The last half of our Lord’s ministry was marred by envy and infighting among his followers. The disciples plotted against each other even on the eve of Christ’s crucifixion, prompting him to wrap himself in a towel and wash their feet in a servant’s basin.

The lesson was lost on many bishops during the ensuing centuries. As churches spread across the Roman world, the bishops of Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome assumed particular leadership. Antioch and Rome were, after all, prominent in the New Testament records, and the Alexandrian church traced its origin through the evangelist Mark to Peter. The Council of Nicaea in 325 placed these three bishops on more or less equal footing.

The bishop of Jerusalem, arguing his city deserved recognition, became the fourth world center of Christianity. Soon there was a fifth. Emperor Constantine decided to move the Roman capital to his new city on the Bosporus, and the bishop of Constantinople instantly assumed prominence. The ecumenical council held in Constantinople in 381 said that the patriarch of Constantinople deserved honor “next to the bishop of Rome.”

A low-grade rivalry arose between the two. It worsened when the Council of Chalcedon in 451 issued this decree extending the authority of the bishop of Constantinople: With reason did the fathers confer prerogatives on the throne of ancient Rome on account of her character as the imperial city; and moved by the same consideration, the bishops recognize the same prerogatives also in the most holy throne of New Rome.

Papal delegates from Rome protested on the spot, and on May 22, 452 Pope Leo launched three angry letters like warheads, addressed to the emperor, the empress, and the patriarch of Constantinople. Leo declared that the elevation of Constantinople was: (1) a work of pride; (2) an attack on the other centers of Christianity; (3) a violation of the rights given Rome by earlier councils; and (4) destructive to church unity. His letters only aggravated the situation. Eastern and Western Christianity drifted further apart until a complete schism occurred in 1054.

They had all, it seems, forgotten the basin and the towel.

And if your Lord and teacher has washed your feet, you should do the same for each other. I have set the example. (John 13:14-15a).

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). May 21.

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