The Commemoration of the Holy Fathers of the First Six Ecumenical Councils
Commemorated on the Sunday closest to July 16
Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under
foot of men. Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it
giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.
Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or
one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Matt 5:13-19
There are many phrases and idioms in our language that have scriptural or theological roots. This saying, “it makes not one iota of difference,” or “do not change one iota” has its root in the First Ecumenical Council. One could also consider the importance of “dotting one’s I’s and crossing one’s T’s” to emphasize the importance of a simple stroke of ink. Who would believe one simple letter, the iota, which in Greek is the smallest letter, could make such a profound difference? First, let us consider the words of the Saviour, taken from the Gospel of Saint Matthew: “one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law.”
We can understand this to mean that one simple dash or stroke will not be changed to alter the law, nor shall any part of the law be deemed insignificant. Blessed Theophylact gives us a more profound explanation when he states, “Christ is saying, therefore, that everything that was spoken concerning the Cross will be fulfilled.” There is no allowance for alteration. Precision and order are preserved for “how magnified are Thy works O lord, in wisdom hast Thou made them all”, as the Psalmist sings. All things are set in proper order, nothing is dismissed. This especially applies to our holy and blameless Orthodox faith.
It is appropriate that the Church instructs us with this Gospel lesson on this great and triumphant celebration of the Holy Fathers of the First Six, holy and Ecumenical Councils. These councils were catholic in nature – from the Greek “kathe olous” meaning “universal” but they were catholic in the deeper theological sense of “completeness” and fulfillment. In the First Ecumenical Council, two sides contested for the identity of Christ in relation to God the Father. The one group, headed by the Orthodox party carefully set forth the term “Homoousios”, meaning the same essence; or specifically the Christ is of the same essence as His Father, and consequently the Holy Spirit. This definition is embraced by the Church to this very day.
The other party, know as the Semi-Arian party, took a slightly softer view than their predecessors the Arians, which had its champion in Arius, the presbyter from Alexandria, challenged this notion and presented its own term “homoiousios” meaning of similar essence. One simple letter “i” (or iota in Greek) would completely alter the precept of the Holy Trinity, which is essential to Orthodox Christianity in particular and Christianity in general. A simple word play alters the nature of Christ, reducing the Saviour from True God to a creature of God! The ramifications of this alteration are incredibly significant!
Turning once more to the Gospel lesson assigned to this day, we see further evidence of the necessity of the precision of words, thought, theology. We all recognize the value of salt. It is an essential seasoning and perhaps the most basic of all spices and seasonings. When it loses its potency, it becomes worthless. Blessed Theophylact brings even greater clarity to this curious phrase in the Gospel:
Ye are the salt of the earth. The prophets were sent to one race only, but you are the salt of the whole earth. By your teachings and reproofs you act as an astringent upon the slack and the indolent, so that they will not breed the worms that never die. So do not desist from your astringent reproofs, even if you are reviled or persecuted. Therefore He says: But if the salt has lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot by men. For if the teacher has become insipid, that is, if he does not give astringent reproofs, but has become soft and lax, “wherewith shall it be salted?” that is, how can this be corrected? So from then on he is cast out from the rank of teacher and is trodden under foot, that is, despised.
If the salt has lost its savour – if the teacher has gone astray from the correct teaching, seeking wisdom in foolishness, their value is lost and they become a stumbling block for men. History bears witness to the struggle of Orthodoxy throughout the millenia. She has at times been oppressed from internal and external enemies but it is the fear of God and teaching of the Fathers that has served as the anchor, preserving the Church from being dashed upon the rocks. The teaching and the witness of the Holy Fathers has forged a strong backbone, which by our Lord’s abundant Grace, has preserved the Church.