May 2 marks the feast day of St. Athanasius who was often called Athanasius Against the World. He was also called Athanasius the Great and Athanasius the Confessor and Athanasius the Apostolic. Athanasius was born around the year 293 in Alexandria, Egypt. It appears that he came from a very devout Christian family who were able to provide him with a very good education. He was the twentieth bishop of Alexandria and served as bishop for 45 years. However, 17 of those years were done in exile. He is a doctor of the Church. He was a great champion of the Faith, especially against the heresy of Arianism.
Athanasius grew up in a time when the church was in significant turmoil. The Roman government had just stopped their terrible persecution of Christians, but there was significant disagreement in the Church about some of the beliefs that we now take for granted. One of the heresies that flourished then was Arianism. This heresy says that Jesus is not divine; he is not of one substance with God. In Arianism there is no Trinity.
In the year 319, Athanasius was ordained a deacon. In 325 he served Alexander, his Bishop as his assistant. Alexander had helped train Athanasius and they worked well together. The two of them had to deal with the Arianism heresy that had sprung up in their home city of Alexandria and was starting to spread to other areas of the Church. In 325, the Emperor Constantine the Great, and Pope Sylvester convened the First Council of Nicaea to deal with this heresy and so that civil peace might prevail in the empire and the Church. This was a large council that had as many as 2000 participants, 250 of them being Bishops. The others were mostly priests and deacons. The main purpose of the Council was to deal with the heresy of Arianism, but many other items were discussed and ruled upon such as rules for ordinations, the election of Bishops, how to deal with those who left the faith and then returned, and general rules for clergy.
There is no doubt that Arianism was the “hot” topic. Even St. Nicholas of Myra, who our present day Santa Claus is based on, became so upset that he punched Arius, the priest who was saying that Jesus was not divine. Because of this First Ecumenical Council, we have the Nicene Creed which affirms that Jesus is of one substance with the father. Take a moment to look at and study the Nicene Creed:
I believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.
I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures.
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead
and his kingdom will have no end.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins
and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
Saint Athanasius fought hard to stand for this truth. Three years after the Council, Bishop Alexander died and Saint Athanasius was made the twentieth Bishop of Alexandria. Unfortunately, Arianism still plagued the Church and Athanasius continued the fight. He also came at odds with succeeding Roman Emperors and fought against other heresies. During his 45 years as Bishop, he was in exile for 17 years. After many years of virtue, and suffering, Athanasius died a peaceful death in 373. Here are two of his quotes that I particularly like:
“The body of the Word, then, being a real human body, in spite of its having been uniquely formed from a virgin, was of itself mortal and, like other bodies, liable to death. But the indwelling of the Word loosed it from this natural liability, so that corruption could not touch it. Thus is happened that two opposite marvels took place at once: the death of all was consummated in the Lord’s body; yet, because the Word was in it, death and corruption were in the same act utterly abolished.”
― Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation
“There were thus two things which the Savior did for us by becoming Man. He banished death from us and made us anew; and, invisible and imperceptible as in Himself He is, He became visible through His works and revealed Himself as the Word of the Father, the Ruler and King of the whole creation.”
― Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation