Sermon on the Sunday of the Fourth Ecumenical Council

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Today’s feast, my brothers and sisters in Christ, commemorates the synaxis of the 630 Fathers of the 4th Ecumenical Council, but it is better remembered by a miracle brought about by St Euphemia and which was commemorated on its own feast day a few days ago, on the 11th of July. Miracles performed by our saints are rarely commemorated in the ecclesiastical calendar, unless the Church wishes to emphasize their significance. After all, they are so many! And St Euphemia is better known, in fact, from the miracles she did after her death than by what she did during her life. That may sound as a paradox: if we were to compose her “biography,” that is, if we were to collect all of the acts and deeds known to us that she performed, then her activity after death would by far surpass that of her life before her martyrdom. From the Church’s point of view, there is nothing strange in this: the saints are more active than a living human being would be and therefore speaking of “death” or “falling asleep” in their case is a misnomer, for through their miracles they are very much alive. Death has separated their bodies from their souls but if the source of all activity for an animal is the soul—even if such activity is usually manifested through the body—then, having being separated from their bodies for the time being, the saints lose only the medium through which their actions can be manifested, but they have not lost the ability to act—on the contrary, insofar as their soul is not tied to a body that is limited by space and time, they are even more able to act now that they are “dead” than where they were living in this body.

I understand that all this must sound so outdated and incredulous, especially in a place like this, located between two world-renowned scientific communities. Can one still speak of miracles between Harvard and MIT? Can one still speak of apparitions of saints and post-mortem activity of their souls? Yet, what we speak of, regardless of how imperfectly we might explain it on account of our limited knowledge of these mysteries, is very much the experience of the Church and as such it cannot be doubted. As I cannot reasonably doubt that I stand here talking to you, since this is what I experience, so I cannot doubt all the miracles attributed to the saints, since this has been the two-millennium long experience of the Church.

But it is more than this that is at stake. The possibility of miracles, that is, the possibility of what is to our knowledge impossible, was at the core of the doctrine ratified by the 4th Ecumenical Council that we commemorate today.

The proceedings of this Council that lasted several days and were prepared by a long and heated theological debate came down to two words, two adverbs: ἀσυγχήτως, ἀδιαιρέτως—without confusion, without division.

Was there the need that the universal Church should convoke a meeting of the highest order among bishops who had to travel long distances by the means of that time, meet and discuss with each other over several days in an event that was sponsored and presided by the Emperors themselves in order that they would come down to these two words? Yes. For a great deal is at stake on these two words.

Verbs, as you know, express an action, adverbs the manner that this action takes place. So here the two adverbs specify and define for us the manner in which “the Word became flesh.”

For Christ to be Christ, that is the savior of humanity, He had to be fully and perfectly God—for who else could have saved us?—but He had also to be fully and perfectly man—for it was by this union that the human nature was saved. During the history of the early Church they were people who at times doubted Christ’s divinity and at times doubted Christ’s humanity. The 4th Ecumenical Council had to correct the latter heresy. You see, it is rather reasonable that Christ should be either human or divine, and, therefore, it makes some sense that people oscillated between these two alternatives. Neither was, however, satisfactory. The truth was to be found instead in a paradox and an antinomy. As with the case of the miracles that I mention earlier, the experience of the Church, Her own faith in Christ, forced her in an extraordinary formula: in Christ’s person two natures, human and divine, are united—and here the two little word become of importance—without division (ἀδιαιρέτως) and without confusion (ἀσυγχήτως).

Without confusion: because the person of Christ did not merge the divine with the human nature, the uncreated with the created, the infinite with the finite in some sort of a hybrid that confuses the two and collapses their difference into some pantheistic one-in-all unity where nothing ends up being anything. Nor what is at stake here is a pagan notion of a semi-god, half-man and half-god that by nature, that is, by necessity comes to exist. Without confusion means that the difference in the unity of the two natures is preserved and respected; and that ultimate means that their freedom is affirmed.

Without division: because what had been united in Christ’s person became so forever. Christ didn’t put up a role on appearing as human and when His work was done, He put off the human nature like the costume of an actor. The mystery of Christ is precisely this: that God freely and willingly wishes to become man (while remaining God—remember: “without confusion”) so that man might become God (again, while retaining fully the human nature). What does this mean? It means that through the human nature the uncreated has taken upon Himself the whole creation without division and that therefore the eternal has grafted Itself on the temporal so that that which was previously subject to corruption and death has now become incorruptible and immortal, yet without ceasing being temporal. Time and space, as our everyday experience confirms, unite us—for it is on account of time and space that we are, for example, gathered here today—but also, and this is a painful realization, divide us. They divide us from each other while alive, and they divide us when we die: death, in fact, is nothing more that this spatio-temporal division becoming solidified and thus assuming the character of a permanent division. The unity of the uncreated with creation “without division” means precisely salvation: salvation from death and corruption. It means that Christ’s person has put a stop on the accelerating drive of our world towards extinction in an entropic cosmic death.

If “without confusion” was the cryptic name for freedom, a freedom that respects difference and otherness, then “without division” is the name of love that passionately seeks to overcome what divides and separates us, and by doing so, it restores and grants us life overabundantly.  Amen.

A Homily Preached at the Church of Sts. Constantine and Helen

Cambridge, MA (July 15, 2012)

By the Very Rev. Archimandrite Panteleimon Manoussakis, Ph.D.

Fr.Dr.John Panteleimon Manoussakis was born in Athens, Greece, and educated in the United States (Ph.D., Boston College). He was ordained into the diaconate in 1995 and into the priesthood in 2011, receiving the distinction of an Archimandrite. He is an Edward Bennett Williams Fellow, an Assistant Professor in Holy Cross College, Worcester, Massachusetts, and a Honorary Fellow of the Faculty of Theology and Philosophy at the Australian Catholic University.