Today we celebrate the memory of the Holy Fathers of the 7th Ecumenical Council. While this council does have a great historical significance in the Church, what is it that elevates this event to such a spiritual stature that it becomes a feast that is part of our liturgical celebration? An indication of the answer lies in the Gospel that is read today for this particular feast which is a part of the high priestly prayer of our Lord just before His betrayal leading to the Crucifixion. He prays for the welfare of those who follow Him, asking that they might “know thee the only true God and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent” and “they might be one as we are.” In this prayer we hear plainly the truth of the nature of the Trinity that God is one and yet also in three persons (in this case it is the Son Who speaks to the Father) but we hear also that we who follow Christ, who are united to Him within the ark of salvation, the Church, which is His Body are united to one another in the same way as the persons of the Trinity are united. This is a profound teaching for it eradicates the isolation of our sinful individual existence and restores us to the state of union and communion with one another that is our true nature. Like our Creator, man is made to live in unconfused union with others, not just in an external community, but united in one essence without division and yet also without confusion, not losing our unique person-hood.
What then, does all this have to do with today’s feast? Today we celebrate one of the exemplary moments in our history where we, the Church, do truly manifest this unity, this one-ness which we have in the image of the Holy Trinity. We who are many speak with one single voice – proclaiming as one the truth of the incarnation that God truly became man and dwelt among us. He was not a spirit, or a shade or a shadow and He did not come as one who was superimposed upon a man (as though he were “possessed” by a divine spirit). He, Himself, took flesh, becoming as we are, and lived among us, revealing Himself to us, teaching us how to enter the Kingdom of Heaven and then finally by His death and Resurrection, freeing us from our enslavement to sin and death and opening the path to eternal life that we might follow Him. There were many times that the truth of the incarnation was twisted and distorted and that deception was so powerful that the whole Church might have been led astray except for moments such as this when the Church, the Body of Christ, united with Jesus Christ and with one another, spoke not with many voices but with one voice and with that one voice dispelled the false beliefs and confirmed the true faith. That single voice – the voice of Christ, which is the voice of the Church – is what we celebrate today.
What then is it that raises a council to this level? How is it, that of all the many councils of the Church both large and small, there are only seven that are recognized as having this status as the voice of the Body of Christ speaking the truth for all times and places. How is it that a council becomes “Ecumenical” (meaning universal throughout the whole Church)? Our Church is also very diverse, touching many nationalities, cultures, peoples and spanning generation after generation, throughout centuries and millennia across all of time. In every time and place, our Church is governed and guided by councils, some large, some small, addressing all kinds of topics from daily Church organization to great theological controversies. We all have experience with the conciliar nature of our Church, for example, our own bishops meet regularly in council either as a synod (the “executive committee” as it were) or as a sobor (the gatherings of all the hierarchs) to discuss matters of the Church life. Just as our local bishops meet, so also do other groups of bishops in various locals and various national groups. Sometimes we see the coming together of all the various local churches for decisions that will affect and apply to all (such as when the whole Russian Church gathered to select a new patriarch). Even moreso, sometimes we will hear of meetings between different self governing national Churches to resolve matters that go across jurisdictional and ethnic boundaries (in fact there are efforts underway even now to bring together all the Orthodox Churches in a great council to address issues of Church life in the modern world that affect all of us.) But none of these councils great or small are inherently “ecumenical”. It is not possible to grant this kind of status or authority to a council ahead of time. Rather what makes a council “ecumenical” is when its work and dogmatic proclamations are embraced by the whole Church in all places and in all times as universally applicable regardless of time and place. This is an organic process of the whole Church, the living Body of Christ, acting as one, recognizing it has heard its one voice, the voice of Christ.
This then is the great mystery that we celebrate today, the great mystery of the unity of the Church, many persons united as one and speaking as one with the voice of Jesus Christ. This is the great mystery of the nature and essence of the Church – that we are not just a community of many individuals who have come together, nor are we some “band of brothers” united by a shared goal or experience – we are one Body, a single entity with one essence comprised of many persons, indivisible and yet unconfused in our union with one another. We are the Church, the Body of Christ and we act with one will – the will of our Lord Jesus Christ; we speak with one voice – the voice of our Lord Jesus Christ. Today we celebrate the manifestation of this great mystery – that we are one. Today we celebrate the manifestation of the result of our Lord’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane asking that we who are the Church might be one as He and the Father are one. Today this great mystery, the mystery of the Church is made manifest and we speak, not with many voices in unison, but rather as a single entity (the Body of Christ) with a single voice (the voice of Christ) and we proclaim the great truth of the incarnation, that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man and that God has taken flesh and has dwelt among us and has revealed Himself to us. Blessed be the name of the Lord.