One of the great gifts to the Church are the heretics. I use that one-liner in order to grab people’s attention. It mostly generates the question: “what possible good could come from a heretic,” right? The thing about heretics is that they ask great questions, sometimes the critical questions. The problem is they get the wrong answers. They take a road leading away from Truth. And in the beginning it always looks like a promising direction.
One of the early and dangerous heresies came from the Deacon Arius of Alexandria about the year 300 CE. In short, he claimed that while Jesus was divine, he was a “second tier” divine, a lesser God so-to-speak, not co-eternal with God the Father. In other words, there was a time when he was “not.” Arius has his supporters, even among the court of the Roman Emperor. Armies formed, battles were fought, and people died. This was serious stuff. The Council of Nicea in 325 declared Arianism a heresy.
It did not go away. In every age of the Church there have been Christian sects that were Arians – Goths, Vandals, and even Isaac Newton. Even today some Unitarians are virtually Arians in that they are unwilling either to reduce Christ to a mere human being or to attribute to him a divine nature identical with that of the Father.
A little less than a century after Arius, another heresy came to the front: Apollinarism, named after Apollinaris of Laodicea. He argued that Jesus had a normal human body but a divine spirit/soul/mind instead of a regular “human issue.” Apollinaris’ rejection that Christ had a human mind was considered an over-reaction to Arianism and its teaching that Christ was a lesser god. Apollinarism was declared to be a heresy in 381 by the First Council of Constantinople.
A single verse from today’s gospel came up in both heretical ponderings.
Can you explain: “When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” (Luke 2:40)
You can get an idea how heresies arise. Thoughtful, curious people want to know how things are, how things work. How can Jesus be fully human and have to grow, learn, gain wisdom? Does that mean part of Him is not God? But if He doesn’t have to do those things, then He is not exactly human like us.
All this heretical stuff is interesting, but what’s the take-away? Trust me these topics don’t come up in casual conversation and cocktail parties…. Least not ones I want to attend. The take-away for me is a profound sense of gratitude. I don’t have to know how Jesus is vere Deus, vere homo, fully God and fully human as St. Irenaeus proclaimed. Some things are truly mystery. Like love. Truly a mystery.
I am beyond grateful that Jesus is vere Deus and saves. I am beyond grateful that Jesus is vere homo and knows the joys and sorrow, days and night, and all that is in this caldron called life. And so, I join today’s psalm response: Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice. Love has come fully, completely and inescapably into human life, our life. How is a mystery. The why is that God desires that all be saved.