“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever.” Heb 13:8
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, lived a man that believed another man to be the eternal Son of God. At the same time, in a land also far away, another son of God believed the eternal Son of God to be just a man. Both stood up for their convictions, both called themselves Christian, and both considered themselves part of the same Church. At one point, the latter enjoyed the support from Eastern bishops, coerced the support from most Western bishops with help from the head of State at the time, the emperor of Rome (Constantius), and even got the Pope (Liberius) to agree to it. The former was a saint named Athanasius. The other was Arius.
The saint was eventually exiled. A number of synods were called, even though the Council of Nicea (from where we got the Nicene Creed still recited today at Mass) had already declared belief “in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father…”. The primary goal of those synods was to modify the wording, and be more inclusive of Arian thought. In 355 AD, the Emperor called a council in Milan to bring Arianism to become “officially” declared in the Church. Eventually, the new formula was sent to all bishops, and only a few refused it. St Jerome lamented this period as a time where “The world groaned and was astonished to find itself Arian.”.
The Catholic response came swiftly. On a side note, the Emperor convened another General Council at Nicomedia, however, an earthquake destroyed the episcopal church there and part of the city (year 360), so that plan was abandoned. By the year 362, Hilary of Poitiers (Doctor of the Church) convoked the Council in Paris, and many bishops retracted their early signatures to Arianism. A certain Cyril of Jerusalem did the same.
The error of Arius still influences Eastern thought, namely, that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father only. This belief has implications on the nature of the Holy Trinity and the Immaculate Conception of Mary. About three centuries later, a nomad Arab on the edges of the Eastern empire, received a vision whereby Jesus was confirmed as a great prophet who will come at the end of ages, but like in Jewish tradition, reiterated in no uncertain terms, that it was blasphemous to call Him the Son of God. He is after-all only human. The same all-knowing spirit also told this nomad that Christians believe the Trinity to be God the Father, Jesus the Son, and…. Mary. (Quran 5:116) Arius would be proud.
In Galatians 4:6, St Paul tells us “God has sent the Spirit of His Son…”. In Romans 8:9, he says, “But you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Any one who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.”. In John 16:7, Jesus tells His disciples, “Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” Although the angel Gabriel did hail Mary as “Full of Grace” and Elizabeth cried out in joy “Blessed are you among women”, none worshipped her as God. Neither do we.
In summary, we have heresy by priests and bishops, apostasy, synods and more synods, councils, a Pope that said one thing under threat from the head of state, and then said another, meddling in Church affairs by the State, the canon of the Bible was not yet finalized (that came in 382 at Council of Rome), persecutions of Christians still abounded despite legal status by this point, transubstantiation was not defined yet, and so much more. Sounds a little bit like it’s 2023! The Christians of that time did not have a full Bible, were illiterate, did not have radio, TV, Internet or social media, might attend Mass presided by heretic and led by Arian bishop, yet despite these conditions, there was no “mass” exodus of believers (pun intended), no proliferation of various denominations. Was it simply blissful ignorance in the pews that kept these communities united? Perhaps they were too busy going about their lives, fragile as they were. (is it really any different now? In Canada, 46% of Canadians live paycheque to paycheque). Even when various emperors took sides (often leading to persecution of the “other side”), the Church not only survived, but thrived and grew exponentially.
I do not know how the average Christian in those times did not succumb to those storms, and the answer is likely multi-faceted, but I do see Arius and Athanasius replaying all over again in our times. Will we choose the route of the saint or of the synod? A change for conversion or a conversion to change? The new precepts being proposed as pastoral care, are the equivalent of abortion and euthanasia being peddled as health-care. The latter leads to physical death, the former to spiritual death. For all those prelates embarrassed by our Lord, Jesus offers these words of comfort: “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” Mark 8:38
Saint Athanasius was not ashamed of the Lord nor ashamed of His Church. He was persecuted, falsely accused, and threatened by those supposed to be of the same community. He was “cancelled” you may say. He had every reason to leave, to say this institution is beyond saving. Instead he said, “this cloud too shall pass”. As in the parable of the talents, Jesus praises those who endure with little: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’ Matthew 25:23 G.K. Chesterton was once asked why he joined the Church, and people came closer to hear what they expected to be a long treatise or essay on the subject. He told them, “To have my sins forgiven.” The first step to conversion is always repentance. It’s true that one can ask God directly, just as one can also directly pour water over one’s head. In short order, we will also be identifying ourselves as pope, with infallibility of course.
“The Holy Spirit cannot teach the Church as true today, what the Holy Spirit once taught the Church as false. That is, the Holy Spirit, having once taught the Church that X makes for righteous living, happiness, and eternal beatitude and Y does not, will not and cannot teach that Y is now a source of grace….To suggest otherwise is to adopt a quasi-Islamic concept of God as sheer willfulness, which is not the biblical concept of God. In light of present controversies, it must be said that this self-evident truth – that the Holy Spirit never contradicts what the Holy Spirit previously taught the Church as the truth – applies to our being created as men and women, and to the authentic expression of human love (cf. Genesis 1.27-28).” says George Weigel (biographer of Pope St John Paul II)
Sacred Tradition is not a rigid straightjacket, but a life vest that keeps us afloat if we get pushed overboard the ship! It reminds us of the works of the Holy Spirit throughout the centuries. Athanasius contra mundum was his nickname – “Athanasius against the world.” One saint against the world…. and he won.
“Jesus answered them, “Do you now believe? The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, every man to his home, and will leave me alone; yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:31-33)
St Joseph – pray for us.
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