Ho, Ho, Homoousios! (Or, How One Measly Letter Made a Really Big Mess and Saint Nicholas Tried to Clean it Up)

meme st nick

Happy Feast of Saint Nicholas!  Today’s the day when children all over the world awake to find treats in their shoes a la the European tradition, people cock their heads and ask for the first time “Wait, Saint Nicholas and Santa are the same person?”, and theologians revel in his contributions to the Council of Nicea in 325, which include punching Arius across the face when he insisted that Jesus Christ was not fully divine, and also making sure that the word “homoousios” was included in the creed that many, if not most, Christians recite at some point in their liturgical year (the Nicene Creed). 

Never heard it? Do read on.


Homoousios?  That sounds like a type of illness.

Yes, yes it does.  But it’s not; it’s Greek. It means “of the same substance” or “of the same essence”.  Saint Nicholas–and other Bishops and believers like him–were fighting against the use of the term “homoiousios” (note the extra “i” in there), which means “of a similar substance”.  


That’s an awful lot of confusion over one letter.

I know, I know.  It’s like the Elijah/Elisha scripture passage all over again.  ::shakes head::


So, “same” versus “similar” doesn’t seem like that big of a deal to me.  Why all the kerfuffle?

Think back a week to Thanksgiving.  Imagine for a moment that you’d invited me to your house for the big meal and I told you I’d bring the turkey.  When I showed up that night, I brought a tofurkey (you know, a turkey made of tofu) instead.

“That’s not a turkey,” you’d have said.

“It’s practically the same, it’s of similar substance,” I might have responded.

“Yeah, but it’s not the same.  It’s not turkey, you said you’d bring turkey, WHERE IS THE TURKEY?” you might have screamed at the prospect of not having your favorite holiday snack.  (If you’re vegetarian or just don’t like turkey, think of this in terms of your favorite coffee brand in relation to Maxwell House instant coffee.  Or a Velveeta cheese loaf in relation to triple-cream Brie. If you don’t like turkey, coffee, or cheese, I’m out of ideas.  Also, I don’t think we’d get along very well.)  

Being “of the same substance” is a big deal.  It’s the difference between turkey and tofurkey (for the record, I’ve had both and turkey is far superior in flavor, texture, and general dining experience), or (more importantly) between Jesus being fully God or not.  Saying that they’re of the “same” substance means Jesus is the second person of the Trinity–Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Saying that they’re of “similar” substance means that Jesus was either some rival god of a different substance or sort of a strange demi-god who was more than human, but not fully divine and that just confuses everything…like John 10.30.


Okay, so they’re the same.  So why have I never heard “homoousios” in church before?

Because we don’t do Mass in Greek (at least here we don’t).  In the past, “homoousios” has been translated as “one in being” in the Nicene Creed.  A few years ago, when the entire Mass translation changed, it was changed to “consubstantial”:

“…I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages.  God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father…”

This was kind of a big deal when the translation changed.  Were you mad when this happened?  A lot of people I knew were, saying that “consubstantial” was too big of a word for the average churchgoer and they didn’t even know what it meant.  (For the record, I was in grad school at the time and I will always look back with a mix of fondness and impiety at having watched an entire church of theology students alternately swear or fist pump when they forgot or remembered to say “…and with your spirit” instead of “…and also with you”.  It was hilarious.)


“Consubstantial” is a really big word.

It is.  But that’s the problem with translating something that was written almost 2,000 years ago (see also: the Bible).  

I know there were some nuanced theological reasons for the scholars who settled on this translation, but maybe they also did it to inspire us all to do a little study, look into it, have conversations.  Maybe they thought we’d become too stale in the way we recite the most fascinating story of love and sacrifice of all time.  (I’m talking about God sacrificing his Son in order to be reunited with all of Creation, if you didn’t catch that.  Watch this video please.) 


So if they were even having this argument in the first place, does that mean that really early Christians didn’t believe Jesus was fully God?

Contrary to what Dan Brown says, not at all.  As with most post-Biblical-times developments in the church–the Trinity, the Mass, the physical text of the Bible itself–these concrete ideas and practices came from common practice among believers.  

And as the Church got bigger and bigger while the apostles spread the good news of Christ’s life and resurrection, things sometimes got diluted or confused, like a giant game of telephone. So when people started having really big arguments (which started–it should be noted–after the Roman government mostly stopped killing Christians in a systematic way, so they had time to start thinking about the philosophical nuances of their faith and not just staying alive) the leaders of the Church needed to get together to make an official declaration of what they believed.  This way, when some punk (like Arius, who started this whole “of same/similar substance” mess) comes up with something not in line with what Christ established through His ministry to the Apostles, they could (sometimes literally) throw the book at them and say “Nope, that’s not what we believe.  Check it.”


Gotcha.  So Saint Nicholas is cool because he fought for this understanding?



And he somehow morphed into Santa Claus because…?

He was a secret gift giver during his life.  American Santa Claus only came around in the early 1800s.  To see how the morphing happened, check out this cool site.


So how can I celebrate the feast day?

Put little trinkets in your family’s or roommate’s shoes when they’re not looking–oranges, nuts, candies and small toys are traditional.  Treat yourself to a hot chocolate with a candy cane in it (and notice how it bears a remarkable resemblance to a Bishop’s staff….oh!)  Check out our list of ways to celebrate feast days.  Smack a heretic (but please, don’t really.  It’s just a joke.)


So, Happy Feast of Saint Nicholas!  And Ho, Ho, Homoousios! 



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