2 May is the feast day of St Athanasius (c. 296-373) the 20th Patriarch of the See of Alexandria. Most of the early Christian saints were martyrs. Athanasius was one of the first saints to be canonised without that ordeal – although the early church, rightly, felt his entire life had been a martyrdom in the cause if orthodoxy.
He first comes to our notice when Patriarch Alexander observed him playing on the sea shore with some friends. They were reenacting the Divine Liturgy on the beach, with Athanasius playing the part of the priest. The Patriarch was struck by this choice of play, and recognising something in the young boy, took him under his wing and brought him up in his household. This was at the time when Alexandria was the intellectual powerhouse of early Christianity, and Athanasius came to manhood at a time when one of the priests of the diocese, Arius, was preaching that Jesus was not one with the Father, but was, rather, the first of creation. Alexander tried to persuade Arius of his error, but proud of his learning, the priest preferred the ‘truth’ he had come to to the advice of his bishop. When the Emperor Constantine called the first great ecumenical council at Nicaea in 325, Athanasius went along as assistant to the ageing Alexander.
The Council agreed that Christ was not ‘created’, but was rather ‘consubstantial’ with the Father. Despite this, within a few years, the Arians had rallied and, after the death of Constantine, secured the support of his sons. Across the Empire bishops hurried to accommodate themselves with the new order, seeking to devise phrases which would allow of a compromise: this Athanasius would not do. As Patriarch of the great See of Alexandria, he was a formidable thorn in the side of the Arians and semi-Arians.
His many enemies did not hesitate to bring charges against him, including one of murder – this last evaporated when, at the trial, Athanasius was able to call in aid the testimony of the man he was supposed to have murdered. His enemies conspired to bring about his death, but thanks to a merciful providence, he survived unscathed, although he suffered much, spending 17 of his 45 years as patriarch in exile. Between 339 and 346 he lived in exile in Rome under the protection of the Pope, Julius I. His defiance of the might of the Roman Empire in the cause of the Truth caused men to say he was ‘Athanasius contra mundum’ – Athanasius against the world. Neither threats, nor bribes, nor the opinion of the men of power prevailed against Athanasius’ faith in Christ and the truth that He was of one substance with the Father. For this Truth, Athanasius risked everything, relying on God to save him if he was, as he thought, the champion of truth.
Despite eating the bitter bread of exile, Athanasius proved a good shepherd to his sheep. A much-beloved pastor, he was also a great theologian. His Life of St. Anthony is the model for all hagiography; his On the Incarnation is one of the defining works on Incarnational theology; his Paschal letter of 367 contains the first list of the canon of the Bible as the Church has received it. It was on his authority that St. Jerome added the Epistle to the Hebrews to his Vulgate; the book had been doubted in the West, but seeing that St. Athanasius accepted it, as the East always had, the Blessed St. Jerome also accepted it.
His writings, like his life, bore witness to the truth that God was made man so that we might become God. He championed the Trinity and his courage ensured that the doctrine triumphed over error. His method of reasoning (taken here from a letter to Serapion (letter 1) is worth illustrating:
let us look at the very tradition, teaching, and faith of the Catholic Church from the beginning, which the Lord gave, the Apostles preached, and the Fathers kept. Upon this the Church is founded, and he who should fall away from it would not be a Christian, and should no longer be so called. There is, then, a Trinity, holy and complete, confessed to be God in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, having nothing foreign or external mixed with it, not composed of one that creates and one that is originated, but all creative ; and it is consistent and in nature indivisible, and its activity is one. The Father does all things through the Word in the Holy Spirit. Thus the unity of the holy Trinity is preserved. Thus one God is preached in the Church, “who is over all, and through all, and in all” (Eph 4:6) “Over all”, as Father, as beginning, as fountain; “through all”, through the Word; “in all”, in the Holy Spirit. It is a Trinity not only in name and form of speech, but in truth and actuality. For as the Father is he that is, so also his Word is one that is and God over all. And the Holy Spirit is not without actual existence, but exists and has true being.
St Athanasius, champion of orthodoxy, pray for us!