In these uncertain times, we are constantly being urged to historicize Christ, as though He were merely a symbolic figure in a moribund and culturally discredited system of thought. But Advent reminds us of the deep promise of the Nicene Creed. He was, He is, and He is to come. In this Advent, we await His birth, the newness that affirms and realizes the promise of His gift.
In The Holy Fire, his book about the early Church in the Near East, the British writer Robert Payne describes the beginning of the Council of Nicaea in the year 325. The Emperor Constantine, who convened the bishops, wanted unity. He publicly burned, unread, the many complaints and petitions he had received from combatants on both sides of the Arian controversy that divided the Church.
The conference was now open. At once the Arians and the anti-Arians were at one another’s throats. Denunciation and angry accusation flew across the hall. Everyone was suddenly arguing. There was a wild waving of arms. “It was like a battle in the dark,” the historian Socrates said later. “Hardly anyone seemed to understand the grounds on which they calumniated one another.”
Theologians can better explain the insidious Arian heresy (into which many still fall unawares). In effect, it historicized the Son. In the Arian interpretation, the Son was not co-eternal with the Father but the first of creatures. Arianism had a catch phrase, Payne writes: “There was a time when the Son was not.” The work of the Council of Nicaea, which began in such chaos, was to formulate what we now recite in the Nicene Creed: “I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father.”
As Payne narrates in detail, the Council of Nicaea did not in one stroke stop the spread of Arianism; in fact, the heresy spread throughout much of the world, aided sometimes by Constantine himself, who wavered from his earlier orthodoxy, and certainly promoted by the sons who succeeded him. But the Creed outlasted those controversies and the divisiveness of the council, which reminds me of public life in this strange year. The Feb. 29 that made this a Leap Year seems to have been the opening in time to let in several extra months of pure duration that did not show up on the calendar. Everything from Donald Trump’s impeachment to the March shutdowns for COVID-19 to economic collapse to George Floyd and Black Lives Matter to the election last month to the claims of voter fraud and now COVID-19 again—everything has been accompanied by symbols and signaling and slogans and “wild waving of arms,” literally and figuratively.
The comparison used by the historian Socrates (not Plato’s Socrates) is between the council and “a battle in the dark” because no one seemed to know friends from foes or to understand the deepest grounds of disagreement. The 19th-century poet Matthew Arnold uses the same comparison to a night battle in “Dover Beach,” where the poet explicitly comments upon the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the “Sea of Faith” that once encircled the world. The last lines are the most famous. The world that appears “To lie before us like a land of dreams, / So various, so beautiful, so new,” says Arnold’s speaker to his beloved,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
The comparison here is far more despairing than in Socrates’ account of the Council of Nicaea. Arnold considered belief historically impossible for him as an emblematic modern man because he lived in the enlightened 1800s, when the findings of science abolished the religious understanding of the world. He would have liked to believe, but he could not. In “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse,” Arnold laments his plight as a man “between two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born.” The Christianity of the Carthusian monks whose monastery he was visiting and whose consolation he sought was “dead,” it seems—“God is dead,” as Nietzsche put it—and the brave new world could not be born, because science could take away belief but not give the soul and spirit of man anything to build on. Not that many did not try! The totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century made many vehement attempts to divinize the state, in effect, and the same vehemence characterizes much of the proposed new world of the progressive left.
In these uncertain times, we are constantly being urged to historicize Christ, as though He were merely a symbolic figure in a moribund and culturally discredited system of thought, as though the teachings of the Church had to give way to the times, as though the sickening revelations of corruption in the hierarchy of the Church were evidence of the death of God. But Advent reminds us of the deep promise of the Nicene Creed. There was never a time when the Son was not. The Son is co-eternal with the Father, “so ancient and so new,” as St. Augustine put it. Yes, God is dead—humiliated and crucified, in fact. Historically, He went as man into the very heart of death, yet as God He bears into death and from it, no longer in time, the eternal newness of God. He was, He is, and He is to come. Time itself opens and becomes porous once the eternal presence enters it. In this Advent, we await His birth, the newness that affirms and realizes the promise of His gift.
I am especially grateful to God this morning. Our youngest daughter Monica was told when she was a teenager that she would in all probability never be able to have children. She was sick for years, near death at times, and when she married our beloved Wyoming Catholic College graduate Ben Corcoran (Class of 2016), we anticipated that the issues identified long before would be a continuing problem. But she called my wife last Mother’s Day to tell us she was pregnant. We could hardly believe it. We believe it now. This very morning, she gave birth to a son, and he is himself an affirmation, a pure gift, a sign of hope.
Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College‘s weekly newsletter.
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The featured image is “The Adoration of the Shepherds” by Matthias Stom (fl. 1615–1649) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.