St. Athanasius

Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly catechesis

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During his general audience on June 20, Pope Benedict XVI dedicated his catechesis to St. Athanasius of Alexandria (c 293 - May 2, 373), calling him a “pillar of the Church” and a “model of orthodoxy, both in the East and West.” The Holy Father emphasized Athanasius’ devotion to the faith and his long battle against the Arian heresy that was threatening the unity of the Church in his day. Pope Benedict XVI highlighted the role that St. Anthony the Abbot (251-356) played in sustaining St. Athanasius spiritually during crucial periods in Athanasius’ life and Athanasius’ deep admiration for St. Anthony, which resulted in a popular biography of the saint.

Continuing our series of portraits of some of the great teachers of the early Church, today we will examine St. Athanasius of Alexandria. He was truly a leading figure within the Christian tradition; just a few years after his death , Gregory Nazianzen, the renowned theologian and bishop of Constantinople, was already praising him as a “pillar of the Church” (Discorsi 21:26). He has always been considered a model of orthodoxy, as much in the East as in the West.

It is fitting, therefore, that Gian Lorenzo Bernini placed a statue of him among the four saintly doctors of the Eastern and Western Church — together with Ambrose, John Chrysostom and Augustine — that surround the chair of St. Peter in the marvelous apse of the Vatican basilica.

Athanasius is undoubtedly one of the most important and most venerated early Fathers of the Church. Above all, however, this great saint was the passionate theologian of the incarnation of the Logos (the Word of God) “who became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14), as the prologue of the fourth Gospel tells us. This is why Athanasius was also the most important and tenacious adversary of the Arian heresy that was threatening faith in Christ at that time by reducing him to some sort of creature “midway” between God and man, a recurring tendency throughout history that we can see is active in various forms even in our day.

The Council of Nicaea

Athanasius was most likely born in Alexandria, Egypt, around the year 300 and received a good education before becoming a deacon and the secretary to Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria. The young ecclesiastic was a close collaborator of his bishop and took part with him in the Council of Nicaea, the first council which was ecumenical, which the Emperor Constantine convoked in May of 325 to ensure the unity of the Church. The Nicene Council Fathers were thereby able to deal with various questions, foremost among them the serious problem that emerged a few years before as a result of the preaching of Arius, a priest from Alexandria.

Arius, with his theory, was a threat to authentic faith in Christ, declaring that the Logos was not truly God, but a created God, a being “midway” between God and man. As a result, the true God always remained inaccessible to us. The bishops who had gathered in Nicaea responded by clarifying and establishing a “symbol of faith” that was completed later on at the Council of Constantinople and that lives on even to this day within the tradition of various Christian denominations and within the liturgy as the Nicene-Constantinople Creed. This fundamental text, which expresses the faith of the undivided Church and which we recite every Sunday to this day during the Celebration of the Eucharist, contains the Greek expression homooúsios — consubstantialis in Latin — which means that the Son, the logos, is “of one substance” with the Father, he is God from God, he is his substance, thereby highlighting the full divinity of the Son, which the Arians denied.

A Champion of the Faith

When Bishop Alexander died Athanasius became his successor as Bishop of Alexandria in 328and immediately demonstrated his determination to reject any compromise vis à vis the Arian theories that the Council of Nicaea had condemned. His intransigence against those who had opposed his election as bishop and especially against those who opposed the Nicene Creed, even if it was needed, was steadfast and often exceedingly harsh, and resulted in relentless hostility against him from the Arians and their supporters.

Even though the outcome of the Council was unequivocal and clearly affirmed that the Son is of the same substance as the Father, these mistaken ideas prevailed again soon afterwards — in this case Arius himself was even rehabilitated — and, for political reasons, were supported by the Emperor Constantine himself and later by his son, Constantius.

Constantius, however, was not as interested in theological truth as he was in the unity of his empire and in his political problems; he wanted to politicize the faith to, by making it — in his mind — more accessible to all the subjects in his empire.

Thus, the Arian crisis, which was believed to have been resolved in Nicaea, continued for decades, resulting in thorny situations and painful divisions within the Church. No less than five times during the 30 years period between 336 and 366, Athanasius was forced to abandon his see and spent 17 years in exile suffering for the faith. Nevertheless, during Athanasius’ forced absences from Alexandria, the bishop was able to sustain and spread throughout the West — first in Trier and then in Rome — the Nicene faith and also the ideals of monasticism, which the illustrious hermit Anthony had embraced in Egypt, with a rule of life Athanasius was always close to.

St. Anthony, with his spiritual strength, was the most important person in sustaining St. Athanasius’ faith. After Athanasius was reinstated for good to his see, he was able to dedicate himself to restoring religious peace and reorganizing the Christian communities. He died in 373 on May 2 — the day on which we celebrate his memorial in the liturgical calendar.

The Incarnation of the Word

Athanasius’ most famous work is his treatise entitled On the Incarnation of the Word, the divine Logos, who became flesh like us for our salvation. In this work, Athanasius tells us in a phrase that has rightfully become famous that the Word of God “became man so that we might become God. He manifested himself by means of a body so that we might perceive the Father who is unseen. He endured the violence of men so that we might inherit immortality” (54:3). Indeed, the Lord has made death disappear like “straw in the fire” (8:4) through his resurrection.

The underlying idea of Athanasius’ entire theological battle was precisely the idea that God is accessible. He is not a God whose role is secondary; he is truly God and, through our communion with Christ, we can truly unite ourselves to God. He truly became “God with us.”

Among the other works of this great Father of the Church — which are associated for the most part with the events surrounding the Arian crisis — we should also recall the four letters that he addressed to his friend Serapion, bishop of Thmius, on the divine nature of the Holy Spirit, which he affirmed in clear terms, as well as some 30 or so “festal” letters that he addressed at the beginning of each year to the churches and monasteries of Egypt in order to both specify the date of Easter and to reinforce the ties among the faithful, strengthening their faith and preparing them for that great solemnity.

St. Anthony the Abbot

Finally, Athanasius is also the author of some meditations on the psalms that were widely distributed as well as of a text that constituted a “best seller” within early Christian literature, The Life of Anthony, a biography of St. Anthony the Abbot that he wrote shortly after the death of this saint, while, as bishop of Alexandria, he was living in exile with Anthony’s monks in the desert of Egypt. Athanasius was a friend of this great hermit, and even received one of the two sheepskins left by Anthony as an inheritance, along with the mantle that Athanasius himself had given him.

His exemplary biography of this beloved figure within our Christian tradition enjoyed immediate popularity, was translated almost immediately twice into Latin before being translated into various Eastern languages, and contributed greatly to the spread of monasticism in the East and the West. It is noteworthy that an emotional account of the conversion of two ministers of the emperor at Trier, an incident that Augustine included in his Confessions (VIII, 6:15) as a preamble to his own conversion, is based on the reading of this text.

Moreover, Athanasius also showed that he was clearly aware of the influence that Anthony’s exemplary model could have on the Christian people. In fact, he writes in the conclusion of this work: “The fact that his fame has been blazoned everywhere and that everyone admires him and that those who have never seen him long for him is clear proof of his virtue and of God’s love for his soul. For not from writings nor from worldly wisdom nor through any art was Anthony renowned, but solely from his devotion to God. No one could deny that this was a gift from God. Indeed, how could it be that this man is talked about in Spain, Gaul, Rome and Africa — a man who had retreated to live in the mountains — unless it was God himself who had made him known everywhere as he does with all who belong to him and as he had revealed to Anthony from the beginning? For even if they work in secret and even if they wish to remain obscure, the Lord manifests them to everyone like a beacon so that those who hear about them may know that it is possible to follow God’s precepts and be zealous in following the path of virtue” (Life of Anthony 93, 5-6).

Yes, brothers and sisters, we have many reasons to express our gratitude to St. Athanasius. His life, as well as the lives of Anthony and countless other saints, shows us that “those who draw near to God do not withdraw from men, but rather become truly close to them” (Deus Caritas Est, 42).


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