“And this is life eternal, that they might know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, Whom Thou has sent” (John 17:3), – said our Lord to God the Father. These words we hear in the Gospel reading of the sixth paschal Sunday – the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the 1st Ecumenical Council. Christ’s disciples also heard these words and carried them throughout the entire world, “even unto the ends of the earth.” These words indicate to us that eternal life and the salvation of the soul of each individual depend on knowing the one true God and His Only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. The Holy Church has always tried to pre-serve the purity of such knowledge of God, since it is for this very reason that our Church exists – for the salvation of man.
But the enemy of mankind, Satan, struggling against the Church, has tried in every way to distort this knowledge of God by means of diverse heresies and false teachings, which have torn and continue to rend the robe of Christ. Such was the infamous Arius, who dared to call Jesus Christ a created being, i.e. unequal to the Father in divinity. This heresy, which first appeared in the early 4th century, began to threaten the Church, and in order to oppose it a Council of Bishops, as the supreme body of church rule, was convoked. The Holy Fathers who took part in this Council, which later acquired universal significance, are commemorated by the Church on the sixth Sunday after Pascha.
Who were these Holy Fathers, whom our Church calls “the divine host, the brightly-shining stars of the spiritual firmament, the myrrh-scented flowers of paradise, the all-golden lips”? There were 318 bishops present at the Council which was convoked in A.D. 325, and among them we find such names as St. Osiah of Cordoba, the wise organizer of the council; St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, who, unable to bear Arius’ blasphemy, slapped the latter’s cheek in a surge of spiritual fervor; St. Athanasius the Great, who was still a deacon at the time, and about whose writings his contemporaries used to say that if one came across a book by Athanasius and had no paper at hand to copy it, one should copy it onto one’s clothes; and St. Spyridon of Trimethus, whose miracles were comparable to those of ancient prophets. Such were the divine fathers who took part in this council and who denounced the blasphemous Arius.
However, the most important legacy which these holy fathers left us is the Symbol of our Orthodox faith. We sing this Symbol of faith at every liturgy, read it during our evening prayers and at compline. In his rule of prayer for the layman, St. Seraphim of Sarov suggested reading it three times daily.
What thoughts and feelings arise within an Orthodox Christian when reading or singing the Symbol of faith? First of all, it is a personal confession of faith on the part of each one of us. Even when we stand together with other faithful and say the Symbol, the first words are very personal – “I believe.” The Lord said that we will be held accountable for every word we say; thus we must look profoundly at the meaning of the words which we utter, so that they would not be empty sounds issuing from our mouths. The Symbol of faith is actually a concise summary of the Bible, from the creation of the world to the second coming of Christ.
We say that we believe in one God the Father Almighty. Can there be place for lack of faith and depression due to daily cares and sorrows within our heart, if every day we confess our faith in God Who created this world? Do we not become fainthearted if we fall into despair?
We go on to confess our faith in the Only-begotten Son, one-in-essence with the Father, by Whom all things were made. The words “one-in-essence,” to the great displeasure of Arius, were included in the Symbol of faith at the suggestion of the Holy Emperor Constantine, who not only offered his Nicean palace in which to hold the council, but also personally paid for all the bishops’ traveling expenses. This is a case in which we clearly see the symphony of Church and state for which we constantly pray at our services.
We also say that the Lord “came down from heaven for us men, and for our salvation.” If God so loves and treasures man’s soul, then we, too, should love and treasure this soul in ourselves and in those around us, in order to do all that is favorable for the salvation of this soul.
The Lord became incarnate through the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man. It is very important to understand that the Lord truly became a God-man. As St. Cyril of Jerusalem says: “If the incarnation was a phantom, then salvation is a dream.”
Then we remind ourselves that this salvation was achieved at a great price, that the Almighty God was crucified most shamefully, that He suffered for each one of us and was buried. But here we immediately go on to the glorious Resurrection of Christ, as described in the Scriptures, thus reminding ourselves of the importance of reading these Scriptures. Then the Ascension – the Lord ascended into heaven and sat on the right hand of the Father, taking human nature up with Him into a supernatural state. As the Holy Fathers say: “God became man in order for man to become god.”
We speak of the glorious second coming of Christ, and this coming presages the Last Judgment, at which all of us will be either condemned or justified according to our deeds, as the Apostle James says: “Faith without works is dead.” Therefore, let us hurry to confirm our faith with works favorable to the Lord, in order that we may not be shamed on the Day of Judgment.
We also believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord Giver of Life. On the day of the Pentecost we appeal to this Heavenly King, this Comforter, this Spirit of truth, to take up His abode within us, and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls. St. Seraphim of Sarov always said that the acquisition of the Holy Spirit is the main goal of our Christian life. It is in accordance with the presence or the absence of this Spirit that the Lord will judge us, placing us either on His right or on His left.
We likewise believe in the One, Holy, Universal, and Apostolic Church. And if we believe – that means we obey, as St. Cyprian of Carthage said: “For whom the Church is not a Mother, for such a one God is not a Father.”
We also say that we believe in one baptism, which procures for us the clean-sing of our sins, but let us not forget that this baptism also places upon us the responsibility of renouncing Satan and all his pride.
We await the resurrection of the dead, and yet it is often difficult for us to bear the decease of our dear ones, even though their souls have not died, while their bodies will be resurrected at the second coming of Christ. This expectation of the resurrection of the dead reminds us to pray for our departed ones, because only the prayers of the Church can help ease their temporary fate in the other world, and also reminds us to look upon our bodies as temples of God and thus guard them from sinful defilement.
And, finally, we confess our belief in the life of the world to come as being the primary goal of our existence – the attainment of communion with God, for which man was created and in the face of which all temporal things must fade away, leaving only a concern for the immortal soul.
Such is our faith. The Symbol of this faith was composed with pastoral wisdom and the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit at the 1st Ecumenical Council, was augmented at the 2nd Ecumenical Council, and confirmed by all subsequent Ecumenical Councils – this is our prayer, our confession. We know that when we read a prayer written by a certain saint, that saint prays together with us. When we read the Symbol of the Orthodox faith, hundreds and thousands of Holy Fathers of all the Ecumenical Councils pray with us, all the saints pray with us!
May the Lord fortify us in our faith, and may He grant us life in the world to come by preserving within us the purity of the knowledge of God and the Orthodox faith, which was revealed to us by the Lord through His Church and His saints, in whom He is glorified for all ages! Amen.