Joy of All Who Sorrow

Homily on the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the Council of Nicea

Gospel: John 17:1-13

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Dear Fathers, dear Mother and brothers and sisters:

Happy Feast of the Glorious Ascension of Christ!

Today we now celebrate both the afterfeast of the Ascension of Christ as well as the commemoration of the Fathers of the First Oecumenical Council. This commemoration is appointed to be celebrated on the 7th Sunday of Pascha which is always the Sunday after the Ascension of Christ. According to Fr Sergei Bulgakov, the holy church, ‘glorifies these same Holy Fathers … on the Sunday after the Ascension because the most glorious Ascension of the Lord serves as clear proof of the inseparable connection of the two natures in Jesus Christ, the divine and the human.’ The human body of the Resurrected Incarnate Son being raised and ascended up into Heaven to take His place, which He has never left, at the Right side of the Father. To interpret today’s Holy Gospel reading from St John’s Gospel, let us turn to our Holy Father John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople.

These words spake Jesus, and lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify thee:

Our Gospel reading for the Feast of the Fathers comes from chapter 17 of St John’s Gospel. This reading forms part of a long discourse of our Saviour called the High Priestly Prayer which is only preserved in the Fourth Gospel where, as we hear Him say in the first verse, ‘He lifted up his eyes to heaven’ and addresses the Heavenly Father interceding for His disciples. As St John Chrysostom says –

Christ put His words into practice before them, and told them to follow that example … He turned to prayer … to teach us to take refuge in God in our trials, and to spurn everything else.

On this afterfeast of the Ascension it is apt that we hear our Saviour looking up to Heaven. This underlines by His word, by His example how we too should look upwards and not be drawn down into worldly cares, into the sins of this world: to coveting material things; to judging or gossiping about our brothers and sisters. Instead let us follow the example of our Lord and look up to heaven and even at this point of extreme temptation, of incredible struggle He prays.

This first verse also shows us why this passage is appointed for the Fathers of the First Oecumenical Council. This Council met at Nicea in 325AD and was called by the Emperor Constantine because there had arisen a serious theological disagreement in the Church of Alexandria which was causing a fundamental rift between different Fathers in Church. The controversy had started when a certain presbyter named Arius heard a sermon by the Orthodox bishop of Alexandria, Alexander in which he affirmed the full equality between the Father and the Son. To Arius this seemed to deny the honour and superiority of the Father. According to the Church historian Socrates of Constantinople, Arius argued 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.’ For Arius the Son was at the very pinnacle of Creation, the first and greatest of God’s creatures, but a created being nonetheless whose and essence and existence were not equal to the Father.

Bishop Alexander was scandalized – quite rightly – by the novel and radical teaching that Arius was spreading and at a local council, he condemned and exiled Arius from his diocese. However, unfortunately, this heretical teaching of Arius could not be contained within the Alexandrian diocese and began to spread throughout the empire and causing considerable disturbance as to the true identity and nature of Son and his relationship in being to the Father. After an initial attempt by Hosius, bishop of Cordoba, with discord still raging throughout the Church, the newly converted Emperor Constantine decided to convene a council of the whole church spread throughout the whole inhabited earth (oikumene) to gather in the city of Nicea. Each diocese throughout the East and Western parts of the empire were invited to send one or more representatives to the council to come and debate the question as to the Son’s identity and nature which had been raised by Arius. According to the testimony of St Athanasius, St Hiliary of Poitiers and St Jerome there were in total 318 bishops that gathered together at Nicea. After two months of fierce debate, however, the Arian faction was defeated and Arius was anathematized as the Fathers agreed with the position of Bishop Alexander and adopted the Creed of Nicea with its crucial affirmation that the Son is consubstantial / homoousios of one essence with the Father. And with that one word, Arianism was destroyed.

As we shall see, however, our reading today from St John’s Gospel gives us an insight, a glimpse into the Mystery of the union and ineffable relationship between the Son and the Father. St John Chrysostom points out that by this prayer – the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify thee, that He is no passive victim, that He has full and equal power and agency –

‘how could this be against His will, if He was praying for it to take place, and was calling His sufferings ‘glory’.

As thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him.

Again it wasn’t necessary for our Lord to speak out these words to His Father. For His Father knew exactly what He wanted or willed through the depth of their ineffable unity. As our Lord says when He went to raise Lazarus, a couple of chapters previously – Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. And I knew that thou hearest me always: but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me. Just so, here He also speaks not for the benefit of the Father, but for His disciples. As St John Chrysostom says –

He was pointing out, meanwhile, that the teachings contained in His preaching were destined, not for the Jews only, but also were to embrace the whole world and He was laying the first foundations of the calling of the Gentiles … He was pointing out that His Father, as well as He, willed the salvation of the Gentiles.

And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent. I have glorified thee on the earth: I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do.

We see throughout this passage this dynamic of the Father giving to the Son, and the Son giving and returning to the Father. St John picks up in his homily that our Lord references that He has glorified the Father on earth, ‘for the Father was already glorified in heaven’ by all the Heavenly hosts.

And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was.

What is this glory that our Lord refers to? This was the Glory which the disciples glimpsed on Mount Tabor, but which was not fully revealed until He had risen in glory from the Tomb.

His words concerned the Incarnation, since His human nature had not yet been glorified, nor did it as yet enjoy incorruptibility …

Against Arius, however, we can see again how our Saviour, the Son, references the Glory He shared with the Father- ‘before the world was’, before creation.

I have manifested thy name unto the men which thou gavest me out of the world: thine they were, and thou gavest them me; and they have kept thy word.

Importantly, the name which our Lord used and taught His disciples to use about God was Father. As St Cyril of Jerusalem though reminds the catechumens listening to his lectures in the Holy Sepulchre – to call God Father, is to say that He is the Father of a Son, and even this simple words points us towards the Orthodox understanding of the Holy Trinity.

It is not the same thing, of course, to know that He is the Creator as to know that He has a Son. He is making two points by His words in this instance, namely that He was in complete harmony with the Father, and it was the Father’s will for them to believe in His Son.

Now they have known that all things whatsoever thou hast given me are of thee. For I have given unto them the words which thou gavest me; and they have received them, and have known surely that I came out from thee, and they have believed that thou didst send me. I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine.

Again we see this circularity from the Father and reflected back from the Son to the Father. We also see the tenderness of our Lord’s concern and love for His flock, for His disciples who He knew in just a few hours time He would be leaving and would then scatter.

His prayer had no other purpose than that they might learn His love for them.

And all mine are thine, and thine are mine; and I am glorified in them.

This verseperhaps more than any other in this lapidary passage shows this complete unity of the Father and the Son –

Do you see the equality of the Father and Son? … For the things that the Father has are the Son’s and the things that the Son has are the Father’s.

And now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to thee. Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are. While I was with them in the world, I kept them in thy name: those that thou gavest me I have kept, and none of them is lost, but the son of perdition; that the scripture might be fulfilled. And now come I to thee; and these things I speak in the world, that they might have my joy fulfilled in themselves.

And now I come to thee – we can see these words of the Saviour fulfilled in the present feast of the Ascension. But our Lord did not want His disciples to be bereft when He leaves the world to ascend, but that they might know and understand that this was all part of the Divine Oeconomy, to enable the coming down of the Holy Spirit.

Furthermore, by saying these words He made it clear that He said everything as He did, for the sake of their peace and joy

And it was through the Council of Nicea, through the Symbol of Faith which the 318 Fathers affirmed that the unity and the oneness of the Church was preserved, and this unity was precisely built on the affirmation of the unity of the Father and the Son that we see so beautifully expressed in this unique High Priestly Prayer: that they may be one, as we are. We in the Church are asked to mirror and reflect the Unity of the Godhead in our unity and love with one another.

So my dear Father, brothers and sisters, let us give thanks for the Fathers of the Council of Nicea and the unifying Symbol of Faith that we still confess today. Let us never fall into the trap of seeing this creed as just obscure, subtle theology. Each word of the creed was prayed over and tested that it might serve to preserve the sacred, saving inheritance of the original Faith of the Apostles which had been passed down through the ages from believer to believer. The question of the relationship of the Son to the Father is right at the heart of our Faith, as if the Son was not fully God, fully equal with the Father, fully part of the Divine Essence or Being, then God did not become Man in Jesus Christ. And if God did not become Man in Jesus Christ, then human nature has not been fully healed, fully illumined through the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ and His glorious Resurrection, which then undermines the whole basis of our salvation and deification. In the words of St Athanasius the Great, that great hero of the Council of Nicea, God became man that man might become God. Let us thus confess the Creed together in perfect unity with one another, with one voice and with one heart – that we might reflect the Unity and the Love of the Father and the Son.