The Divine Council of Nicea

Sunday after Ascension / Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, June 16, 2024
Acts 20:16-18, 28-36; John 17:1-13

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

In this period between the feasts of the Ascension of Christ and Pentecost, we celebrate on this Sunday the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, who met in the city of Nicea in the year 325 and formulated the first version of the Creed which we recite every time the Divine Liturgy is celebrated and at many other times, as well. The Creed was later completed in the year 381 in Constantinople, giving it the form we recite today.

There is a temptation to regard the ten days between Ascension and Pentecost as a kind of empty space – Jesus has gone, and we’re waiting for the Holy Spirit. But of course that is a very surface-level reading of this actually festal period, and it also happens to be wrong.

Let’s discuss, then, the key to understanding the Ascension, this feast of the Fathers, and indeed, our own lives.

When Jesus ascended into heaven, He ascended bodily – He remains God and man, forever. But the Ascension is not really about a departure. What happens in the Ascension parallels what happens in Genesis. God goes forth from His throne to perform the work of creation and then returns to His throne to rest upon it. In this case, when God goes forth from His throne, we can understand His work as either about re-creation – repairing and renewing the creation that had come under the destructive domination of demons – or about completing creation.

The first – re-creation – is relatively easy to understand – the conquering King of Kings goes forth to liberate the world from the devil and all the demons, then returns to His throne. The second – completing creation – may be less obvious. How does this work complete creation?

While not usually stated in this way, one can read the holy fathers of the Church as teaching that the Son of God would have become incarnate even if Adam had not transgressed, opening the door for death and sin and demons. That means that the original intention of the creation of mankind was always to culminate in Christ. Christ was the Image of God according to Whom mankind was made to begin with, and so it is Christ Who is the Firstborn over all creation and also the Firstborn from among the dead. So when Jesus says “It is finished” on the Cross, in a very real sense, what is “finished” is the creation of the world and most especially what has been finished is mankind.

Thus, when He ascends into heaven with His human body, we see the original destiny of mankind, which is to be seated at the right hand of God the Father. Even at this very moment, the throne of God is occupied by a human being, the God-man Jesus Christ. And so if we are in Christ, then in a mystical sense, we are ourselves seated on the very throne of God.

An image that accompanied the depictions in the Bible of the enthronement of the Son of God is that there are multiple thrones set next to His (Dan. 7:9). In the Old Testament, it is revealed in many places that there is a divine council which accompanies God and is presented with the image of a deliberative body that discusses what ought to be done and which also carries out the will of the One Who presides in that council – the Son of God Himself (Ps. 82:1, Is. 6:8).

Initially, the imagery for this divine council of the holy ones of God is clearly about the angels, the heavenly hosts who are called “the sons of God” and who are why He is called “Lord of Hosts,” “King of kings,” “Lord of lords,” “God of gods” and “Most High God.” These are all titles for God that refer to the divine council of the angelic holy ones.

Thus, when Christ ascends into heaven and sits on His throne, He is not alone. He is enthroned in His divine council of the holy ones. But since He is man, that means humanity is now present there as well. Furthermore, He is not the only human present.

Revelation 20:4 tells us, for instance, that the thrones next to His great throne are occupied by the martyrs. And Jesus tells His apostles that they will sit on twelve thrones in the Kingdom (Matt. 19:28, Luke 22:30). These thrones next to the Lord’s throne are appointed for holy humans – that is, the saints. And of course this word saints means the same as the phrase holy ones that we see in the Old Testament referring to the angels. So we can say that, according to the Scriptures, angels are the original saints and that the saints, who are now given angelic titles like “sons of God” (Matt. 5:9; Luke 20:36; Rom. 8:14, 8:19, 9:26; Gal. 3:26), function like the angels.

This imagery is represented in church architecture in what is called the synthronon, where in the apse behind the altar is a great throne in the center, with multiple lesser thrones next to it. The bishop, representing Christ, sits in the central throne, and next to him sit the priests, representing the divine council.

So this brings us to this feast today, which celebrates the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council. In this council, we see an earthly reflection of the divine council of heaven. The holy fathers of this council gathered together as a deliberative body, and many of them are literally holy ones, canonized saints, such Nicholas the Wonderworker, Eustathius of Antioch, Spyridon of Trimythous, Hosios of Cordova. Athanasius the Great, Alexander of Alexandria – and more.

And when they gathered, they did not gather as a government body or a secular board of trustees. Their gathering was inspired by the Holy Spirit, filled with prayer, and it was to do the work of the Holy Spirit, and they said so in the council documents, beginning with “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…”, echoing the words of the apostles at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15.

Even more, their work together made them an image of the angels who gather around the throne of God, which is why our hymns for this feast say “What a divine army!” That is, they are like the heavenly hosts, an image of the army of God that defeats the demonic enemy.

So what does this have to do with us? The imagery of the divine council, with the holy ones of God surrounding His throne, speaking with Him, and marching together with Him to do His works – this is not reflected only in events such as the Ecumenical Councils. It is indeed what we have come here to do together today.

The Church coming together now in prayer, to speak with God, to stand at His throne, to eat together, to do the works of God together – this is our participation in the divine council. We are called together by the Holy Spirit to be inspired by the Spirit and to be energized by the Holy Spirit, not to do some mere earthly task but to engage in the very works of God Himself.

And this divine council participation of ours does not happen only in the Divine Liturgy – though it is at its highest point here – and not only in our divine services which take place at other times during the week. It happens in parish council meetings, in catechetical classes, in common meals, in all the work we do together. (This, by the way, is why it is so irritating when someone calls the parish council “the board.” It is not a “board,” as though we were managing the assets of a business. It is a council, tasked with the works of God.)

This participation happens in our homes, as well. The father sitting with his family at the table also represents and partakes in the divine council. Each home and family belonging to this parish participates in the mystical reality of the holy ones of God gathered into His household and connected to Him at His throne. This image is fractally present everywhere for the Christian.

What all this means is this: Because of the Ascension of Christ and His enthronement in the midst of the divine council, we cannot ever let our common life together become something dominated by earthly concerns. Yes, we engage with the earthly, but we do so with wisdom and prudence precisely so that we may be lifted up to the heavenly.

It is all well and good to take care of the day-to-day matters of our lives, but if we are not building and maintaining these structures so that they might be filled with the light and the power and the grace of God, then we have made hollow shells that will crumble when the King of Kings comes again and calls all His holy ones to Himself.

The holy fathers of the Ecumenical Councils were able to act as a divine council because they were people of prayer, people who loved to worship, people who loved their neighbors as themselves, people who always asked what would truly give God the glory and would heal a broken world. And so should we also be.

To the ascended and enthroned Lord Jesus Christ therefore be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.


  1. I have always liked the idea that the incarnation of Christ would have happened even if Adam has not sinned. However, to the best of my knowledge it is not a belief held by all the Fathers of the Church, only by some. It is a theologoumenon – a theological opinion or speculation that sounds like it should be true, and as I said I have always preferred it to the more conventional views. But it is not a belief held by the universal Church or held by all the Fathers of the Church.

    1. Thanks for the correction. I have edited my text. The original wording was perhaps too broad (though I did not claim that it was “all the Fathers of the Church”). I was generally following the reasoning of Fr. Georges Florovsky in his analysis particularly of St. Maximus here.

      1. “The original intention of the creation of mankind was always to culminate in Christ.” I love that statement, and it really underlies how we read the Old Testament. Thank you for your work.

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