Feast Day of St. Athanasius: May 2

An extremely bright light and fiery character of the early church was the 4th century Bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, St. Athanasius (AD 296-373). What a champion he was. He almost singlehandedly stood as a pillar of iron and a wall of brass against the very influential churchmen of his day who thought that they were smarter than God. They were the partisans of a certain Arius, a heretic whose teachings seduced whole generations into thinking that Jesus was not divine. Only the most coddled theologians at extreme leftist universities believe that nowadays, but in Athanasius’ day everyone believed it, including most of the bishops of the church. What may seem like a settled issue to us was the cause célèbre of theological debate after the Council of Nicea in 325 (where Athanasius attended as secretary to his Bishop.) When he became bishop of Alexandria three years later he made it his business to defend the official and infallible teaching of the Church for almost half a century until he died. What a churchman! What a shining example of faith and courage.

It is important not to make light of this fight. It cost Athanasius dearly to defend the divinity of Christ. He was exiled from his homeland no less than five times during his life and was constantly at odds with the mighty men of church and state who wanted Arianism installed as the default doctrine of the church. This Arius himself was a priest of Athanasius’ very own diocese so the fight was, shall we say, personal. Although Arius was condemned at Nicea, neither he nor his propaganda went away easily. No heretic or heresy ever does.

Arius was a brilliant propagandist whose influence spread so quickly in the ancient world that St. Jerome said that “the world woke up and groaned to find itself Arian.” Arius had to be fought tooth and nail. His erroneous ideas had to be rebuked, and the truth of the faith clarified so that souls would not be lost. He met his match in Athanasius. Arius couldn’t win on his pathetic arguments that contradicted both Scripture and tradition; Nicea and Athanasius were against him. He therefore had to try to win by politics, the last refuge of clerical scoundrels.

Although Arius died shortly after the Council of Nicea, his ideas remained, and his fanatical followers convinced the Roman Emperor Constantius to get Athanasius out of the way. Athanasius was bishop of Alexandria for forty-six years but spent a full seventeen of those years out of his diocese for the sake of his defense of the divinity of Christ – seventeen years in exile! He was banished once to Trier (in western Germany), once to Rome, and three times to the Egyptian desert. But Athanasius always came back and never, ever backed down from the Church’s teaching that Christ was a divine Person with both a divine and human Nature.

Can’t you hear the spineless churchmen of his day trying to get Athanasius to tow the party line? “Come on, Athanasius, back off. This divinity thing, it’s just a fine point of theology. People don’t care. Why make such a big deal about it? All the other bishops are in line with Arius after all.” Or how about this one: “Athanasius, what are you doing? I personally agree with you but you are making the emperor mad. Tone it down a little, would you? Do you really want to be on his bad side? He may stop funding our programs! He will send you out of here in a heartbeat and you’ll lose everything, including your income and your flock. They will side with the Emperor for sure. Just be practical, man!” For Athanasius, the question of Christ’s divinity was not to be held hostage to any worldly power. It was truth and salvation, and everything else hinged on it. Athanasius saw it as something for which he was willing to sacrifice everything.

What about you? How far are you willing to go in order to defend your Church’s teaching? What if a group of men in blue Homeland Security uniforms showed up at your door tomorrow and told you that you had to sign a statement agreeing that women must be ordained priests or that homosexuality was an acceptable lifestyle or that abortion was okay – and if you refused, you would be given twenty four hours to pack your bags and be transported to Saskatchewan. The message: get on board with the teaching of the new state-controlled church or get out. Would you sign?

And what if they came back for you four more times?