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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : Chapter 3 THE GREAT COUNCIL

Saint Athanasius by Frances Alice Forbes

Chapter 3 THE GREAT COUNCIL

IN the early summer of the year 325 the Council of Nicea met. Three hundred eighteen Bishops were present, besides a multitude of priests, deacons and acolytes. It was like the Day of Pentecost, said the people: |men of all nations and of all tongues.|

Many bore the glorious marks of the sufferings they had endured for Christ; others were wasted with long years of prison. There were the hermit Bishops of Egypt, Paphnutius and Potamon, who had each lost an eye for the Faith; Paul of Neo-Caesarea, whose muscles had been burned with red-hot irons and whose paralyzed hands bore witness to the fact; Cecilian of Carthage, intrepid and faithful guardian of his flock; James of Nisibis, who had lived for years in the desert in caves and mountains; Spyridion, the shepherd Bishop of Cyprus, and the great St. Nicholas of Myra, both famed for their miracles.

Among the Bishops of the West were Theophilus the Goth, golden-haired and ruddy, who had won thousands to the Faith; and Hosius the Spaniard, known as |the holy,| who had been named by the Pope as his representative; together with the two Papal Legates, Vito and Vincent. Among those of the Eastern Church were the venerable St. Macarius, Bishop of Jerusalem, and St. Amphion, who had been put to the torture in the reign of Diocletian.

Last but not least came the aged Patriarch of Alexandria, the chief prelate of the Eastern Church, who had brought with him as his assistant the young deacon Athanasius.

Of the 318 Bishops present, seventeen, headed by Eusebius of Nicomedia, were in sympathy with Arius. They were but a small number, it is true, yet Eusebius was the adviser of Constantine and the friend of his sister Constantia. He relied on his influence with the Emperor and his well-known powers of persuasion.

* * * * *

The day has come for the opening of the Council. The Bishops and clergy are assembled in a great hall which has been prepared for this purpose. In the center, upon a splendid throne, lies a copy of the Four Gospels, symbol of the presence of Christ in the midst of His Church. At the upper end a small gilt throne has been erected for the Emperor, while the Bishops and the clergy sit on seats and benches running the whole way around the hall.

A quick whisper suddenly breaks the silence: |The Emperor!| and the whole assembly rises to its feet. Few of those present have seen the man whose name is on every lip, a Caesar and a Christian!

Alone and unattended, with bent head and humble mien, the Emperor crosses the threshold. A man of noble presence and of royal dignity, he wears the robe of Imperial purple blazing with gold and precious stones; the Imperial crown is on his head. There are some there who have seen that Imperial purple before, but under what different circumstances -- |Hail, Caesar; those about to die salute thee!|

He advances slowly and with faltering footsteps between the ranks of Bishops standing to do him honor. Constantine the Great, the conqueror of the Roman world, trembles in the presence of these intrepid Confessors of the Faith who bear upon them the marks of the conflict. In the midst of that august assembly he, the catechumen, is as a little child. He will not even take his seat upon the throne prepared for him until the Bishops urge him to do so.

The Emperor speaks to them with deference and courtesy. It is not for him, he says, to dictate to them, for here he is but fellow servant with them of a glorious Lord and Master. They had met to preserve peace and concord in the Church and to put an end to all causes of strife. Let them do what they can to that end.

There are two men in that assembly on whom all eyes are bent. One of them is about sixty years of age, tall, thin and poorly clad, as one who leads an austere life. A wild shock of hair overshadows his face, which is of a deathly pallor; his eyes are usually downcast, owing to a weakness of sight. He has a curious way of writhing when he speaks, which his enemies compare to the wriggling of a snake. He is given to fits of frenzy and wild excitement, but has withal, when he chooses, a most winning and earnest manner, fascinating to men and women alike -- Arius the heresiarch.

The other, seated on a low seat beside the Patriarch of Alexandria, is slight, fair and young; only his broad brow and keen, earnest eyes betray something of the spirit within; he shows no excitement. Serene and watchful, silent yet quick in his movements, he is like a young St. Michael leaning on his sword, ready to strike for the truth when the moment shall come -- Athanasius the deacon.

The heresiarch is called upon to explain his doctrines. His discourse is long and eloquent. He uses to the utmost his powers of fascination. He tries to hide the full meaning of his words under beautiful expressions, but his meaning is clear to all -- |Jesus Christ is not God.|

The Fathers and Confessors of the Faith, stricken with horror at the blasphemy, cry out and stop their ears. The indignation is universal. Eusebius and his party are in consternation. Arius has been too outspoken. He has stated his opinions too crudely; such frankness will not do here; he is no longer among the ignorant. Eusebius himself rises to speak and, with the insinuating and charming manner for which he is famous, tries to gloss over what Arius has said.

The Son of God is infinitely holy, he says, the holiest of all the creations of the Father and far above them all. Very, very close to the Father Himself, so close that He is very nearly God. As a matter of fact, he declares, the Arians believe all that the Church teaches.

A letter is produced and read by one of the prelates; it was written by Eusebius himself to a friend. Full of heresy, it shows most clearly the double-dealing of the Arian Bishop and his party. The indignation breaks out afresh, and the letter is torn to shreds in the presence of the Council. Even Eusebius is abashed, but there are others to take his place. The Arians continue the argument.

Silent and watchful at his post sits the young man who is destined to be the champion of the Faith through all the troublous years to come. He has not spoken yet, but now Alexander makes him a sign. The sword flashes from its scabbard; woe to those on whom its blows shall fall! In a few words, sharp and clear as diamonds, Athanasius tears to pieces the veils in which the Arians had shrouded their true meaning. |Who has deceived you, O senseless,| he asks, |to call the Creator a creature?|

He is the champion of Christ, the champion of the truth. The Bishops marvel at his words, which are as of one inspired; they thank God who has raised up so strong a bulwark against error. Alexander's eyes are aglow; it is for this that he has lived; he knew how it would be. His long life's work is nearly at an end; he can go now in peace. Athanasius is at his post.

But it is time to put an end to the discussion; Arius and his opinions are abhorred by everyone. A profession of Faith is drawn up by Hosius, the representative of Pope St. Sylvester, and presented for all to sign. It establishes forever the Godhead of Christ. To this day it is the profession of Faith of the whole Catholic world -- the Nicene Creed.

|Born of the Father before all ages, God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father . . .|

The Emperor has listened earnestly to the discussion, following it as well as he can with his limited knowledge of doctrine. He approves the profession of Faith with his whole heart; let it be presented to all to sign.

But first -- one moment -- this heresy must be stamped out once and forever or there will be trouble in the days to come. An addition must be made before the signatures are affixed. It runs thus: |And if any say, 'There was a time when God was not; or if any hold that the Son is not of the same substance with the Father, or is . . . like a created being,' the Holy Catholic Apostolic Church condemns him, as it condemns forever Arius and his writings.|

The text is then presented to the Bishops to sign. All are content but the seventeen Arians. The Emperor expresses his entire satisfaction with the decisions of the Council; he will uphold the law of the Church with the law of the State, he declares, and those who rebel will be punished.

The ranks of the Arians begin to waver; several Bishops sign the Creed; soon there are only five left -- Eusebius at their head.

The Emperor speaks of banishment.

The argument is a powerful one. Eusebius wavers. He receives a message from Constantia bidding him give way; resistance is useless. He signs the profession in company with Theognis of Nicea, his friend.

Arius, with several of his supporters, is then condemned to banishment, and his writings are to be burned publicly. The minds of all are at rest. Several other matters of less importance are settled satisfactorily. The Council is at an end.

But Constantine has not finished with the Bishops. Today begins the twentieth year of his reign, a day kept with great rejoicing by the Roman Emperors. A banquet has been prepared at the palace; he claims the honor of entertaining the Confessors and Fathers of the Faith.

Times have changed indeed. The soldiers of the Imperial Guard salute with drawn swords the guests of the Emperor as they pass between them into the palace -- that Imperial Guard who in other days, which many there remember, had dragged the Christians to torture and to death.

The Emperor receives them with veneration, kissing devoutly the scars of those who have suffered for the Faith. The banquet over, he begs their prayers and loads them with gifts, giving to each of the Bishops a letter to the governor of his province ordering a distribution of wheat to the churches for the use of the poor.

The hearts of all are full of joy and thankfulness. Taking leave of the Emperor, they return, each man to his own country. The Council of Nicea is over.

But there were two in whose hearts there was neither joy nor peace nor thankfulness; they were Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nicea. Were they to return to their sees and confess themselves beaten? It would be a bitter homecoming. The officials of the palace were well known to Eusebius. He bribed the librarian to let him see once more the famous document that had just been signed by so many Bishops. Then, seizing a moment when the guardian's back was turned, the two Arians deleted their names from the profession of Faith and, returning home, continued to teach the doctrines which the Church had condemned. They counted on the protection of Constantia and her influence with the Emperor, but they were mistaken.

Three months after the Council of Nicea, Eusebius and Theognis were deposed by Alexander and the Bishops of Egypt, who elected Catholic prelates in their stead. The Emperor supported the decision of the Church, pronouncing a sentence of banishment on the rebels. |Eusebius has deceived me shamefully,| he wrote to the faithful in Nicomedia.

Who could foresee that the Emperor, whose eyes were at last opened to the perfidy of his friend, would before long allow himself to be deceived more shamefully still by the very man whose dishonesty he had proved?

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