I’ve been asked and given permission to publish this week a series of chapters from the new A Faith and Culture Devotional: Daily Readings on Art, Science, and Life
The Council of Nicaea:
The Voice Beneath the Altar
By Frederica Mathewes-Green, MA, columnist and author of nine books, including
The Illumined Heart: The Ancient Chris tian Path of Transformation. Since 1997,
she has recorded books for the blind with the Radio Reading Network of Maryland.
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had
been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained.
They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until
you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?”
REVELATION 6:9 – 10
During the first centuries of Christianity, the church was battered within and
without. Pseudo-Christians distorted the faith and misled the faithful, while
the powerful Roman Empire persecuted Christians with torture and death.
When local church members were able to gather the remains of their fellow
believers (often, this was forbidden), they lovingly interred these broken bodies
beneath their altars, a reminder that the blessed departed are invisibly
present to join us in worship. John writes that, in his vision, he heard the voice
of the martyrs crying out from under the altar. The persecutions ended when,
by God’s mercy, the Roman Emperor Constantine had a miraculous conversion
in 312 AD. However, a new distortion of the faith was about to arise. A
priest named Arius proposed that, if Christ is the Son of the Father, he can’t
be the same age as the Father. Christ must have been created by God, at some
point before the universe was made. This would mean that Jesus is not really
God, not in the way God the Father is.
That theory may sound familiar to you; throughout the centuries, there
have been many who find it more appealing to see Jesus as an exalted man
than to recognize him as fully God. The teachings of Arius provoked great
controversy, and Emperor Constantine summoned church leaders from
around the known world to come to Nicaea, a suburb of Constantinople, to
settle the matter (not to reconfigure the canon and burn the banished books,
as many have claimed). The Council of Nicaea rejected Arianism and affirmed
that Jesus is truly God — “begotten, not made, being of one substance
with the Father.”
The Syrian writer Marutha of Maiperqat is credited as author of a description
of how the council convened. When the 318 church leaders assembled,
it was obvious that many of them had endured persecution. Virtually all of
them, Marutha says, “were more or less maimed. . . . Some had the nails of
their fingers or toes torn out; some were otherwise mutilated.” Thomas of
Marash, he says, had been imprisoned for twenty-two years, and each year
his captors had cut off a finger, put out an eye, or wounded him some other
way in an attempt to make him deny Christ.
The emperor was astounded by the suffering evident in the faces and
bodies of these men. Marutha says that Constantine went from one man to
the next, bowing his head and humbly kissing “the marks of Christ in their
bodies,” the scars that bore witness to their faith. When Constantine came
to Thomas of Marash, he was overcome. As a peasant would bow to a king,
the Emperor bowed to the wrecked body and shining soul of this Chris tian
conqueror. He said, “I honor thee, O martyr of Christ, who art adorned with
For almost two hundred years, Roman emperors had brought persecutions
upon Chris tians, but God knew there would come a time when an emperor
would bow to a martyr of Christ.
For reflection and discussion
? What form does martyrdom take today? (For current stories see www
.prisoneralert.com.) Have you ever been harassed or persecuted for your
faith? How did you respond?
? What does this reading tell us about the end of time, when “every knee
should bow, . . . and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord”
(Philippians 2:10 – 11)?
? How does this motivate you to pray? To act? To give?