Light from Light
By Monsignor Fred J. Nijem (retired pastor emeritus, Sacred Heart Church, Warner Robins)
Many folks find topics about religion out of touch, if not irrelevant. They feel that issues, such as how the Pope is elected, or even the distinction between mortal and venial sin, esoteric and have no bearing on real life. And so, I dare to add fuel to the fire by consideration of a heresy that seems far away and long ago. Consider the heresy of Arianism.
A little history: The doctrine of Arianism began around the year 318 AD. A priest named Arius began teaching that Jesus Christ is not (equal to) God. Arius taught that the Son is not eternal but was created out of nothing. He further taught that Jesus, the Son, is different in nature from God the Father.
As I say, this teaching seems far away and long ago. But it has a very serious bearing on what we profess and proclaim every week in the Nicene Creed at Mass and in our lives. What the story of Jesus means in our life only has ultimate impact because we believe the articles we profess in the Creed. And there is one article in particular that has the Arian heresy in mind: “Jesus is light from light, true God from true God, consubstantial with the Father”.
The novel (and subsequent movie), The DaVinci Code, by Dan Brown, caused quite a stir. In that novel, Brown would have us believe that Emperor Constantine, 313 AD, invented Jesus’ divinity. Brown then asserts that the emperor imposed that doctrine on the Church at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. But Mr. Brown’s reading of history is skewed by his religious bias, namely, Arianism. It is this ancient heresy that the characters in Dan Brown’s novel ramble on about. At its heart, the novel is an Arian manifesto. This heresy, then, is not so long and far away.
It is true that Arianism was widespread in the 4th century. St. Jerome, a Doctor of the Church, wrote that the Church went to sleep and woke up one morning to find it was Arian. But Christians of the fourth century knew that Arius’ teaching was a dangerous one. And we, seventeen centuries later, should also understand what is at stake.
If Christ is not God, one in being with the Father, then the Gospel story is no longer compelling. If Arius is right, then God did not so love humanity so as to enter the world himself and rescue it. If Christ is not God, then we are not redeemed at the price of God’s self-sacrifice, and the Eucharist is not God’s abiding presence.
Contrary to the Da Vinci Code, Arius’ teaching was a radical departure from the Christian tradition. Jesus’ divinity is proclaimed by scripture and the early Church fathers several centuries before Emperor Constantine. There was not a relatively close vote at the Council of Nicea. Of the 318 bishops in attendance, when the Arian Creed was proposed, the whole Council rose in protest against it and tore up the document. Only two Arian bishops had the nerve to dissent from the teaching that Jesus is one in substance (Gk. “Homoousion”) with the Father.
It took another five decades of resisting military and political pressure before the Nicene Creed was again affirmed by the Church at the Council of Constantinople, (385 AD). At that same Council, the divinity of the Holy Spirit was also affirmed. Thus, two councils affirmed what is our Catholic belief today: God is a blessed Trinity, Three persons, in one God.
I can appreciate Arius’ problem. How can a human being be both divine and human? It took one more Council, Chalcedon, 451 AD, to address this issue. The Council wrote: “Jesus Christ is a single Person in two natures, which exist in this one Person without confusion, without change, without division or separation”. The Council does not to try and explain the mystery, but only tries to articulate it.
It reminds one of the story St. Augustine tells. He was pondering the mystery of the Trinity while walking at the seashore. He saw a young lad digging a hole in the sand and putting water from the sea into the hole. When Augustine asked the boy what he was doing, he replied, I am trying to put all the water of the sea into this hole. When Augustine told the lad that was impossible, the child said, no more impossible than you trying to understand the mystery of the Trinity. Whereupon, the boy vanished.
There are many stories about what life means and many heroes and heroines who embody that meaning. But when all is said and done, the story of Jesus is the one story that is worth hearing and worth living. The well-known piece, One Solitary Life, by Dr. James Francis, puts it this way (in part): “Here is a man who was born in an obscure village. He never wrote a book, He never owned a home, he never traveled two hundred miles from the place he was born. He had no credentials but himself. He was nailed to a cross between two thieves. He was laid in a borrowed grave. Nineteen wide centuries have come and gone, and today he is the center of the human race. I am far within the mark when I say that all the armies… navies…parliaments…and kings…put together have not affected the life of man as powerfully as has this one solitary life.”
This solitary life was God from God and light from light, true God from true God, one in being with the Father.