By Jonathan Lynch
I have been waiting a long time for his feast day (May 2nd) to come around so I could write this article. His life has all the marks of a crime thriller mixed with an adventure saga and a religious novel: betrayal, manhunts, intrigue, escape, and all the formidable power of his enemies building up into a climactic tower that crumbled at his touch, for in his soul was all the power of a friend of God.
There is something unique about him, and the mission that God entrusted to him. It can truly be said that in his day, it was “Athanasius contra mundum:” Athanasius against the world. He held the banner of truth high when as many as eighty percent of his brother bishops denied that Jesus Christ was God. He was cast into exile five times by his enemies, both civil and ecclesiastical. Day after day his life and honor hung in the balance. But through it all, he found strength beyond the strength of man, for in reality, he did not stand alone. God stood with him because he stood with God. And when God is at your side, no power of earth or hell can do you harm.
The interesting part of his story begins in the year 319, when he was around twenty years old. He had just finished studies in the University of Alexandria, Egypt, and had just penned a treatise, On the Incarnation, which is still considered a mighty classic of Spirituality. He was ordained a deacon and appointed as assistant to the Patriarch Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria.
Then a new character came on the scene, a man who was to cause unprecedented ripples on the surface of Christianity. He was a priest named Arius. In a meeting with Alexander, he rebuked the bishop for teaching that Jesus Christ was equal to God the Father, claiming that Jesus was subordinate as a created being. Although Arius had the backing of other prominent bishops throughout the empire, Alexander excommunicated him for refusing to reject his heresy. And for ten years, Arius left the city, and the case seemed closed.
In that time, Alexander died, and passed on the office of bishop to Athanasius, who was remarkably young to bear the episcopacy. At the time of his ordination, he was barely thirty (if that). Nevertheless, he had the support of the people and of the local council of bishops. But no sooner had he assumed his new office, than the clouds of trouble returned. In Arius’ absence, a disgraced bishop named Eusebius had gained favor with the emperor, and brought him to believe that Arius was merely misunderstood, that maybe Arius was on to something, and that people would be far better off with a little bit of “acceptance” and “broader understanding.” Arius was recalled, but despite the emperor’s orders, Athanasius refused to accept him back into the Church. In response, a group of bishops led by Eusebius brought charges against Athanasius, accusing him of worldliness, immaturity, sacrilege, murder, and black magic.
Athansius’ wit in dealing with his accusers is simply hilarious. They once brought in a woman as a witness, who claimed that he had forsaken his vows of celibacy. Athanasius whispered something to his assistant priest, who then leaped to his feet indignantly, crying, “Are you certain that I have done this deed? Do you swear that it was I?”
The prostitute replied, “I swear you did it, Athanasius!” The entire courtroom erupted into laughter.
Another time, on the charge of murder, he produced the man whom he had supposedly killed and dismembered, observing that the man was perfectly intact. “But perhaps I cut off his third arm?”
Despite their initial failures, the Arians were undaunted. They returned again, with modified charges. When it became clear to Athanasius that they were looking for anything but the truth, he fled, barely escaping their clutches, and appealed directly to the emperor for justice. In response, he was found guilty and banished to exile in Germany. But in only two years’ time, both Arius and the emperor died, and Athanasius was called back to Alexandria, which had remained faithful to him and to his teaching despite his absence. Perhaps Athanasius thought that all would be well again. But his first exile was only the beginning. Of his forty-eight years as a bishop, seventeen would be spent in formal exile, not counting the half-dozen times that he was forced to flee the city to save his life. Again and again his enemies returned, with all the power that the world could offer, and every time, God preserved his faithful servant and brought their plans to nothing.
And despite his enemies’ efforts to silence him, Athanasius produced remarkable and formative works of Christian literature and doctrine. It was he who proposed the concept of homoousion, which defines Christ’s relationship to the father. We find this today in the Nicene Creed which we recite every Sunday at Holy Mass: “Consubstantial with the Father.” But far, far more important than the written legacy that he left behind is the unwritten testimony. By his unflinching service to God, the Catholic Church weathered its first great “dark moment” in history, and the fullness of truth was preserved against ridiculous odds. I mean, the most relentless and terrifying world power had joined forces with over three quarters of the church’s leadership to destroy Athanasius and the truth – and it was they who faltered and fizzled away into history.
Now, the chances are mathematically poor that one of you will become a bishop. I mean, it’s possible for any Christian man, but the odds are… a bit out there. To be very nearly exact, one in 1,447,392. Chances are slightly worse for banishment. Ditto for getting on the bad side of a couple Roman emperors.
But the world needs new Athanasiuses. The world needs fearless warriors for the truth like never before. The world needs Christians who have no fear of temporal power, who place all their faith and hope in Jesus Christ, true God and true man, truly risen from the dead. Athanasius tells us in his own words what gave him the strength and courage that left his enemies helpless at his hands:
“All the disciples of Christ despise death; they take the offensive against it and, instead of fearing it, by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ trample on it as on something dead. Before the divine sojourn of the Savior, even the holiest of men were afraid of death, and mourned the dead as those who perish. But now that the Savior has raised His body, death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing, and prefer to die rather than to deny their faith in Christ, knowing full well that when they die they do not perish, but live indeed, and become incorruptible through the resurrection.”St. Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation
This exhortation is especially poignant in this Easter Season, a time of resurrection and life. Knowledge and faith in Christ’s resurrection gives to the Christian a strength that leaves this world breathless and shaken. Faith in an eternal God who offers eternal life puts all temporal adversity in perspective. When your hope is in God, and not in this world, there will be nothing to fear, for no power of earth or hell can ultimately do you harm.
All for Thee, Sweet Jesus,
Through the Immaculate Heart of Mary,
For the glory of God
And the salvation of souls!