Today the Church celebrates the feast of St. Athanasius of Alexandria who is a Doctor of the Church, as well as a great theologian who united the Eastern and Western Churches. A great deal of his work and mission was responding to the Arian heresy running rampant in his day. In fact, the Arian heresy has proved to be one of the most virulent heresies and can be seen in various forms even in our own day.
He was born around 300 AD in Alexandria, Egypt. After receiving a quality education, he became a deacon and secretary to the Bishop of Alexandria. He worked closely with the Bishop and attended the first Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 325 AD. This Council focused primarily on the divinity of Christ in response to the Arian heresy which had been advanced through the Alexandrian priest Arius.
Arianism greatly threatens an authentic understanding of Jesus Christ. It teaches that “the Logos was not a true God but a created God, a creature “halfway” between God and man who hence remained forever inaccessible to us” (Pope Benedict XVI, Doctors of the Church, 14). It was at Nicaea where the Creed incorporated Greek term homoousios, which means “of the same substance” as the Father. It was the first and only term to be added with no theological or biblical link, and it pointed to the Church’s willingness to integrate philosophy and theology together into the Faith.
Shortly after the Council in 328 AD, the Bishop of Alexandria died and St. Athanasius was elevated to Bishop. Even though the Church had firmly and unequivocally affirmed the divinity of Christ, the Arian heresy raged on creating painful and destructive divisions within the Church. St. Athanasius fought hard against the heresy and created powerful enemies in the process. He spent 17 years in exile. He continued to spread the Faith in the West, as well as monasticism which he had learned from the hermit, St. Anthony, during his time in exile. After many years of suffering for the authentic and true Faith, St. Athanasius returned to Alexandria to finish out his days. He died on May 2, 373.
The greatest doctrinal writing of St. Athanasius is De Incarnatione (On the Incarnation). Today we take the Christological developments of the Church for granted since they were largely resolved in the first 700 years of the Church and expounded upon in the Middle Ages, but in the beginning there were intense battles in theological circles as they deciphered who Jesus Christ is. De Incarnatione is significant because it focuses on the Word of God becoming man, which was of profound interest to the Early Church Fathers. In fact, the Church Fathers saw the Incarnation as the path by which we our divinized. St. Athanasius says: “[Word of God] was made man so that we might be made God; and he manifested himself through a body so that we might receive the idea of the unseen Father; and he endured the insolence of men that might inherit immortality” (De Incarnatione, 54, 3). Pope Benedict XVI points out that St. Athanasius’ teaching shows how “with his Resurrection, in fact, the Lord banished death from us like “straw from the fire” (Doctors of the Church, 16).
The reason St. Athanasius’ teaching is so important is because far too many heresies create a great divide and distance between God and mankind. Even though Christ came and dwelt among us, many heresies ignore the closeness we now share with God. Christ’s mission was twofold: He came to die for our sins and to restore communion with mankind so that we can enter into communion with the Most Holy Trinity. Any heresy which ignores the reality of the Incarnation distorts our relationship with God after the Incarnation and in light of the Paschal Mystery.
The fundamental idea of Athanasius’ entire theological battle was precisely that God is accessible.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Doctors of the Church, 16
In reading Church History, especially the exile inflicted on so many orthodox Bishops, theologians, and defenders of truth, we can only understand their suffering and fortitude through the lens of their great love of God and truth. St. Athanasius endured immense suffering through his exile. He was separated from his homeland and his flock, but that did not deter him in his mission. He continued to spread the Good News in the foreign lands where he lived during that time. What does this teach us about our own journey of faith?
We must be willing to defend the truth.
The Western world has become almost completely secularized. There is an increase in attacks on Catholics who submit to the Church over the world. Other countries throughout the world face persecution and martyrdom for the Faith due to conflicting agendas, religions, politics, corruption, and poverty. No matter where we live we are called to defend the Faith in truth and charity. This is not easy and we face the prospect of losing material stability, friends, family, freedom, or our very lives. Even with this knowledge we know that we belong to Jesus Christ and as St. Paul tells us:
What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with condemn? It is Christ [Jesus] who died, rather, was raised, who also is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? As it is written: “For your sake we are being slain all the day; we are looked upon as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The necessity of fostering a prayer life.
In order to stand up for our faith when the time comes, we must be steeped in prayer. All of us are in different stages in developing a prayer life. I feel like a perpetual beginner. No matter how we begin this prayer life, it is absolutely necessary for us so that we have the grace and strength we need when we are called to defend our Faith. It is also a grounding factor, along with the Sacraments and the Liturgy, in our call to holiness and sainthood. St. Athanasius learned a great deal about monastic living and their prayer life through St. Anthony. He understood how foundational prayer is in following Jesus. We too must focus on strengthening our prayer lives whether it be through Scripture, the Rosary, the Divine Office, or other devotions or forms of prayer. Prayer needs to be a central part of our day.
God wants us to be in communion with Him.
This is also connected with the previous two lessons. Prayer is one of the ways we commune with God, but it is important to remember that God desires for us to be in communion with him. It is one of the primary reasons he came to die for us. It can be difficult to remember this fact in periods of suffering, or it can be a struggle based on life experience. I was amazed the other day by how different our life experiences can be, even living in the same town. A friend and I stopped to help a stranded car, which was full of people who were older. I asked them if they were okay and what they needed. They did not have the means to get a tow or have anyone to help them. I offered to give them a ride home, but I had to first run home to put all of the seats back in my van. They were out because we helped someone move earlier in the week. I told them to stay put and I would be back in a few minutes. As I was about to leave one of the women in the back seat asked if I was going to charge them for the help. I was flabbergasted, not because I was offended, rather I was saddened that her experience of other people was based on payment instead of charity. I smiled and told them absolutely not. It took me a few minutes to get back and by then they were gone. Thankfully, it appears they got their car started or someone else helped them out. The point is, many people also have different views of God based on their experience. Perhaps it was a domineering parent, an addiction, divorce, abandonment, or other struggle which has distorted our view. These experiences can impede us in the spiritual life. St. Athanasius battled hard to share the depth of God’s love, goodness, and desire to be close to us.
St. Athanasius was a great defender of the Faith. He devoted his entire life to bringing people into communion with the Blessed Trinity. Through his example we too can learn to defend the truth of Catholicism no matter the cost. It is through prayer and the Sacraments that we are given the grace and strength to persevere and to grow closer to God. God is calling us to him. We must be willing to listen to his call and trust in where he leads us, because it is for our ultimate good. St. Athanasius, ora pro nobis.