Liturgically speaking, this sixth Sunday after Pascha occurs between the Feasts of the Ascension of Christ (40th day after Pascha) and Pentecost (50th day). Originally during that interim, the disciples “were continually in the temple (at Jerusalem) and blessing God” (Lk. 24:52) awaiting the gift from the Father, the Holy Spirit, promised by Christ Jesus. The 11 apostles (12 minus Judas Iscariot) were staying in the upper room in Jerusalem. “These all continued with one accord in prayer, with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers” (Acts 1:14). The total number of disciples was 120 who, at Peter’s direction, gathered to propose a replacement for Judas who hung himself. Matthias was chosen by casting lots, and “he was numbered with the eleven apostles” (Acts 1:26).
Thus we commemorate the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council whose ministry within the Church follows and perpetuates the pattern just described in the first chapter of the Book of Acts. The Church gathers in prayer awaiting the gift of the Holy Spirit within the framework of the apostolic ministry (personal testimony of the resurrection of Christ; cf. Acts 1:21-22). This is how genuine life in the Church manifests itself, and this is how decisions in the Church are made. The Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council (at Nicea, in 325) happen to be emblematic of true Fathers of the Faith at all times. Saint Paul wrote: “For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel” (1 Cor. 4:15; Gal. 4:19). In the Epistle reading for this Sunday, we hear the Apostle Paul addressing the presbyters (i.e., priests) of the church at Ephesus: “I kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house…so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received form the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” After announcing his departure from them, he continues: “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers (Gk., episkopous; ‘bishops’), to shepherd the church of God” (Acts 20:20, 28).
“Fathers” in the Church are successors to those who labored in the apostolic ministry, those called and chosen by Christ Himself and the Holy Spirit to bring every person dead in sin to new birth by the Gospel of Christ and then to nourish them with that Gospel unto everlasting life in the Kingdom of God. This is the pattern revealed throughout the New Testament (see Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5-9; Heb. 13:7, 17; 1 Pet. 5:1-4).
Having restored their ranks in the interim, once Pentecost arrived this is how the Apostles immediately began guiding the Church: “And they (i.e., the newly baptized believers) continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine, and in the communion, the breaking of bread, and in the prayers”; “We will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word”; “Now the apostles and elders (Gk., presbyters; ‘priests’) came together to consider this matter…Then it pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church…They wrote this letter by them: The apostles, the elders, and the brethren, To the brethren…” (Acts 2:42; 6:4; 15:6, 22, 23).
In the Church, the leaders are known as Fathers, and the people (spiritual children) are known as Brothers. These titles express a natural relationship iconic of our relationship with God Himself. The Church is a family of love, not power, just as the Church is the Bride/Wife with Christ the Groom/Husband (see Eph. 3:14-19; 5:22-33). This family named in the water of Holy Baptism and sealed with the Spirit gathers around the Table of its Lord to traverse the sea of this temporal life in hope of the harbor of God’s eternal Kingdom.
We commemorate especially the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council because they addressed a huge impediment to the Church’s journey of faith, namely, the heresy of Arianism. Arius, a priest in Alexandria, Egypt, led a movement affirming that the Son of God was a creature, not God. Not only did the Holy Fathers reaffirm and confess the Orthodox Faith with words (i.e., the Nicene Creed), but they bore witness to that saving Faith with their lives of courage, humility, steadfastness, and love, the fruits of their genuineness in the Gospel. These Fathers loved God, loved the Church, and loved the people of the Church in the Gospel of Christ unto life and salvation, some to the extent of suffering and death on behalf of Christ and the Church.
Saint Paul wrote, speaking as a genuine spiritual father: “Nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, when we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, just as a nursing mother cherishes her own children. So, affectionately longing for you, we were well pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God, but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us” (1 Thes. 2:6-8).
Now as we stand poised, as it were, between Ascension and Pentecost, we acknowledge the Holy Fathers of the past, present, and future, who lead and nourish the flock of God to gather with one accord in prayer, to rejoice in the saving confession of God the Holy Trinity, to learn of Christ, and to maintain the family of Faith received and passed own to the next generation in the witness of the life of Christ by the Holy Spirit.