Today, May 2, we remember St. Athanasius. Fr. Steve Grunow says it best:
The witness of St. Athanasius clarifies just how much theology matters. How we conceive of the truths of the Faith is of pressing importance. The great truths we profess in our creed and celebrate in our liturgy are not to be taken lightly or dismissed as abstractions that are best left to experts. We have a responsibility as disciples to know the Church’s teachings at a measure of depth, or the mission Christ gives us will be imperiled. A disciple cannot be content with a spiritual life that is built on the sandy foundations of platitudes or slogans. Christ comes into this world as a man so that we might know him as God. The Christian spiritual life is a continual intensification of our experience and understanding of this revelation.
The tendency to dilute or deny the truth of the Incarnation has been a temptation in every age of the Church’s life. Some prefer that Christ’s divinity be emptied of all significance and meaning. Others would make his humanity incidental to his revelation. Neither option is congruent with the Apostolic Faith or expresses who the Lord Jesus truly is “for us and for our salvation.”
The world may prefer another kind of Christ, but if that is the world’s preference, Athanasius invites us to stand with him “contra mundi.”
As you read, note how Benedict pulls out the core of what is at stake in Arianism. As Fr. Grunow says above, theology matters. It doesn’t matter to us because we are attached to words or formulas. It doesn’t matter to us because we are focused on human intellectual constructs rather than human life. It doesn’t matter because we are afraid to get down into the messiness of human life in favor of the cool, dry safety of walled-in libraries.
Theology matters because it is an attempt to understand and express truth. Doctrine reflects what is real. Have you ever taught religion, catechism or theology? If so, then you might understand that a great part of what you were doing in that classroom was helping students dig deeply and understand how the teachings of the Church do not stand opposed to the realities of life, but in fact accurately express How Life Is. You find this in so many conversion stories: the realization, sudden or gradual, that what has been fought or rejected for so long in fact expresses what is real and true, not just about some transcendent sphere, but about your life.
…it was not by chance that Gian Lorenzo Bernini placed his statue among those of the four holy Doctors of the Eastern and Western Churches – together with the images of Ambrose, John Chrysostom and Augustine – which surround the Chair of St Peter in the marvellous apse of the Vatican Basilica.
Athanasius was undoubtedly one of the most important and revered early Church Fathers. But this great Saint was above all the impassioned theologian of the Incarnation of the Logos, the Word of God who – as the Prologue of the fourth Gospel says – “became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1: 14).
For this very reason Athanasius was also the most important and tenacious adversary of the Arian heresy, which at that time threatened faith in Christ, reduced to a creature “halfway” between God and man, according to a recurring tendency in history which we also see manifested today in various forms.
In all likelihood Athanasius was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in about the year 300 A.D. He received a good education before becoming a deacon and secretary to the Bishop of Alexandria, the great Egyptian metropolis. As a close collaborator of his Bishop, the young cleric took part with him in the Council of Nicaea, the first Ecumenical Council, convoked by the Emperor Constantine in May 325 A.D. to ensure Church unity. The Nicene Fathers were thus able to address various issues and primarily the serious problem that had arisen a few years earlier from the preaching of the Alexandrian priest, Arius.
With his theory, Arius threatened authentic faith in Christ, declaring that the Logos was not a true God but a created God, a creature “halfway” between God and man who hence remained for ever inaccessible to us. The Bishops gathered in Nicaea responded by developing and establishing the “Symbol of faith” [“Creed”] which, completed later at the First Council of Constantinople, has endured in the traditions of various Christian denominations and in the liturgy as the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed.
In this fundamental text – which expresses the faith of the undivided Church and which we also recite today, every Sunday, in the Eucharistic celebration – the Greek term homooúsios is featured, in Latin consubstantialis: it means that the Son, the Logos, is “of the same substance” as the Father, he is God of God, he is his substance. Thus, the full divinity of the Son, which was denied by the Arians, was brought into the limelight.
In 328 A.D., when Bishop Alexander died, Athanasius succeeded him as Bishop of Alexandria. He showed straightaway that he was determined to reject any compromise with regard to the Arian theories condemned by the Council of Nicaea.
His intransigence – tenacious and, if necessary, at times harsh – against those who opposed his episcopal appointment and especially against adversaries of the Nicene Creed, provoked the implacable hostility of the Arians and philo-Arians.
Despite the unequivocal outcome of the Council, which clearly affirmed that the Son is of the same substance as the Father, these erroneous ideas shortly thereafter once again began to prevail – in this situation even Arius was rehabilitated -, and they were upheld for political reasons by the Emperor Constantine himself and then by his son Constantius II.
Moreover, Constantine was not so much concerned with theological truth but rather with the unity of the Empire and its political problems; he wished to politicize the faith, making it more accessible – in his opinion – to all his subjects throughout the Empire.
Thus, the Arian crisis, believed to have been resolved at Nicaea, persisted for decades with complicated events and painful divisions in the Church. At least five times – during the 30 years between 336 and 366 A.D. – Athanasius was obliged to abandon his city, spending 17 years in exile and suffering for the faith. But during his forced absences from Alexandria, the Bishop was able to sustain and to spread in the West, first at Trier and then in Rome, the Nicene faith as well as the ideals of monasticism, embraced in Egypt by the great hermit, Anthony, with a choice of life to which Athanasius was always close.
St Anthony, with his spiritual strength, was the most important champion of St Athanasius’ faith. Reinstated in his See once and for all, the Bishop of Alexandria was able to devote himself to religious pacification and the reorganization of the Christian communities. He died on 2 May 373, the day when we celebrate his liturgical Memorial.
The most famous doctrinal work of the holy Alexandrian Bishop is his treatise: De Incarnatione, On the Incarnation of the Word,the divine Logos who was made flesh, becoming like one of us for our salvation.
In this work Athanasius says with an affirmation that has rightly become famous that the 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 we might inherit immortality” (54, 3). With his Resurrection, in fact, the Lord banished death from us like “straw from the fire” (8, 4).
The fundamental idea of Athanasius’ entire theological battle was precisely that God is accessible. He is not a secondary God, he is the true God and it is through our communion with Christ that we can truly be united to God. He has really become “God-with-us”.
Among the other works of this great Father of the Church – which remain largely associated with the events of the Arian crisis – let us remember the four epistles he addressed to his friend Serapion, Bishop of Thmuis, on the divinity of the Holy Spirit which he clearly affirmed, and approximately 30 “Festal” Letters addressed at the beginning of each year to the Churches and monasteries of Egypt to inform them of the date of the Easter celebration, but above all to guarantee the links between the faithful, reinforcing their faith and preparing them for this great Solemnity….
…Yes, brothers and sisters! We have many causes for which to be grateful to St Athanasius. His life, like that of Anthony and of 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, n. 42).