Saint Nicholas Slaps a Heretic! A Reflection Appropriate for Palm Sunday

The extensive Gospel reading for Palm Sunday relates the Scriptural and historical truth that Jesus  triumphantly entered Jerusalem, yet, five days later He was arrested, put on trial, tortured, and executed.

As you know, the religious and secular leaders of Israel did not accept Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God. They were adamant about the fact that Jesus was just a man and that His claims, teachings, and healings were all fraudulent.  Their disbelief took place during the first century, yet, two hundred years later there were Christians saying the same thing.

The questions came down to, “Who is Jesus Christ? Is He a man? Is He God? Is He both?”

These were the same questions that the people of Jerusalem, some of them waving palm branches, and their leaders were asking each other.

In the year 325 scholars and clerics were still grappling with those questions, too.

Many deacons, priests, and bishops of the Church had settled the question in their own mind, yet, all of Christendom was not in agreement. Emperor Constantine was worried; as a military man he knew trouble when he saw it. Religious disagreements could easily spread into civil war. Something had to be done.

Stories have come down to us through the centuries that St. Nicholas of Myra, a faith-filled bishop, decided to defend Sacred Tradition and the Scriptural interpretation of the reality of Jesus as the Son of God the Father. The story relates that he not only vigorously defended Sacred Tradition but became so worked up that during one of the debates he slapped the author of this heresy which was called Arianism.

But, was it a verbal or physical slap?

Let’s take a brief look at some of the details:

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Partial icon of the “incident” at the 1st Council of Nicaea. Immortalized in an early icon. The Early Church was well aware of the importance of this Council in debating and agreeing to the specific dogmas of the Church that would be ultimately proclaimed in the Nicene Creed. All catechumens that enter the Church at the Easter Vigil Mass proclaim their belief in the great Sacred Mysteries and historical truths of the Nicene Creed.

Who: Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bishop, (Myra, an Ancient Greek city on the coast of present day Turkey),  vs.  Arius, priest from the diocese of Alexandria, (Alexandria, a city on Egypt’s Mediterranean coastline). Emperor Constantine, Roman Empire, centered in the new city named in his honor: Constantinople (present day Istanbul, Turkey). Constantine convenes an ecumenical council of bishops from the five major patriarchies of Christendom (Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Rome).

What: Supposed incident of Bishop Nicholas “slapping” the priest Arius, at the first ecumenical Council of Bishops: the Council of Nicaea. This was the first Council since the Council of Jerusalem (held in the first century and was attended by luminaries such as St. Peter and St. James).

When: Late Spring and early Summer of the year 325.

Why: The incident concerned the critical issue of who is Jesus Christ, and whether Jesus Christ is “the same in being and the same in essence” as God the Father. Arius was promoting the heresy that Jesus Christ was “just a creature” of God and not a divine Person of the Holy Trinity.

Where: Nicaea, an ancient city in Asia Minor; it is the present day city of Iznik, Turkey.

As it applies to sacred art, the Council of Nicaea provided a specific creed: a set of theological proclamations that impacted  sacred artists from the 4th century to the present day. It is stated clearly in this Creed that God the Father has communicated His love, mercy, and laws to humanity through His revealed word in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. This action culminated in the ministry, passion, death, and resurrection of His incarnated Word, His Son Jesus Christ.

The Nicene Creed definitively proclaimed that Jesus Christ is the same in essence, and the same in being, as God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. So we have the great Mystery of the Incarnation, the nature of Jesus Christ: He is both human and divine – the Son of God – One Person with two natures – human and divine.

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The above is a 6th century sacred icon of Jesus as Pantocrator. Pantocrator is a Greek word describing the all knowing, all powerful Son of God: Jesus Christ. The Council of Nicaea declared that Christ, as God, is consubstantial: Jesus is the same in essence (substance) and in being as the Father and the Holy Spirit. Also, Jesus possesses two natures: human and divine. This is truly a great Mystery of the Church. The sacred artist of the above icon, probably a monk, used hot pigmented wax (the encaustic method) to render this likeness. This sacred icon is currently located in St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai Peninsula, Egypt. The face has a striking resemblance to the face on the Holy Shroud of Turin.

The day-to-day proceedings and debate notes of the Council have been lost to history, so we will never know if St. Nicholas gave Arius a physical or just a verbal “slap.” Regardless, St. Nicholas made his point and contributed to giving us the gift of the Nicene Creed.

In AD 381, the Nicene Creed was edited and amended at the First Council of Constantinople (thus, the Creed is called the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. Try to say that phrase fast, three times!😃).

Thanks for visiting with me. May you have a prayer-filled Holy Week.

Sources for the above post are found in my bibliography post, entitled Early Church Fathers – A Short bibliography of February 8, 2019. I relied primarily on Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s works, also Aquilina and D’Ambrosio’s volumes.

Copyright © 2011- 2019, Deacon Paul O. Iacono – All Rights Reserved. Permission to reprint must be obtained from the author in writing. Students may quote small sections of the article as long as the proper credit and notation is given. Thank you.

 

 

 

Fra Angelico – “Heaven on Earth” Exhibition – Part 2 – Ascension, Pentecost, the Last Judgement

I hope you had a blessed Feast of Pentecost!

Please read Part 1 of “Fra Angelico – Heaven on Earth” (posted here on May 16, 2018) in order to receive a proper introduction to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s extraordinary exhibition that, unfortunately, closed this weekend..

As you moved into the gallery that exhibited this once in a lifetime collection of Fra Angelico paintings you first saw the beautiful painting entitled The Ascension of Christ, The Last Judgement, and Pentecost (the Corsini Triptych). It is painted in egg tempera with gold leaf on a wood panel. Fra Angelico painted it during the years 1447-1448, seven years before his death in 1455. It was loaned to the Gardner Museum from the Galleria Nazionali d’Arte Antica di Roma – Galerie Barberini Corsini, Palazzo Corsini.

My photographic images of that painting are found below:

The Ascension, Last Judgement, and PentecostIMG_1686

The following quotation is taken from the Exhibition’s commentary found on the right side of the painting. Mesmerizing in its detail, Fra Angelico’s painting pictures three biblical events. At left, Christ ascends into heaven over the heads of the Virgin Mary and the  Apostles. At right, a masterfully foreshortened dove – the Holy Spirit – descends to earth. The story culminates in the center. Christ passes judgment over the living and the dead, saving the worthy (left) and condemning the wicked (right). While the damned cower from fearsome devils who attack the poor souls with claws, angels embrace the blessed.

“This small devotional triptych – a painting with three parts – served a cultivated individual, probably a cleric (deacon, priest, or bishop) in Rome.” Please compare its three episodes to others in my upcoming posts. In the above painting Fra Angelico adopts a vertical presentation. This energizes the connection and communication between heaven and earth. The Gardner Museum’s curator remarked that this technique “enlarges the central scene, and emphasizes” the Catholic Church’s spiritual power.

Fra Angelico, as a Dominican priest, desired to present that Jesus’ act of Redemption (passion, death, and resurrection), and His Ascension back to the Father, made possible the moment of Pentecost. Christ’s actions enabled the eventual opportunity for our free will to choose to accept His Truth and be fed by the Spirit’s power. It is the Father and the Son’s will to have the Holy Spirit nourish us through His grace. This grace is available to us through the proper administration and worthy reception of the Holy Sacraments. Thus, we come to the central panel –  the Last Judgement. Did we freely accept His Sacramental grace or did we ignore, and thereby, reject it? At that moment will we be on the right or the left of Christ?

Allow me to make some personal points on the three close-up photos below. In the first panel of this painting, notice the gold work around the body of Christ. I was allowed to closely examine it. I have never seen a painting’s gold work done with such precision and delicacy. It is not just gold leaf that is applied in a flat manner to the panel. It appears to be actual raised strands, or threads of gold, all applied with great precision. As you slowly move left or right around that part of the painting you notice the light catching the gold and literally radiating and shimmering around the image of Christ. IMG_1745

The Ascension, with Pentecost below.

Second, the image of Pentecost, with the Blessed Mother in the center of the Apostles as the dove hovers and the fire of the Holy Spirit descends upon them and gives them the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 11:23; 1st Corinthians 12: 4 ff; Galatians 5: 22 ff).

Notice St. Peter, filled with conviction, speaking to the assembly of men below (“Peter’s Discourse” found in the Acts of the Apostles chapter 2, verses 14 ff.). Also, notice the clothing on one of the men who gather outside of the upper room listening to Peter: the detail of the lace work on the bottom of one of his garments, and the shadows on the man’s red leotard/shoe. If you stand away from the painting at approximately eight to ten feet to take it all in (as you see in the panoramic top photo) you don’t notice all the detail; but the blessed Fra with his extraordinary perception, noticed the need for it, and he painted it in. A master of detail, and as a true maestro, he knew how to successfully accomplish it. Wonderful!     The last two close-up pictures are below.

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My photos (through the kindness of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum), and            my text © Deacon Paul O. Iacono 2011-2018. Photos taken with an iPhone 6, no flash.

 

St. Francis of Assisi, Faith, and Grace

The following is my homily for the 27th Week in Ordinary time delivered at St. Francis of Assisi Church Wakefield, Rhode Island USA, October 6, 2013. The memorial of St. Francis of Assisi was celebrated on October 4th. 

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This weekend, as the Church remembers the life of St. Francis of Assisi, let’s pause for a moment and examine the virtues that energized Francis’ life.

We can begin by saying that he was a simple man. He pursued simplicity. This does not mean that he was of limited intelligence, or that he pursued simplicity for simplicity sake, rather, it means that he was successful at eliminating everything from his life that did not enhance his love of Jesus and service to his fellow man.

In other words, he was continually aware of the four eternal goals of life: keeping our soul in the state of grace, awareness of judgment by God, eternal life, and companionship with God Himself.

He realized that “to be simple is to see things with the eyes of God. St. Francis pursued simplicity because he innately knew that God Himself is simple.”

Other characteristics of Francis’ life are the virtues of faith and love. St. Francis understood that by praying for faith, by acting faithfully and lovingly, his spiritual life would be stressed – like an athlete preparing for a match – enabling him grow stronger in faith and love of God. He knew that if he committed himself to it God’s grace would assist him in this spiritual exercise.

In St. Francis’ life story we see his extraordinary reaction to his father’s demand for repayment for the fabrics he took, and sold, to benefit the poor.

How did he react when accused by his father?

In innocence and detachment he publicly disrobed –  a humble nude standing majestically in the Assisi town square.

Michelangelo should have attempted to sculpt that scene in marble. For what was the scene?

It was the image of the young Francis, not confronting the Goliath of military invasion, rather, the Goliath of a garden serpent (in the form of acceptance by society and his father’s love) who tempted him to return to the sweet life, “la dolce vita”.

But it was also the image of the grace of a Divine call to live a virtuous and detached life, filled with love for God and His creation.

The simple grace of Francis’ vision would be the stone that would bring down the giant of his own ego and worldliness.

Now let’s apply this to our Gospel (Luke 17: 5-10).

In today’s parable Jesus demonstrates the power of faith for overcoming temptation and obstacles.

But what did Jesus mean when He said that our faith could move trees and mountains? (see  also Matt.17: 20; Mark 11:23)

In the Middle East  – even to this day – the term “mountain mover” is used for someone who could provide the solutions to great difficulties.

So when Jesus tells us that if our faith was just the size of a mustard seed we could “uproot trees and mountains,” His emphasis is on His grace working in conjunction with our faith.

The gift of His grace is sufficient to assist us in dealing with our problems. Jesus doesn’t say that all our problems will instantly go away, rather, He says that we will be able to endure them, and yes, like Christ Himself, even overcome them.

So, we know St. Francis of Assisi today because he responded, in a heroic way, to the specific grace that he was given as a disciple of Christ.

Faith and grace was infused into his soul, and ours, at the moment of Baptism. If we choose to participate in Christ’s Sacraments, and do so on a regular basis, grace will build upon grace, and like Francis, our perception will become clearer, we will understand our personal Christian duty, and know how to respond to it.

With today’s Gospel, and St Francis in mind, we can say that God wants us to respond to His grace and scale the mountains of our own difficulties – to climb upon the crosses of our everyday life – because it is through this effort that we receive, in His love, the ability to be His partners in eternity.

At the end of his life, if St. Francis had been asked the question of what did he accomplish, he would have probably answered that he accomplished – nothing.

Rather, he may have said that it was as a loving disciple of Christ that he responded to the gift of God’s grace – and that it was God’s grace working through him that enabled him to perform good deeds and loving actions.

Let us pray that, in the spirit of St. Francis, we respond to God’s grace with the same faith, love, and generosity of spirit.

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Copyright © 2011- 2013 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. Notes on the art: The first image of St. Francis is a 13th century contemporary image of him. It is found in the Benedictine Monastery in Subiaco, Italy. Thanks to Digitalnun at www.ibenedictines.org. The second and third paintings are by Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516). Bellini painted this around 1480. The third painting is a close-up of a section of this painting by Bellini which shows a curious and loving rabbit peeking out of his den just as St. Francis receives the stigmata. The last photo is of a cloak that was worn by St. Francis. You may observe it and other personal items of St. Francis, such as his prayer book, slipper, and a cincture in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy. Quotations on simplicity based on a 1936 sermon by Fr. Ronald Knox. The reference to “mountain mover” and its usage in the Middle East was provided by D. Schwager. My thanks to him.