Today is the feast day of Saint Athanasius. Ora pro nobis.
by Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger, 1877
St. Athanasius, the great Doctor of the Church, and intrepid defender of the Catholic faith, was born. at Alexandria, the Capital of Egypt, in the year of our Lord 294. His parents, who belonged to the nobility, were also God-fearing people, and Athanasius was gifted by the Almighty with such great talents, that when still very young in years, he had already made unusual progress in sacred as well as profane science. He was, however, not less assiduous in the practice of virtue and piety than he was in his studies. Desirous of leading a holy life he went to the hermit Anthony, and remained two years under him. He would probably never have left him, had not Alexander, the Patriarch of Alexandria, recalled him to the city, that he might aid him against the heretics, which he faithfully did. The Patriarch made St. Athanasius his companion to the celebrated Council of Nice, where, although he was at that time only deacon, he refuted the Arian heresy so thoroughly, that all present admired his skill and erudition. This, however, drew upon him the hatred of the Arians to such a degree, that until his death they regarded him as their worst enemy, and persecuted him in all possible ways. Shortly before the death of St. Alexander he left the city secretly, fearing that he might be chosen as his successor. The Patriarch, informed of this, said with prophetic inspiration: “Athanasius, Athanasius, you think to save yourself by flight; but it will not release you from the Patriarchal Chair.” After the death of St. Alexander, neither the clergy nor the people would have any other patriarch than Athanasius. For six months they searched everywhere for him, and at length, when he was found, he yielded with many tears to the general wish. Experience showed that his election as Patriarch was really ordained by God for the welfare of the faithful. He proved himself a watchful shepherd over his flock, as well as a kind father to the poor. There was hardly a place in his large diocese which he did not visit yearly, and everywhere he frequently preached. In his own life he was very austere and kept a rigorous fast.
The Arians endeavored, at first, to prevent him from being raised to the dignity of Patriarch, and, not succeeding in this, they tried to make him hateful to the people, as well as to the Emperor, by the most horrible calumnies. The Emperor ordered Athanasius to defend himself against these accusations in a Council which was held at Tyre. The greater part of the Bishops who were present at this Council were followers of Arius, and hence, bitter enemies of the Saint, nevertheless he appeared before them. The first witness against him was a disreputable woman, whose evidence had been bought with money. She, without even knowing the Saint by sight, said that he had taken lodgings in her house, and had done violence to her. Timotheus, a priest, who was on the side of Athanasius, pretended to be the Patriarch, and addressing the wicked woman, said, “What! have I taken lodgings at your house? Have I forced you to so gross a sin?” “Yes;” answered she; “you have done this,” and confirmed her words with an oath. The whole assemblage, although mostly against the Saint, were obliged to acknowledge the falsity of the accusations and the innocence of Athanasius.
The Arians, finding that this conspiracy did not succeed, soon found something else wherewith to charge him. They had some time previously spread abroad the rumor that Athanasius had killed a certain bishop, named Arsenius, and that he used the right hand of the dead man to practise witchcraft. They even showed a hand in a box, maintaining that it was the hand of Arsenius. The bishop himself, who was still alive, they kept hidden that the falsity of their accusation might not be discovered. But God brought it to pass that Arsenius, escaped from imprisonment and arrived at the house of St. Athanasius just as the latter was summoned before the Council. At the moment when he was accused of the murder of the bishop, he had Arsenius brought before the assemblage, and pointing to the two hands of the bishop, again overwhelmed his enemies with shame and confusion. The latter, becoming more and more enraged, prevailed at length upon the otherwise pious Emperor Constantine to banish the Saint to Trieste. After the Emperor’s death, Constantine, his successor, recalled Athanasius, and sent him with a letter of safe conduct to his See. The Catholics received their holy Patriarch with great joy, which, however, did not last long, as the Arians had chosen a bishop of their own sect, who drove Athanasius, with arms in hand, out of the city.
Proceeding to Rome he sought and found assistance from the Pope, who, after having tried the Saint in a special Council and found him innocent of the accusations against him, requested the Emperor to restore him again in his See. The request was granted, but the Arian heretics became so infuriated, that they once more drove St. Athanasius away. He then lived for five years concealed in a cistern, where his food was brought to him,by an intimate friend. At the commencement of the reign of the Emperor Julian, he returned to his flock for the third time. Hearing, however, that the Emperor, at the instigation of the heretics, had issued an order to take his life, he scarcely escaped, with some friends, on a vessel; but soon retracing his steps, he returned to the city, where he remained concealed until the Emperor’s death. During the reign of the pious Emperor, Jovian, he appeared again in public and ruled his church with great zeal. After the death of Jovian, Valens, a protector of the Arians, came to the throne, when the latter, as a first favor, requested the Emperor to banish Athanasius from his See. He willingly acceded to their wish, but before the order could be executed, Athanasius had concealed himself in the tomb of his father. The Christians at Alexandria were at length unwilling to suffer any longer the absence of their shepherd, and began publicly to make complaints. The Emperor, fearing an insurrection, gave orders to search for Athanasius, and in future to leave him unmolested in his Church. The orders were carried out, and the holy patriarch, who had suffered so many persecutions, administered the affairs of his Episcopate peacefully until his death.
St. Athanasius was in all his dangers and persecutions magnanimous and of undisturbed mind. When he saved himself by flight, or concealed himself from his enemies, it was in order to be able longer to assist the Catholics and to protect them against the heretics. Those who pitied him in his exile or other adversities he comforted with the words: “This storm will soon pass over.” But when they represented to him the displeasures of the Arian Emperors, which he drew upon himself by his zeal for the true faith, he always undauntedly replied: “I fear God only, not men.”
The Roman Martyrology says of him as follows: “At Alexandria, the feast of St. Athanasius, bishop of the same city, who was great in learning and holiness, but whom the whole world seems to have conspired to persecute. He nevertheless bravely defended the Catholic faith from the reign of Constantine to that of Valens, against the Emperors, governors, and numberless Arian bishops, from all of whom he suffered many persecutions, and was driven about from place to place. At last he was permitted to return to his Church, from which he was called to God in the reign of the Emperors Valentinian and Valens, after having been priest during 46 years, and after having valiantly fought many battles and earned many crowns of patience.”
There exists at this day a creed which bears the name of St. Athanasius. It commences thus: “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he believe the Catholic faith. Whosoever keep it not wholly and inviolably, without doubt, shall be eternally lost.”
Many, however, say that this creed was not written by Athanasius, but that others composed it out of the Saint’s works. Nevertheless, it has been received by many non-Catholics, even by Luther himself, as a true creed. The word “Catholic,” Luther changed into ” Christian,” which, however, is a wicked forgery. But it is easy to perceive why this was done. It was too clear in the above words that the Catholic faith is necessary for salvation and that those who have died out of its pale are lost. This sentence of Athanasius, or of some other ancient teacher, did not suit Luther and he therefore substituted the word ” Christian” for “Catholic;” as if anybody could be really a Christian without being a Catholic. He had before made a similar interpolation in the ninth article of the Apostles’ creed; indeed the whole heresy is a tissue of corruption and falsehood. (2)
by Dom Prosper Gueranger 1870
The Court of our divine King, during this grandest of Seasons, is brilliant beyond measure: and, today, it is gladdened by the arrival of one of the most glorious champions that ever fought for his holy cause. Among the guardians of the Word of Truth, confided by Jesus to the earth, is there one more faithful than Athanasius? Does not his very name remind us of dauntless courage in the defence of the sacred deposit, of heroic firmness and patience in suffering, of learning, of talent, of eloquence, in a word, of everything that goes to form a Saint, a Bishop, and a Doctor of the Church? Athanasius lived for the Son of God; the cause of the Son of God was that of Athanasius: he who blessed Athanasius, blessed the eternal Word; and he insulted the eternal Word, who insulted Athanasius.
Never did our holy Faith go through a greater ordeal, than in the sad times immediately following the peace of the Church, when the Bark of Peter had to pass through the most furious storm that hell has, so far, let loose against her. Satan had vainly sought to drown the Christian race in a sea of blood; the sword of persecution had grown blunt in the hands of Dioclesian and Galerius; and the Cross appeared in the heavens, proclaiming the triumph of Christianity. Scarcely had the Church become aware of her victory, when she felt herself shaken to her very foundation. Hell sent upon the earth a heresy which threatened to blight the fruit of three hundred years of Martyrdom. Arius began his impious doctrine, that He, who had hitherto been adored as the Son of God, was only a creature, though the most perfect of all creatures. Immense was the number, even of the clergy, that fell into this new error; the Emperors became its abettors; and had not God Himself interposed, men would soon have set up the cry throughout the world, that the only result of the victory gained by the Christian Religion, was to change the object of idolatry, and put a new idol, called Jesus, in place of the old ones.
But He Who had promised, that the gates of hell should never prevail against His Church, faithfully fulfilled His promise. The primitive faith triumphed; the Council of Nicaea proclaimed the Son to be consubstantial to the Father; but the Church stood in need of a man in whom the cause of the Consubstantial Word should be, so to speak, incarnated, a man, with learning enough to foil the artifices of heresy, and with courage enough to bear every persecution without flinching. This man was Athanasius: and every one that adores and loves the Son of God, should love and honour Athanasius. Five times banished from his See of Alexandria by the Arians, who even sought to put him to death, he fled for protection to the West, which justly appreciated the glorious Confessor of Jesus’ Divinity. In return for the hospitality accorded him by Rome, Athanasius gave her of his treasures. Being the admirer and friend of the great St. Antony, he was a fervent admirer of the Monastic Life, which, by the grace of the Holy Ghost, had flourished so wonderfully in the deserts of his vast Patriarchate. He brought the precious seed to Rome, and the first Monks seen there were the ones introduced by Athanasius. The heavenly plant became naturalized in its new soil; and though its growth was slow at first, it afterwards produced fruit more abundantly than it had ever done in the East.
Athanasius, who has written so admirably upon that fundamental dogma of our Faith, the Divinity of Christ, has also left us most eloquent treatises on the mystery of the Pasch: they are to be found in the Festal Letters, which he addressed, each year, to the Churches of his Patriarchate of Alexandria. The collection of these Letters, which were once thought to have been irretrievably lost, was found, a few years back, in the Monastery of St. Mary of Scete, in Egypt. The first, for the year 329, begins with these words, which beautifully express the sentiments we should feel at the approach of Easter: ” Come, my beloved Brethren, celebrate the Feast; the season of the year invites you to do so. The Sun of Justice, by pouring out his divine rays upon you, tells you that the time of the Solemnity is come. At such tidings, let us keep a glad feast; let not the joy slip from us, with the fleeting days, without our having tasted of its sweetness.” During almost every year of his banishment, Athanasius continued to address a Paschal Letter to his people. The one in which he announces the Easter of 338, and which he wrote at Treves, begins thus: ” Though separated from you, my Brethren, I cannot break through the custom which I have always observed, and which I received from the tradition of the Fathers. I will not be silent; I will not omit announcing to you the time of the holy annual Feast, and the day on which you must keep the Solemnity. I am, as you have doubtless been told, a prey to many tribulations; I am weighed down by heavy trials; I am watched by the enemies of truth, who scrutinise everything I write, in order to rake up accusations against me and, thereby, add to my sufferings; yet notwithstanding, I feel that the Lord strengthens and consoles me in my afflictions. Therefore do I venture to address to you the annual celebration; and from the midst of my troubles, and despite the snares that beset me, I send you, from the further most part of the earth, the tidings of the Pasch, which is our salvation. Commending my fate into God’s hands, I will celebrate this Feast with you; distance of place separates us, but I am not absent from you. The Lord Who gives us these Feasts, Who is Himself our Feast, Who bestows upon us the gift of His Spirit, He unites us spiritually to one another, by the bond of concord and peace.”
How grand is this Pasch, celebrated by Athanasius an exile on the Rhine, in union with his people who keep their Easter on the banks of the Nile! It shows us the power of the Liturgy, to unite men together, and make them, at one and the same time, and despite the distance of countries, enjoy the same holy emotions, and feel the same aspirations to virtue. Greeks or Barbarians, we have all the same mother-country, the Church; but what, after Faith, unites us all into one family, is the Church’s Liturgy. Now there is nothing, in the whole Liturgy, so expressive of unity, as the celebration of Easter.
The unhappy Churches of Russia and the East, by keeping Easter on a different day from that on which it is celebrated by the rest of the Christian World, show that they are not a portion of the One Fold of which our Risen Jesus is the One Shepherd. (2)
Athanasius’s basic theological works are Against the Arians and On the Incarnation. His Against the Arians is a work of controversial theology. His Life of St Antony had a great influence on western monasticism and became a model of hagiography in the Middle Ages. His Festal Letters, directed to his community to prepare them for Easter, were discovered in a Syrian translation in Egypt in the mid 19th century. The 39th Festal Letter is the earliest source we have for what came to be known as the Canon of Scripture, that is, the books the Church regards as inspired and canonical and so authoritative.
Death and influence
Athanasius’s emblem shows a stole draped over a triangle symbolising his office as bishop and his defence of orthodox doctrine on the Trinity. His ascetical writings promoted the ideals of monasticism and virginity as effective means of restoring the divine image in fallen humanity. Despite having spent so much of his life in exile, he died peacefully at Alexandria in 373. With Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzen and John Chryostom he is invoked and honoured in iconography as one of the four doctors of the Eastern Church. (7)
By one of those inexplicable ironies that meet us everywhere in human history, this man, who had endured exile so often, and risked life itself in defence of what he believed to be the first and most essential truth of the Catholic creed, died not by violence or in hiding, but peacefully in his own bed, surrounded by his clergy and mourned by the faithful of the see he had served so well. His feast in the Roman Calendar is kept on the anniversary of his death. (5)
Image: Saint Athanase au concile de Nicée, 13th century, (12)
Research by REGINA Staff