Sunday, July 18, 2010

Understanding the Miracle of Euphemia and the Fourth Oecumenical Synod

In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

“On the eleventh of this month we commemorate the holy Great Martyr, the all-famed Euphemia, who through a supernatural wonder upheld the Orthodox Tome of faith at the Holy Fourth Oecumenical Council..”

As the Wikipedia article for the holy one relates, “Eupehemia lived in the 3rd century and was the daughter of a senator named Philophronos and his wife Theodosia who lived in Chalcedon. From her youth she was consecrated to virginity. The governor of Chakcedon, Priscus, had made a decree that all of the inhabitants of the city take part in sacrifices to the pagan deity Ares. Euphemia was discovered with other Christians who were hiding in a house and worshipping the Christian God, in defiance of the governor’s orders. Because of their refusal to sacrifice, they were tortured for a number of days, and then handed over to the Emperor for further torture. Euphemia, the youngest among them, was separated from her companions and subjected to particularly harsh torments, including the wheel, in hopes of breaking her spirit. It is believed that she died of wounds from a wild bear in the arena under Emperor Diocletian, between 304 and 307. Eventually a cathedral was built over her grave.”

The Fourth Oecumenical Council of the Eastern Orthodox Church took place in that city in the year 451, and met in the cathedral dedicated to her. It was called to combat the Eutychian doctrine of monophysitism, which said the Christ’s humanity was swallowed up by His divinity. The council repudiated that, and set forth the Chalcedonian Decree (in Greek, Oros), which affirms “ and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body, of one substance (homoousios) with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood, ... recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation, the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person...”

The council’s sessions were very contentious, and it was hard to reach a consensus… so it was decided to appeal to God through the saint. One of the stichera sung at the service of Vespers for this day succinctly describes the “supernatural wonder”: “O wondrous Euphemia, the assembly of the holy fathers placed at the head of your coffin the Symbol of the Faith; you took the document into your hand, having faultlessly kept the faith, thus overthrowing all false doctrine and confounding the defenders of heresy. Thus, we glorify you and call you blessed.” According to the story, the members of the council put the stated beliefs of both parties into the coffin with the saint’s relics, and three days later the Chalcedonian Definition was found in her right hand while that of monophysitism was found under her feet.

The hymnography paints a rosy picture… heresy defeated and the truth wins out. But the reality was a whole lot messier. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware of Dioklea in his book *The Orthodox Church* remarks that the Council was “a rock of offence.” Sizable portions of the ancient Christian world – honest, devout Christians – refused to accept the decision of Chalcedon, nor recognize it as ecumenical. These are the Churches known today as the Non-Chalcedonians or the Oriental Orthodox, including the Coptic, Armenian, and Syrian Churches. The situation, however, has changed for the better, owing to – as Fr. John Erickson, retired professor and dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary notes in his article “Beyond Dialogue: The Quest for Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Unity Today”, which is well worth reading and available on the St. Vladimir's website – the modern ecumenical movement and modern historical scholarship. Unofficial consultations between the two church families were held in Aarhus (Denmark) in 1964 and in Bristol (England) in 1967, attended by leading theologians from the two sides; there were further meetings in Geneva (1970) and Addis Abbaba (1971). The results were unexpectedly positive. It became clear that on the basic question which had led historically to the division—the doctrine of the person of Christ—there is in fact no real disagreement. The divergence, it was stated in Aarhus, lies only on the level of phraseology. The delegates concluded, “We recognize in each other the one Orthodox faith of the Church... On the essence of the Christological dogma we found ourselves in full agreement.' In the words of the Bristol consultation, 'Some of us affirm two natures, wills and energies hypostatically united in the one Lord Jesus Christ. Some of us affirm one united divine-human nature, will and energy in the same Christ. But both sides speak of a union without confusion, without change, without divisions, without separation.' The four adverbs belong to our common tradition. Both affirm the dynamic permanence of the Godhead and the Manhood, with all their natural properties and faculties, in the one Christ.” In other words, what was held to be a refusal to accept the Orthodox Faith actually was not… rather, both sides failed to hear that the same Faith was being expressed in different ways.

The two church families are not yet in communion; there remain practical considerations which must be addressed. We heard some of these in the stichera for Orthros this morning, when Dioscoros and Severus – considered by the Oriental Orthodox to be saints – are condemned and anathematized by Chalcedonians. Another can very well be the event we commemorate today, an event strategically placed in the church calendar since next Sunday we celebrate the Fathers of the first six Oecumenical Councils, but especially the Fourth.

The question for us, then, is how we understand the miracle of St. Euphemia in light of the movement, guided by the Holy Spirit, towards the reconciliation and reunion of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches? Do we have to reject the miracle of St. Euphemia?

No, we do not. Instead, we need to understand it more inclusively.

First of all, we have to remember that for us Orthodox, stories and myths – whether in the Bible, as for example the two Genesis accounts of Creation, or in hagiography or the service books – can convey absolute truth without necessarily being completely literally or historically true. Metropolitan Kallistos makes this point in his introduction to the Festal Menaion, when speaking of the stories that are recounted concerning the Nativity of the Theotokos. Christ Himself spoke in parables… stories which were quite obviously made up, yet presented truths by which men and women should live. In this way we can understand that the story we remember today need not be a literal historical recounting, nor that its interpretation need be set in stone. It can be saying that the Holy Spirit indeed affirms the central tenets of the *same* Christology that is shared by both families, the four common adverbs found in the saints hand, rejecting Eutychianism (which the Non-Chalcedonians also reject) while not necessarily excluding diverse but legitimate ways of expressing those tenets.

Another thing to remember, and I will close with this, is that the stories of hagiography are not meant to be bludgeons with which to attack other Christians, whether in the Church or outside of the Church. They are not proof-texts to use as weapons to score points in debates, as fundamentalists are wont to do with scripture. They are meant to edify and upbuild Christians in their daily lives and struggles, that every human person soul and body united may be saved and deified. Amen.