By Fr. Tom Newcomb
In November, Lee Ann and I visited Turkey. It was a wonderful trip and I will be sharing more about it in the coming year. Turkey is an amazing place, and it is very important in Christian history. We think first of the seven churches mentioned in the Book of Revelation located in Western Turkey, but since it is December and Christmas is coming, I would like to write about two places in Turkey that played important roles in the development of our understanding of the meaning of the birth of Jesus. The first is the region of Cappadocia and the second is Ephesus.
Cappadocia is a region in central Turkey best known for its unique moon-like landscape, cave churches and houses carved in the rocks. Over decades and centuries, those living in Cappadocia took advantage of the geological composition of the rock formations above and underground and carved caves everywhere. These caves were used for defense as hiding places when invaders attacked, as well as for storage of crops and other valuables year round. At times they were used as year-round dwellings. Christians living in the area also used the caves, and many Christian monks lived and worshiped in them. Some of the cave churches are very beautiful and are decorated with beautiful paintings of scenes from the life of Christ and various saints.
In the fourth century, Cappadocia became an important center of Christianity, and three men known as the Cappadocian Fathers, became leaders who played a decisive role in overcoming corrosive heresies that at that time threatened the Christian understanding of who
Jesus was and is. They were Basil of Caesarea, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus.
As background, you may remember from your study of history that soon after the Emperor Constantine legalized the practice of Christianity in the Roman Empire, the Arian heresy, which denied the full divinity of Jesus, became a problem in the life of the church. To combat it, the Council of Nicaea met in 325 AD and affirmed the traditional understanding of God as—God the Father, creator of heaven and earth, Jesus Christ, the Son of God and redeemer of the world, and the Holy Spirit, the presence of God which continues to inspire and guide Christians as they live in the world. However, in spite of the council, problems persisted for many decades. The heresy took different forms, one of which was known as the Monophysite heresy. It used different language to deny the full divinity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
The three Cappodocian saints, Basil and the two Gregories, lived lives of great devotion and learning. They preached and taught about the nature of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit in a way that convinced the faithful of the truth of the Trinitarian nature of God and the divine nature of Jesus. My favorite is Gregory of Nazianzus, the son of a bishop, who was eventually called to Constantinople and, in spite of fierce political and ecclesiastical opposition, through a series of eloquent sermons, proclaimed the gospel and turned the tide of public opinion to-ward a biblical understanding of God’s nature. He was made Archbishop, and inspired the Council of Constantinople in 381 to rebuke the Monophysite heresy and to affirm the divinity of Jesus as well as the church’s belief in the Holy Trinity. Together the three Cappodician Fathers led the church to a more pro-found understanding that Jesus was both fully human and truly divine, and that because of his sinless nature he was able to redeem the world from sin.
The other place of importance which I would share with you is Ephesus. We know it best from the Letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians. Ephesus was an important Roman port city located on the edge of the Aegean Sea. But it is not Paul or the Book of Ephesians that I want to speak about here. It is that Ephesus is associated with Mary the mother of Jesus, and that it was in Ephesus that the church affirmed the important role that Mary played in God’s plan of salvation. You may remember that from the cross Jesus entrusted Mary to the care and protection of John, the beloved disciple. (John 19:27) Many believe that John lived in Ephesus for many years. If he did, it is very likely that Mary lived there as well.
Near Ephesus, there is a beautiful chapel high on a hill over-looking the sea which we visited. It is built from ancient ruins. It is known as the House of Mary, and many believe that Mary lived there. It has been a place of pilgrimage for local Christians for many centuries. Whether or not Mary lived in Ephesus, it is significant that several decades following the councils that rebuked the Arian and Monophysite heresies, bishops met there in an-other council, the Council of Ephesus in 431, to proclaim Mary as “Theotokos”, the God-bearer. We visited the ruins of the church where they met. It is adjacent to the ruins of the Roman city and for centuries it has been known as the Church of Mary. The Greek term Theotokos is usually translated into English with the words “the Mother of God”. This is essentially a proclamation about Jesus – that he was born of Mary and that in addition to his full humanity he was truly divine. As we say in the Nicene Creed each week, he is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.”
And so, as we approach Christmas, let us remember the biblical truth proclaimed by the bishops in Ephesus, that Jesus was born a human being from Mary, blessed among women. As the Bible tells us, he was like us in every way apart from sin. (Hebrews 4:15) He knows our hopes and fears, our temptations and our triumphs, our joys and sorrows. Let us also remember the truth, defended so courageously by the saints from Cappadocia, that he was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and that he is the Son of God, God from God, Light from Light.
Let us rejoice with the humble shepherds of Bethlehem and the noble wise men from the East. Jesus was born for us, and through him we have access to the truths of God, the forgiveness of sin, the presence and help of the Holy Spirit, and one day eternal life with God.