Against the World: St. Athanasius, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

John 15:26-16:4a

In the gospel reading, Jesus said to his disciples, They will expel you from the synagogues; in fact, the hour is coming when everyone who kills you will think he is offering worship to God. They will do this because they have not known either the Father or me (John 16:1-3). While everything that Jesus said is appropriate for all times and seasons, these words have particular resonance for St. Athanasius, whose feast we now remember and celebrate.

By all accounts, Athanasius was a man of many gifts. Brilliant in both academics and his understanding of people, at ease as pastor of a large patriarchate yet equally comfortable amid the solitary contemplatives in the desert, a gentle man not prone to anger but at the same time a tenacious defender of the faith.

Athanasius was born around the year 298 into a Christian world on the throes of tearing itself to pieces over a heresy known as Arianism. Named after its progenitor, a priest named Arius, it sent a shock wave through the world by preaching about Christ that “there was a time when he was not.” The Arians believed that only the Father was truly God; as great as he was, Jesus was a creature, not God. The idea spread like wildfire, and by the time Constantine legalized Christianity, the faith was a house divided threatening to collapse upon itself.

A good general but no theologian, Constantine convened a worldwide Council in 325 to bring the sides together and solve the problem. Athanasius, then deacon and secretary to the Patriarch of Alexandria, quickly saw that biblical arguments were futile; each side interpreted Scripture to suit its own beliefs. He and a small group of defenders outmaneuvered the Arians by moving from exegesis to philosophy. They argued that Jesus must fully share the eternal, divine nature of the Father; to relegate him to the status of a creature, no matter how godly, would be to say that he was subject to error and to change, including from good to evil. Hearing this horrified even many Arians. Their position was overwhelmingly rejected. To this day, we still recite every week the words first written at that Council, perhaps by Athanasius himself: God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God; begotten not made; consubstantial with the Father…

sword-790815_640Recall Christ’s words: The hour is coming when everyone who kills you will think he is offering worship to God. It is a sad fact that we in the Church are often our own worst enemy. The Arian leadership resolved that what they could not win in Council, they would take by subterfuge. Athanasius, newly elected Patriarch of Alexandria and much loved by his people, was a primary target. The Arians boldly went after him, seeking nothing less than his disgrace and death. They fabricated scandals, perjured themselves and, aided by Arian-leaning or pagan emperors, forced Athanasius into five exiles spanning seventeen years.

Yet, recall that Jesus also said, And you also testify, because you have been with me from the beginning (John 15:27). If Athanasius did anything, he certainly testified. Instead of spending his years of exile in angst or despair, he took refuge where he could, not least among the desert fathers, and wrote extensively. He taught and encouraged his flock, gave outstanding defenses of the faith, and shaped the Western world’s understanding of monasticism by writing on the life of his friend St. Anthony of the Desert. These works together with treatises on Arianism and theological topics such as the Incarnation earned Athanasius the title Doctor of the Church.

Some of the histories refer to him as Athanasius contra mundum (Athanasius against the world). He spent his ministry in a world that was increasingly Arian, hostile to the orthodox, and many wanted him silenced. Yet, the bishop kept in mind the words of Jesus: they have not known either the Father or me (John 16:3), and loved the world too much to let it go its own way. Athanasius knew that heresy could only triumph where people were ignorant, where they didn’t know the Father or the Son. God had provided him the office, the education, and the opportunities; it was then up to him to use these gifts to bring the truth to whoever would accept it and leave the consequences to God.

In a way, little has changed over the centuries. We find ourselves in a world increasingly hostile to Christianity; many would like us silenced as well. This we cannot do. Like Athanasius, we must look with love upon the world, consider the gifts that we have been given, and seize the opportunities that Christ has laid before us.

St. Athanasius, pray for us.

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