The Barista of Chalcedon

Several years ago we found ourselves on vacation in Istanbul, Turkey. I have always loved Istanbul, the city that spans two continents and is overflowing with history, culture, kabab, and – crucially – very good coffee. Very few places in the world feel so Western and so Eastern at the same time, depending on which direction you are coming from.

For some reason I was on my own that sunny spring morning walking through the hip neighborhood of Kadiköy, a colorful part of Istanbul full of little cafes, restaurants, and shops. I was on the hunt for a coffee shop that had come highly recommended from a friend who knew way more about coffee than I did. I followed google maps to the small intersection where the coffee shop was supposed to be. The square was paved with grey flagstones, with a small metal statue of a crocodile in the center. Most of the traffic through it was shoppers on foot, with the occasional cart or miniature van.

I didn’t see the coffee shop, so I double-checked the map. I was in the right spot. Maybe it had closed? Eventually I glanced up and realized that the coffee shop was a second floor establishment, perched above a cell phone accessories store, with a balcony that looked down on the square. I ambled over to the cell phone store and found the narrow staircase tucked beside it that led up to the cafe.

Once there, I was convinced by the kind barista to try a Japanese cold brew. It was the first time I had ever had one of these beverages. During hot summer visits to Istanbul I had already come to appreciate Istanbul baristas and their cold brew skills. I was on vacation, after all. Why not try a Japanese cold brew while in Turkey, made with beans from Ethiopia? I knew that once we returned to our region of Central Asia, I’d be back to only being able to get coffee that sometimes tastes of moldy dirt and often hits the palate like a bitter slap to the face.

As it would take a few minutes to brew, the barista encouraged me to go and find a spot on the sunny balcony. I sat down at the counter seating right on the edge of the balcony, got out my Bible and journal, and observed the square down below. I noticed a strip of white-grey marble running down the center of the street and found myself reading a curious name carved into it, Khalkedon. The name seemed familiar to me, bearing a striking resemblance to what I knew as Chalcedon, the location of the great church council of 451, where the ancient church hammered out how to articulate the nature of Christ. Surely, this wasn’t where that took place, was it? My tourist mobile data was acting up, but once I got it working again I looked it up. Sure enough, Chalcedon used to be a village outside of Constantinople, now Istanbul, and was eventually absorbed by the city, now forming a part of the Kadiköy neighborhood. This was indeed the location of one of the most important councils in Christian history.

I scanned the square for any kind of historical marker or monument that might alert passersby to this hugely significant history. I didn’t see anything. The crocodile statue, while a decent piece of artwork, did not seem to have any connection to christology or creeds. The businesses around the square and the people shopping there didn’t seem to show any awareness of this history either. This made sense, since Istanbul is an overwhelmingly Islamic city now. But still, surely they must know something about it. I decided to put the barista to the test. After all, he did work in Chalcedon.

The square of Khalkedon, ancient Chalcedon

My cold brew was ready, so I went back inside the cafe to pick it up.

“Can I ask you a question?” I asked as I held the cold brew up to my nose, enjoying the sharp rich aroma as I swished it around.

“Sure,” he answered, smiling.

“How long have you worked here?”

“Several years.”

“Do you know about the history of this place, Khalkedon?”

“No, not really.”

“Well, right here, right in this neighborhood, one of the most important meetings in the history of Christianity took place, about 1,500 years ago.”

The barista gave me an inquisitive look.

“At that council they debated how Jesus could be both fully man and fully God!” I continued.

The barista continued to stare at me.

“Have you ever heard this before?” I asked. He shook his head.

“Well, when you get home, look up the council of Khalkedon, or Chalcedon. If you work here, you’ve gotta know the amazing history of this place. It’s really significant.”

“Thanks… I will,” he responded. Then, seeming a little perplexed, he turned to work on someone else’s drink.

I went back out to the balcony and enjoyed the cold brew and some Bible reading, imagining what Khalkedon must have looked like back in the year 451, when the emperor Marcian and 520 leaders of the ancient church gathered to debate the oneness and the twoness of Christ, and how in human language we might best summarize what the Bible has revealed of this great mystery. It’s from this council’s creed that we have received the orthodox formulation of the nature of Christ as one person, two natures. This council rejected the teachings on the one hand that Christ had only one nature (Monophysitism), and on the other hand that he had two persons (Nestorianism). Christ was one united person in two natures, fully human, fully divine. Sadly, Chalcedon was the theological occasion for the eventual break between the churches of the East – those outside the Roman empire – and those in the West. These churches had already been significantly divided by language, political borders, and culture. But the controversy over Chalcedon made the split official, one that has lasted to this day.

Istanbul is not the only place to have a hidden historical witness to Christian faith. Many parts of the 10/40 window used to have a significant presence of Christians in antiquity or in the middle ages. Just forty five minutes outside of our Central Asian city is a ruined monastery-citadel complex from the 400 or 500s. Locals know nothing about it, and it took tracking down an archeologist in Texas to get confirmation that this is indeed an ancient Christian site. Since then we’ve been able to take groups of local believers out to the site so that they might marvel at the evidence that their own ancestors may have had access to the gospel 1,500 years ago. Of course, this is a tremendous encouragement to them.

All over what is now the Muslim world, there are mosques that have been built on the foundations of ancient churches, abandoned chapels and monastaries in remote areas, tombstones, and even carpet patterns that reflect this lost history. There is a sadness to these silent witnesses. Persecution has often meant that Christianity has been almost or entirely snuffed out in regions where it was once strong. And like the Chalcedonian barista, the locals have no idea of the significance of what they are walking past every day. How did this happen? How could God have allowed the Church to lose areas that used to be strong enough to be sending bases of ancient missionaries?

Yet there is also encouragement to be found in the presence of these ancient stones. They are silent witnesses – but only until a believer comes along who is able to interpret for them. When this happens they begin to cry out. God has been active in the history of this people and this place. Your ancestors have not been left without a witness. Christianity is no Western religion foreign to your soil – it was here long before Europe was Christianized. To follow Jesus is for some an opportunity to return to the faith of their fathers before they succumbed to the sword and choking caste system of Islam. Like the tide, the gospel may recede for a season, but it will be back – unstoppably so. As Zane Pratt famously said at the tomb of Tamerlane, the Mongol Muslim ruler most responsible for the extermination of Central Asian Christianity: “We’re back… and you’re dead.”

If the West becomes even more post-Christian, we will undoubtedly have more of these silent witnesses ourselves, flagstones, monuments, and ruins that speak of our decline. We must remember that they also point forward to our return. And that no matter how dark it gets, God will somehow preserve a witness. Someday, a Central Asian Christian may just find himself pointing a Western pagan barista to the Christian truth present in the very stones around him.

Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us.

The Chalcedonian Creed, Chalcedon, Asia Minor, AD 451

First photo by Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash

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