c. 296 – 373
Memorial: Liturgical Color: White
The First Sunday of Advent of 2011 introduced to the faithful a new liturgical translation of the Mass in many English-speaking countries. The new translation had been many years in the making and had gone through numerous drafts and revisions. Of the many noticeable changes, some of the most extensive were made to the Nicene Creed. The phrase “one in being with the Father” was changed to “consubstantial with the Father.” This caused confusion and discomfort for some, as “consubstantial” was not a familiar English word and sounded more appropriate to the realm of mathematics. But “consubstantial” had a long historical and theological pedigree supporting it. Its noticeable use in the newly translated Creed, and the curiosity it provoked, was also a distant homage to today’s saint, Athanasius. He fought for, and suffered for, this one word.
St. Athanasius was the sturdiest pillar of orthodoxy in the Patristic age. He was the Bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, for 45 contentious years, during which time he was exiled five times, some of them difficult, dangerous, and prolonged absences. He was born to Christian parents, raised in the faith, and mentored in his youth by the Bishop of Alexandria, whom he accompanied to the Council of Nicea. Athanasius, despite his youth and not being a bishop, nevertheless played an important role at the Council in promoting the non-biblical, Greek word, homoousion, to describe Christ’s relationship with God the Father. The Western Church then translated homoousion as consubstantialis for its Latin Creed.
To say that Christ is “consubstantial” with the Father is to say that He is not one in person, one in mind, or one in will with the Father. He is distinct from the Father in His personhood, His mind, and His will. But He is entirely united with the Father in His nature. That is, Christ is God from God as light is from light. Christ, then, did not become God sometime after He was born of the Virgin Mary. He did not develop into God as a teenager or via some pivotal event. Nor was He bestowed with divine powers as those powers were needed. He was a baby God, a teen God, and an adult God because He was always God. Nor was His God nature a mere cloak under which was hidden a human self. Jesus Christ was fully human, of course, but also fully divine, and these two natures were united in one complex person. But these Christological definitions were destined to be clarified at later Councils. The Councils of Nicea (325 A.D) and Constantinople (381 A.D.) were concerned with understanding and defining the Trinity first. Once Trinitarian definitions were worked out, later fifth century Councils would address more fully the nature of Christ Himself.
Before delving into what Christ was for, or what He did, it was necessary to establish who He was. His being preceded His doing. St. Athanasius’ theological contributions to defining, for ever and all time, the metaphysical significance of the Incarnation is now taken for granted. But without this correct understanding, Christmas would be just a historic anniversary of an important birth, like that of Julius Caesar or other greats of history. But Christmas is Christmas because Christ was God from the start. Theology is not just a pillow on which the Church rests, of course, so the theology of the Trinity and of Christ has been greatly enriched since the Patristic age, most notably by an emphasis on the Cross as the fullness of the self-emptying that began with the Incarnation. St. Athanasius was without equal in defining and defending the Church’s dogma on the true nature of the Trinity. And for that immeasurable contribution, he is owed an immense debt of gratitude by all the Church.
St. Athanasius, your courage and perseverance in combating false teaching cost you comfort and security. May your example and intercession assist all teachers to understand the importance of truth as the starting point for reflecting more fruitfully on the mysteries of our Faith.
From Butler’s Lives of the Saints:
ATHANASIUS was born in Egypt towards the end of the third century, and was from his youth pious, learned, and deeply versed in the sacred writings, as befitted one whom God had chosen to be the champion and defender of His Church against the Arian heresy. Though only a deacon, he was chosen by his bishop to go with him to the Council of Nicæa, in 325, and attracted the attention of all by the learning and ability with which he defended the faith. A few months later, he became Patriarch of Alexandria, and for forty-six years he bore, often well-nigh alone, the whole brunt of the Arian assault. On the refusal of the Saint to restore Arius to Catholic communion, the emperor ordered the Patriarch of Constantinople to do so. The wretched heresiarch took an oath that he had always believed as the Church believes; and the patriarch, after vainly using every effort to move the emperor, had recourse to fasting and prayer, that God would avert from the Church the frightful sacrilege. The day came for the solemn entrance of Arius into the great church of Sancta Sophia. The heresiarch and his party set out glad and in triumph. But before he reached the church, death smote him swiftly and awfully, and the dreaded sacrilege was averted. St. Athanasius stood unmoved against four Roman emperors; was banished five times; was the butt of every insult, calumny, and wrong the Arians could devise, and lived in constant peril of death. Though firm as adamant in defence of the Faith, he was meek and humble, pleasant and winning in converse, beloved by his flock, unwearied in labors, in prayer, in mortifications, and in zeal for souls. In the year 373 his stormy life closed in peace, rather that his people would have it so than that his enemies were weary of persecuting him. He left to the Church the whole and ancient Faith, defended and explained in writings rich in thought and learning, clear, keen, and stately in expression. He is honored as one of the greatest of the Doctors of the Church.
Reflection.— The Catholic Faith, says St. Augustine, is more precious far than all the riches and treasures of earth; more glorious and greater than all its honors, all its possessions. This it is which saves sinners, gives light to the blind, restores penitents, perfects the just, and is the crown of martyrs.
Lives of the Saints, by Alban Butler, Benziger Bros. ed.