The First War on Christmas, with a real battle scene and everything!
For the conclusion of this little poem (Go back to the start if you’re only just now joining us), we learn that the controversy Arius caused in the Egyptian church was something the newly-Christian Emperor of the Roman Empire hoped to resolve peacefully. Emperor Flavius Constantine was a neophyte, an unbaptized believer in Christ undergoing catechism, who considered himself to be the philosopher-King of Plato, the High Priest of the Roman Empire. Some letters from Constantine indicate that he believed the Church would have better chances of converting the pagans if they were actually united in what they believed. In Eusebius of Caesarea’s biography, Life of Constantine, he’s quoted as saying, “Strife within the church is far more evil and dangerous than any kind of war or conflict” (Vita Constantine 3.12). So Constantine called the first ecumenical, or worldwide, council of church leaders (Bishops), naming Bishop Hosius of Corduba (Spain) as the chief arbiter. Constantine was more concerned with unity in his Empire than he was with the specifics of Church dogma. Bishops coming to the Council of Nicea were suspicious, some still bearing the wounds of Roman persecution against Christians.
As Arius explained his teachings to the Council, it is said that some bishops literally put their fingers in their ears. I like to imagine they also yelled, “LALALALALAAAAAA.” Legend also has it that Saint Nicholas of Myra was so offended at Arius that he punched him in the face. Legend goes that the rest of the Bishops agreed that violence was improper of any clergy, and St. Nick was put in prison, having his Bishop’s stole and Bible taken from him permanently (only Bishops had Bibles at this point, so kind of a big deal). The legend also says Jesus and Mary themselves visited Nicholas in the jail, bringing him his bible and his stole, and opening the jail cell for his escape, thus reinstating him.
The Council of Nicea unanimously agreed that Arius’ teachings were false (only two Bishops refused to vote). Arius would be exiled by Constantine, but his teaching would continue to be held and expanded by Christians in the Empire. The Council agreed to include a non-scriptural word to describe Jesus as homo (same) ousias (substance) with God the Father. Constantine insisted on this term, which was a term Arians could never support. Athanasius of Alexandria would later become a Bishop, and would spend his life defending and explaining the creed formed at the Council of Nicea.
While the Church has spent the past two thousand years trying to understand the divinity of Christ, why God would become human, the story surrounding the Council of Nicea helps us understand a little better what it means to talk about mystery. It’s a story that shows the difficulty of unity and exclusion, of the dangers of trying to explain what can’t be known in this lifetime, of the strange transition from a Church persecuted by the State to a church of the State. It’s a story worth wresting with as we celebrate the birth of Christ, and what the incarnation of God means in the real world.