By: Rev. Paul Scalia
The story of Saint Nicholas is well known. At the Council of Nicaea the heresiarch Arius stated his nefarious doctrine that Jesus, the Word of God, was not “of one being” but “of like being” with the Father. Such mere similarity would mean that the Child Whose birth we celebrate in these days was, well, just another child. Perhaps more highly favored than some others, but nonetheless just another creature of God. And probably not worth all the fuss we make. Christmas would be emptied of meaning. Saint Nicholas, apparently ever attentive to this feast, is said to have jumped to his feet, walked across the floor, and punched Arius in the face. He was then removed from the Council and placed in ecclesiastical time-out. Because one ought not punch defenseless heretics, no matter how obnoxious they may be.
Homoiousios — of like being — was the word Arius used for his heretical teaching. Homooousios — of one being — was the Greek word the Council fathers advanced against it. (Yes, the difference is literally one iota.) Homoousios came into Latin as consubstantialem. Currently, in the still somewhat new translation of Mass, we say that the Son is consubstantial with the Father. Now one take away from this history is that, if you are still struggling with consubstantial, give thanks that we do not have to say homoousios. But more importantly, about jolly ol’ saint Nick. He understood immediately the inseparable connection of two things that we tend to divide: doctrine and devotion.
Doctrine or dogma (to throw in the even more frightening word) is seen as the cold, hard domain of the Church’s dour figures. Doctrine seems to most people a purely intellectual endeavor, unrelated to their real experiences, to their sorrows or joys. It is perhaps necessary, people think. But the real stuff of Christianity is the tenderness, joy and love that we experience as we visit the creche and gaze upon the Child in the manger.
Saint Nick knew better. He knew that bad doctrine produces bad devotion. Arius’s, for example, would rob Christmas of its significance — and therefore of its joy and peace. Necessary for the childlike, carefree worship of the Christ Child is the hard, severe dogma that He is consubstantial with the Father. Dogma worth fighting about, in his opinion. Because the fathers of Nicaea defined that dogma (and not gently: they condemned Arius), the children of the household of God can approach the manger more joyfully — secure in the Church’s teaching that, yes indeed, that Child is God.
Doctrine is the hard, solid basis of every devotion. Without it, devotion degenerates into sentimentality. At the same time, doctrine depends on devotion in order to be “made flesh.” Without familiar and popular devotions, doctrine remains a cold, far off thing that appeals to very few. Worse still, it becomes brittle — easily shattered because it seems so inhuman. Devotions make doctrine something familiar and known, bred in the bone. Indeed, the more incarnate a doctrine becomes by devotions, the harder it is to lose, and the more sensitive we are to assaults upon it.
Take for example the title of our Lady that we celebrate today: the Mother of God. It puts us in mind of another Council, that of Ephesus. The bishops gathered there in 431 to address the heresy of Nestorius. They had been alerted to his error by his rejection of our Lady’s title “Mother of God.” As it turned out, he rejected that term for the Mother because he did not have the right understanding of the Son. Nestorius put it all much more elaborately, of course, and generously granted our Lord and Savior many great dignities. But in the end nestorianism’s mistake about Jesus would have robbed Mary of her significance — and robbed her children of their joy and confidence — just as arianism would have robbed us of Christmas. Thus, in the end the Council Fathers did not mince words. Their decree began, “To Nestorius, the new Judas…” Any message beginning that way will not end well for the recipient.
Again we see the necessary union of doctrine and devotion. It is said that in the wake of the Council of Ephesus, the Church saw a great blossoming of art devoted to our Lady — some of the most treasured pieces in the world. For us to have those beautiful hymns, icons, and prayers to our Lady, we must first have the strong, and indeed severe, teaching on her Divine Motherhood.
Especially as we conclude this season of such childlike joy, we do well to remind ourselves of the serious, mature, and solid teachings behind it all. We can go joyfully and peacefully to the manger because Mother Church sets us secure in the truth. Her doctrines, far from being an imposition or a constraint, free us to be like children again.