This Sunday we celebrated the holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council in Nicea, which championed the Christian doctrine of God as Trinity against the Arian blasphemy that Christ was born of the Father in time, and therefore a finite creature, and declared that anyone who held to Arius’ heresy were anathema.
Particularly in recent times, the term anathema has itself become anathema to most people. The list of anathemas appointed to be read on the Sunday of Orthodoxy in Lent is almost always omitted, and the existence of such a rubric is a source of embarrassment to many. Not only do people feel uncomfortable hearing anathemas pronounced against teachings which, in a pluralistic society, might be held by co-workers, friends and even family, but there is also a sense that it goes against the very spirit of Christianity. After all, Christ said “bless those who curse you,” not “curse those who disagree with you.”
The practice is, of course, biblical, rooted in the words of
St. Paul the Apostle: “If anyone has no love for the
Lord, let him be anathema” (1 Cor. 16:22); “But even if we or an angel from
heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you,
let him be anathema” (Gal. 1:8). Thus, by declaring someone to be anathema, the
Holy Fathers are simply making apparent the fact that their gospel is a foreign
But even if we can justify it by appealing to the Apostolic Writings, how should we understand it? When we look up the word in normal English dictionaries, it is no wonder it sits so uncomfortably with people. Common definitions include “a person or thing detested or loathed,” “a person or thing accursed or consigned to damnation,” “a curse,” and so on. Likewise, most English translations of the Scripture tend to render the word “accursed.”
However, when we look at the actual etymology of the word, we see that it literally means “a thing devoted,” “set up” – i.e. to God (or the gods in Ancient Greek usage). In the Old Testament, the Greek word ‘anathema’ is used to translate the Hebrew word ‘herem,’ which comes from the verb to consecrate or devote. Once something was “so devoted to the Lord [it] could not be redeemed (Num. ; Lev. 27:28-29); and hence the idea of exterminating [also] connected with the word” (Easton’s 1897 Bible Dictionary). The Encyclopedia Britannica (2008) says “(from Greek anatithenai: ‘to set up,’ or ‘to dedicate’), in the Old Testament, a creature or object set apart for sacrificial offering. Its return to profane use was strictly banned.”
St. Paul tells us that “As for a heretical person, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-judged” (Titus 3:10-11). It was only after ignoring the repeated admonitions of Orthodox bishops and persisting in their heresy that heretics were declared anathema by the Church. Once the Church had done all it possibly could to bring them to repentance, the only thing left to do was to turn them over to God, to end their dispute with them and leave them in His hands. Thus, when the Church declares someone anathema, it is not placing a curse upon them, declaring them detestable and sentencing them to damnation. Rather, it is a way of saying, “there’s nothing more we can do for this person, we entrust him – we set him up - to God.” To entrust someone to the God of love is not an act of hatred, but of mercy.