the First Ecumenical Council, you proclaimed as Orthodox dogma that the Son and the Spirit are of the same essence as the Father and not created, pray that we would be granted wisdom and love for the Holy Trinity;

St. Gregory the Theologian (329-390), at the Second Ecumenical Council, you made clear who the Holy Trinity is whom we hymn, teach us to rightly worship the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

St. Cyril of Alexandria (376-444), at the Third Ecumenical Council, you were the champion of the most holy Virgin, with you, may we honor the Mother of God;

St. Leo, Pope of Rome (400-461), at the Fourth Ecumenical Council, you did preach the divine and human natures in the one person of Christ which are unconfused, grant clarity to our thoughts and piety in our souls;

St. Justinian, the Great (482-565), convening the Fifth Ecumenical Council, you maintained the two natures of Christ, pray that our souls would be safeguarded from the wiles of the enemy;

St. Maximos the Confessor (580-662), at the Sixth Ecumenical Council, your teaching on the two energies of Christ, establish the incarnation of Him who is truly God and truly man, with you may our knees bow and our tongues confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.


It is these saints, and more, who helped to clarify and give words to Christian doctrine, to discern the times and produce canons applicable thereto, all of which only lead to the salvation of those who abide by them.

Do you struggle to know God? Ask these Fathers for knowledge

Do you struggle to love as you should? Ask these Fathers how you should.

Do you struggle to be a better Christian? Plead with these Fathers for help.

These Fathers have been given to us so that we may know the truth, so that we can understand the Bible, so that we can know the Holy Trinity and live our lives accordingly. What is more, they have not been cut off from us with only their life and works left to be read by us. No, instead they dwell amongst us as they live in the Kingdom of God; they are a present reality and we call upon them, saying, “O Fathers of the Six Ecumenical Councils, pray to God for us!” and they do.




[1] Taft, Robert F. Through Their Own Eyes: Liturgy as the Byzantines Saw It. (Berkeley: Inter Orthodox Press, 2006) 140.

[2] (p.95), last accessed on 7/30/2023.

[3] Cf. Harrison, Nonna Verna. “Gregory Nazianzen’s Festal Spirituality: Anamnesis and Mimesis,” in Philosophy & Theology (18.1).

[4] Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church.

[5] “The Reception of the Ecumenical Councils in the Early Church,” in St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, 47:3-4 (2003); 413-414.

[6] Ibid., 414.

[7] Ibid., 419. “The Universal Church is the totality of local Churches that act independently, although in agreement with each other. The guarantee of this agreement is not an administrative structure but unanimity in the questions of faith and doctrine.” (Ibid., 427).

[8] The Orthodox Church.

[9] Orthodox Canon Law: A Casebook for Study (Brookline: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2006), 3.

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