Summary: On the Greek letter iota the religious history of the world turned; and here's how to honor Mom today
Third Sunday of Easter
May 8, 2011
The Spirit of the Liturgy
In my youth–and we really did have radio and TV back then–there was a media hero named The Lone Ranger. Folks would get into unsolvable trouble, and then the man in the white hat and his faithful companion Tonto would show up and, about twenty minutes later, all would be well. As he rode off, someone always asked “who was that masked man?” And all of us kids would yell out the answer.
Jesus was such a person. He appeared, preached a doctrine of love and forgiveness, healed the sick in massive numbers, turned water into wine, fed several thousand people with less than an HEB red handbasket of food and raised the dead. He went up to Jerusalem, was arrested and tried and executed like a common criminal. A few days later the rumor began to surface that he was alive. He appeared to hundreds of people for forty days and then disappeared. The obvious question–who was that man?
The early Church, filled with His Spirit, told the Jesus stories all over the Roman Empire. And these disciples of Jesus did what Jesus did–they formed communities of prayer and good works, prayed over and healed the sick and even raised the dead. They wrote down and read the Jesus stories–with the Old Testament readings from the synagogue–in their eucharistic assemblies, the re-presentation of the Calvary sacrifice we eventually called the Mass. In this way they answered many of the questions summed up in the one–who was that man?
As an example, consider St. John’s telling of the Thomas and Jesus story from last week’s Mass: to the question, who was that man? Thomas gave the bold answer “He is my Lord and my God.” From the disciples on the road to Emmaus, to whom Jesus appeared and taught the greatest Bible lesson in history, we hear “He is the Suffering Messiah!” From Peter’s letter, we read “He is the one who redeemed us from futility, the Lamb of God who gives us confidence in God.” And, from Peter again, speaking at the first Pentecost, we hear that Jesus is the Lord who will never die, and who pours out the Holy Spirit into us so that we can do the same deeds Jesus did.
The question, who is that man? is ever relevant. We can learn a lot from the saints who answered that question, especially Athanasius, whose feast was last Monday. He can also help us know why the language of our worship is so important, why we have to be careful to listen to the Church’s words and make them our own. Athanasius was the greatest Catholic opponent of the popular heresy called Arianism. Arians were found among the rich and powerful, especially the Roman Imperial family. Remember that the emperors before Constantine were called “gods,” and received religious tithes and honors. It was really hard for these guys to say, “no, we’re not really gods, but this poor carpenter from backwoods Galilee was the true God.” So they liked Arianism. Arians believed that Jesus was a great man who was raised up to be “kind of like” God. It was a simple, appealing doctrine. Only a handful of folks like Athanasius kept it from destroying the Catholic faith.
You see, if Jesus was not God in the same sense as the Father, if there were no Blessed Trinity, then Jesus could not keep God’s part of the covenant with Abraham. God made an incredible deal with Abraham–if either He or Abraham broke the covenant, God Himself would pay the price for the rupture. God Himself would die. The only way that God could keep His part of the covenant was to become human and offer Himself as a sacrifice for sin. And then we could be restored to fellowship with God. As Athanasius told the story, “God became human so that humans could become divine.” We were made in the image and likeness of God and were always intended for union with God. The Incarnation and passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, son of God and son of Mary, was what made that possible. If Jesus were not God in the same sense as the Father, we could not become children of the Father. We could not attain the dignity that the Father intended for us all along. We would be stuck in our sinful state forever.
Athanasius was tenacious. Five times the Arians drove him into exile. His itinerary was like a map of the Roman empire. Even his supporters were amazed. The controversy, believe it or not, was about one Greek letter iota. The orthodox understanding of Jesus is that He is consubstantial with the Father–homoousious. The heretical position was that Jesus is of like substance to the Father–homoiousious. On such a tiny pivot, the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet, the history of the world turned.