Daily Reflection May 2 2008: Saint Athanasius, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

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About the Saint:

Saint Athanasius , c.297-373, patriarch of Alexandria (328-73), Doctor of the Church, great champion of orthodoxy during the Arian crisis of the 4th cent. In his youth, as secretary to Bishop Alexander, he took part in the Christological debate against Arius at the Council of Nicaea, and thereafter became chief protagonist for Nicene orthodoxy in the long struggle for its acceptance in the East. He defended the homoousion formula that states that Jesus is of the same substance as the Father, against the various Arian parties who held that Jesus was not identical in substance with the Father. Made bishop of Alexandria upon the death of his superior, he faced a conspiracy led by Eusebius of Nicomedia to return the condemned Arius to Egypt. When Athanasius refused to yield, a pro-Arian council held at Tyre (335) found him guilty of sacrilege, the practice of magic, dishonest grain dealings, and even murder. Athanasius appealed to Constantine who demanded a retrial, then unaccountably ordered Athanasius into exile—the first of five. Reinstated (337) and exiled again (339), he fled to the West where, under Pope Julius I, the Council of Sardica vindicated him (343). To placate his Catholic brother Constans, the Arian Constantius permitted Athanasius to return to his see in 346. There he reigned, a beloved pastor, for ten fruitful years, strengthening orthodoxy in Egypt and composing some of his greatest works, including his Defense Against the Arians (348). When Constans died, Constantius procured the condemnation of Athanasius (Arles, 357), again forcing him into exile. It was during this period of hiding with the hermit monks of the Egyptian desert, whom he admired greatly, that he wrote his best exposition of Nicene christology, Discourses Against the Arians, attacking both the Arians and the views of Marcellus of Ancyra . By now a conservative reaction in the East issued in the strongly anti-Arian Lucianic creed promulgated at the Council of Seleucia (359), a step which led to the final victory of Nicene orthodoxy at the Council of Constantinople in 381. Athanasius was restored briefly in 362, only to be quickly exiled by Julian and again by Valens (365). The climate was changing, however, and by 366 Athanasius was secure in his see, where he remained the spokesman for orthodoxy until his death. After him, St. Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzus secured the victory of orthodoxy in the East.

Collect of the Day:

Father you raised up Saint 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.

We make our prayer through Jesus Christ your Son Our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, ever One God world without end. Amen.

Today’s Readings:

The First Reading: I John: Our Faith, this is the victory which overcomes the evils in the world.

The Gospel: Matthew: 10:22-25: If they persecute you in one city, take refuge in the next.

To me St. Athanasius is one of the greatest Saints in all of the history of the Christian Church. His steadfast defense of the Nicene position in regards to Christology and his fight against the errors of Arianism, helped maintain the truths which have become cherished by all Orthodox Christians the world over. The Heresy of Arius was that he denied the full Divinity of Christ.

Athanasius recognised that Arius’s teachings represented in fact a denial of the Trinity as an eternal reality. For Athanasius the issue was one of salvation. If Christ was not true God, then our hope of redemption is built on sand. Athanasius wrote:

“No one else but the Saviour, who in the beginning made everything out of nothing, could bring what had been corrupted into a state free from corruption. No one else but the image of the Father could recreate human beings in God’s image. No one else but Our Lord Jesus Christ, Who is life itself, could give immortality to mortal humans. No one else but the Logos, Who imparts order to everything and is the one true and only begotten Son of the Father, could teach us about the Father and destroy idolatry…. He became human that we might become divine; He revealed Himself in a body that we might see the invisible Father; He endured men’s insults that we might inherit immortality.”

We see here in Athanasius’s writing that to deny the Divinity of Christ is to deny what was won for us by His Cross, Passion and Resurrection. We cannot believe that Jesus was just an enlightened teacher, Guru or a plain good man, and call ourselves Christians. To be a real follower of Christ is an all or nothing commitment. As the author C. S. Lewis wrote:

“We are only left three choices about Jesus’s claim to Divinity, either He is a Lunatic, a Liar or the Lord”.

So where do you stand?

Msgr. Ian+

Closing Prayer:

Almighty,everliving God and Father, you raised up Saint Athanasius as the great champion of Your Son’s Divinity. Through the doctrine and patronage of Your Saint, in which we rejoice, let our knowledge and love of you grow ever deeper and stronger.

We make our prayer through Jesus Christ your Son Our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, ever One God world without end. Amen.

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