Today, May 2, the Church celebrates the feast of Saint Athanasius. His story is not well-enough known today, perhaps partly due to the fact that almost 1,700 years have passed since his amazing life. But amazing it was. Athanasius is both a doctor of the Church and a father of the Church. These are rare trophies indeed, but for his championing the doctrine of the Incarnation, it is perhaps most impressive that he is known as the “Father of Orthodoxy.”
But these titles tell only part of the story, because he was called to suffer for his beliefs. Athanasius was the bishop of Alexandria in the fourth century for almost fifty years, and it was a rare moment that his life was not in peril. In fact, ecclesiastical history may not contain a saint who was more attacked, calumniated, and pursued by his enemies for so many years.
He lived for a time under a death sentence by the state; he was exiled five times by four emperors; he stood trial for alleged crimes, such as murder, theft, adultery, and sorcery; he was hunted down as a fugitive. In one such instance, in the year 361, the troops of the emperor were seeking to arrest Athanasius. One night, they came upon him without recognizing him.
“Have you seen Athanasius?” they demanded.
“Yes, I have!” Athanasius excitedly answered.
“Is he far away?” they asked.
Athanasius responded, “Yes, he is very close. Hurry! Keep going.”
And keep going they did. Meanwhile, Athanasius went back into hiding.
Perhaps most of all, Athanasius was assailed by the Arians, a heretical sect that denied the divinity of Christ. In fact, it seemed that the Arians had almost overtaken the Church. But they did not overtake the church.
Because Athanasius kept coming back.
As hated as he was by his enemies, he was more loved by his friends. When his bishop died and a new bishop was to be appointed, the Catholic faithful lined the streets, announcing who they wanted, shouting “Give us Athanasius!” In another demonstration of the love that the people had for him, during one of his exiles in which he was hiding out, historian Robert Payne writes that “a million peasants safeguarded him.”
Athanasius loved God, and the people loved him for it.
In an irony of history, though so many of his enemies wanted to see Saint Athanasius executed, he outlasted all his enemies, dying peacefully at nearly eighty years of age.
Say the name “Athanasius” to a lover of Church history, and he will likely smile and solemnly announce: “Athanasius contra mundum.” For to know of his life is to know that it was “Athanasius against the world.”
I have always felt a strong personal devotion to Saint Athanasius. I admire his desire to take on the world, regardless of the odds. I love the fact that he loved Jesus so much. Many years ago, after I read the passage below from Dr. Warren Carroll, I decided that if God ever blessed me with a son, I would name him after this great saint. As it turns out, that is exactly what happened. For this, I believe I owe Saint Athanasius a favor. But that’s an understatement. For his work in protecting the Church and protecting the doctrine of the Incarnation, we all owe Saint Athanasius a favor. My words are a very small way of thanking a friend.
Following are 8 quotes by and about Saint Athanasius.
“He had the greatest mind in the Roman world of his day, and all the talents for spiritual, intellectual, even political leadership…great ability in speaking and writing…kindness and humor; inflexible resolution in the face of danger…Few more gifted men have ever lived; and he needed every gift God had given him. For almost all of the astonishing forty-five years of his episcopate, it was ‘Athanasius against the world’—and for the Faith.” Warren H. Carroll
“Athanasius was the greatest champion of Catholic belief on the subject of the Incarnation that the Church has ever known…” The Catholic Encyclopedia
“Nor is it lawful to say that the Lord was in terror, at whom the keepers of hell’s gates shuddered…Therefore be every heretic dumb, nor dare to ascribe terror to the Lord whom death, as a serpent, flees, at whom demons tremble, and the sea is in alarm; for whom the heavens are rent and all the powers are shaken.” Saint Athanasius, Against the Arians
“When I first opened his De Incarnatione I soon discovered by a very simple test that I was reading a masterpiece.” C.S. Lewis
“Let them know that the Lord came not to make a display, but to heal and teach those who were suffering. For the way for one aiming at display would be, just to appear, and to dazzle the beholders; but for one seeking to heal and teach the way is, not simply to sojourn here, but to give himself to the aid of those in want…” Saint Athanasius, On The Incarnation
“In praising Athanasius, I shall be praising virtue. To speak of him and to praise virtue are identical, because he had, or, to speak more truly, has embraced virtue in its entirety.” St. Gregory Nazianzen
“The demons…first make an attack by temptation and place hindrances to hamper our way, to wit, evil thoughts. But we need not fear their suggestions, for by prayer, fasting, and faith in the Lord their attack immediately fails.” Saint Athanasius, The Life of Saint Antony
The greatest man of his age and one of the greatest religious leaders of any age, Athanasius of Alexandria rendered services to the Church the value of which can scarcely be exaggerated, for he defended the faith against almost overwhelming odds and emerged triumphant.” Butler’s Lives of the Saints
Saint Athanasius, pray for us.
Copyright Giovanni Dall’Orto | Wikipedia