We have lately been examining the career of St Cyril of Alexandria. Today, the Church celebrates the feast day of his great precedecessor, St. Athanasius (c. 296-373), the greatest champion of Christian orthodoxy, who was the 20th Patriarch of the See of Alexandria.
He first comes to our notice when Patriarch Alexander observed him playing on the sea shore with some friends. The boys were celebrating Mass and the young Athanasius was taking on the role of the priest, and baptising his peers. Alexander talked with the boy, and saw to it that his desire to serve God would receive fulfilment. As a young priest, Athanasius attended the Council of Nicea in 325 as assistant to the aged Alexander, whose excommunication of Arius had provoked it. 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.
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:
We are made sons through Him by adoption and grace, as partaking of His Spirit (for ‘as many as received Him,’ he says, ‘to them gave He power to become children of God, even to them that believe on His Name Jn1:12), and therefore also He is the Truth (saying, ‘I am the Truth,’ and in His address to His Father, He said, ‘Sanctify them through Thy Truth, Thy Word is Truth’ Jn 14:6); but we by imitation become virtuous and sons: — therefore not that we might become such as He, did He say ‘that they may be one as We are;’ but that as He, being the Word, is in His own Father, so that we too, taking an exemplar and looking at Him, might become one towards each other in concord and oneness of spirit, nor be at variance as the Corinthians, but mind the same thing, as those five thousand in the Acts (Acts 4: 4, 32), who were as one.
St. Athanasius, Discourses Against Arians, discourse III, Ch 25, p.404-405..
A fearless defender of the True Faith, St. Athanasius came back to his beloved Alexandria in 366 and lived there until his death in 373.
you raised up St. Athanasius
to be an outstanding defender
of the truth of Christ’s divinity.
By his teaching and protection
may we grow in your knowledge and love.
Grant us this through Our Lord, Jesus Christ, your son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.