St. Athanasius

May 2: Saint Athanasius, Bishop and Doctor—Memorial

c. 296–373
Patron Saint of theologians
Pre-Congregation canonization
Proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by Pope Saint Pius V in 1568
Liturgical Color: White

Now when Arius and his fellows made these assertions, and shamelessly avowed them, we being assembled with the Bishops of Egypt and Libya, nearly a hundred in number, anathematized both them and their followers. But Eusebius and his fellows admitted them to communion, being desirous to mingle falsehood with the truth, and impiety with piety. But they will not be able to do so, for the truth must prevail; neither is there any communion of light with darkness, nor any concord of Christ with Belial. ~Saint Athanasius

Can something be 100% black and 100% white at the same time? Certainly not. It was logic similar to this that created a fierce controversy known as Arianism in the fourth-century Church. Among the greatest opponents of Arianism was Saint Athanasius, whom we honor today.

Arius was a priest from Alexandria, modern-day Egypt. The belief that Jesus was 100% human and 100% divine seemed logically incompatible to him. As a result, Arius taught that the Father created the Son, making the Son subordinate to the Father and neither co-eternal nor co-equal with Him. The debate would finally be resolved at a Church council in Nicaea, called by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. The answer came by way of the formulation of the Nicene Creed, which we continue to profess as a Church today. The Nicene Creed got it right, and today’s saint made sure of it. 

Little is known about the early life of Saint Athanasius, but much is known about his unwavering leadership, courage, and depth of faith, due to the voluminous writings he left behind. One story relates that when Athanasius was only a child, he and two friends were playing on the beach when the Bishop of Alexandria noticed them. The bishop observed that young Athanasius was pretending to baptize the other boys, in imitation of the bishop himself. After examining Athanasius’ faith and understanding of the sacrament, the bishop declared that Athanasius’ baptisms of the other boys were truly valid. The bishop then took Athanasius under his wing and saw to it that he received the best education the flourishing Christian city of Alexandria could offer him. He became an excellent student and especially immersed himself in the Holy Scriptures.

At that time, Alexandria was an important trade center, with a mixture of Greek and Roman culture. The faith was strong and the city’s schools were renowned. What came out of Alexandria affected the entire Church. In 311, the Bishop of Alexandria was martyred in one of the final Roman persecutions of the faith. In 313, the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, legalizing the practice of the Christian faith.  Upon completing his education, Athanasius was ordained a deacon in Alexandria. As a deacon, his knowledge of Scripture would especially be made known through his first great work, On the Incarnation of the Word, in which he powerfully articulates that Jesus is the divine and eternal Word of the Father. 

With the legalization of Christianity and the end of external persecutions of the Church, a new attack on the Church began—this time from within. Around the year 318, Arius, a priest in a wealthy parish in Alexandria, pronounced from the pulpit that his bishop was a heretic. He promoted his belief that the Son of God was subordinate to the Father, did not share in His divinity, and was, therefore, neither eternal nor co-eternal. The Bishop of Alexandria worked hard to reconcile Arius but to no avail. In 321 a synod of nearly 100 bishops was held in Alexandria, and they rejected the teachings of Arius. Arius subsequently rejected the bishops and fled to Palestine where he continued to spread his errors. With Christianity legal throughout the empire, Arius went on a preaching campaign, even going so far as to compose short hymns he taught the people with words such as, “there was a time when He was not…” Eventually, the Emperor Constantine heard about the controversy and wanted it resolved.

In 325, Constantine called the first ecumenical Church council in the city of Nicaea, near Constantinople, with the cooperation of Pope Sylvester. As the bishops gathered from across the empire, many of them bore the physical marks of persecution by the Roman emperors that had endured throughout their lives. Now, they faced a new enemy, one which sought to deny the divinity of Christ. At the council, Arius was given the freedom to make his case within the hearing of all. The Bishop of Alexandria also made his case. Later testimony also states that Deacon Athanasius was one of the clearest and most convincing voices in support of the divinity of Christ, basing his arguments upon his work On the Incarnation of the Word of God. Of the more than 300 bishops in attendance, only two refused to support the position articulated by the Bishop of Alexandria and Deacon Athanasius. A creed was formulated to clearly and concisely articulate the pure faith of the Church: the Nicene Creed. Those two bishops who refused to accept it, along with Arius, were exiled. Shortly after the council, the Bishop of Alexandria died and thirty-year-old Athanasius was chosen as his successor, to the delight of all of the people.

One might think that the Council of Nicaea, with its issuance of the Nicene Creed, would have ended the troubles, but it did not. Soon after, the exiled bishops who supported Arius gained the support of the Emperor Constantine and convinced him to exile Bishop Athanasius from Alexandria. This was the first of five exiles Bishop Athanasius would endure from four different Roman emperors. In fact, seventeen of his forty-eight years as Bishop of Alexandria were spent in exile.

Romans 8:28 states, “We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” This Scripture was certainly fulfilled in the life of Saint Athanasius. During his five exiles, he wrote over fifty letters that have survived, numerous works on the faith, and the first detailed biography of a saint, Saint Anthony of the Desert.  His book on Saint Anthony was based on his firsthand knowledge of the life of this desert monk. It is believed that Athanasius spent at least a year with Anthony prior to Anthony’s death, and then spent five or six more years with the community of desert monks Anthony had helped to form. Athanasius’ knowledge of this unique vocation, as well as his participation in it, provided the early Church with a powerful witness of the vocation of solitude and prayer. His book became one of the most copied books of that time and remains very popular today. There is little doubt that that work alone contributed greatly to an understanding of the contemplative life not only of desert monks, but also for religious, clergy, and laity. Additionally, Athanasius’ other works not only eventually led to the complete repudiation of the Arian heresy, but have provided theologians since that time with treasured insights into the faith, especially into the Incarnation and divinity of Christ.

As we honor this great Doctor of the Church, ponder especially his unwavering devotion to the truth, despite enduring lifelong persecution for it. It would have been easier for him to remain silent, but he did not. If you find yourself compromising your faith at times, take inspiration from Saint Athanasius and seek his intercession today.

Saint Athanasius, your faith, knowledge of the truth, and unwavering commitment to the proclamation of the truth resulted in much suffering in your life. However, God used that suffering and your courage to purify the Church and to set Her on a glorious path. Please pray for me, that I will imitate your faith and courage in my own life so that God can use me to leave a lasting legacy for those whom I am called to love and serve. Saint Athanasius, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.

Featured images, pictures by Lawrence OP, via Flickr here and here

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