Commemoration of Athanasius of Alexandria, Pastor and Confessor
May 2 is the Commemoration of Athanasius of Alexandria, Pastor and Confessor.
Athanasius (c. 296-373) was the principal champion of Christian orthodoxy against the Arians. Arians rejected the Nicene Creed by denying the full divinity of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, claiming that “there was a time when the Son was not.” It is not an exaggeration to say that by his tireless defense of the phrase in the Nicene Creed, “of one Being (homoousios) with the Father,” he preserved orthodoxy for the Church in the East.
Athanasius was born in Alexandria about 295 of Egyptian parents. He received a good education in the classics and in the Christian Scriptures and theology. For a time he seems to have served Antony, the founder of Christian monasticism, who had sought increasingly barren and remote places for his spiritual struggle. Athanasius’ biography of Antony became a classic and inspired many to become monks and ascetics for centuries.
About the year 312, Athanasius entered the Alexandrian clergy and was ordained a deacon about 319 by Bishop Alexander. (In the terminology of his day, a “deacon” was a pastor of a local congregation.) Athanasius accompanied the bishop to the Council of Nicaea in 325 where Arius’s views were heard, considered, debated, and rejected. Following that, the first version of the Nicene Creed was written. (The creed was expanded by a second council in 381.) Alexander, before his death in 328, designated Athanasius his successor, and the choice was confirmed by the Egyptian bishops. The new bishop made extensive pastoral visits to the entire Egyptian province, but he faced vicious attacks by the numerous schismatics who had opposed his selection as bishop. Though embroiled in controversy for much of his ministry, the pastor heart demonstrated in these visits never left him.
Athanasius was summoned to the Council of Tyre in 335, which found him guilty of a number of charges, but since the council was composed almost entirely of his enemies, he appealed directly to the emperor Constantine, who had him exiled to northern Gaul. When Constantine died in 337, his son allowed Athanasius to resume his episcopal duties, but at the Arian controlled Synod of Antioch in 337 or 338 he was deposed again. This time Athanasius appealed to Rome with the support of other victims of anti-Nicene reaction. Pope Julius I convened a synod that declared Athanasius innocent of the charges against him. Since the Eastern bishops refused to accept the verdict, Athanasius remained in the West, traveling through Italy and Gaul.
Eventually Athanasius was allowed to return to Alexandria. He arrived in October 346, welcomed by the ninety-year-old Antony, and enjoyed a decade of relative peace, writing and promoting monasticism. Upon the death of the emperor Constans in 350, however, the enemies of Athanasius renewed their attack upon him. They got the Council of Aries in 353 and the Council of Milan in 355 to condemn him. These councils were again dominated by anti-Nicene representatives who could not tolerate an orthodox bishop. (The Arians had significant influence in the Imperial Court located in Constantinople, which is how all these hand-picked pro-Arian councils managed to be convened.) In February 356 a detachment of soldiers interrupted a vigil service with the intention of arresting Athanasius. He escaped into a boat on a canal. The troops followed. After rounding a bend, Athanasius had the boat turned around. The troops sailed right past them as Athanasius’ boat quietly moved back to the church. For the next six years he went into hiding in the Libyan desert, moving secretly from place to place, supported by loyal monks and clergy who enabled him to make several secret visits to Alexandria. He spent his time writing and keeping in touch with developments in the world.
In 361 a new emperor, Julian the Apostate, set the exiled bishops free. Athanasius returned to Alexandria in February 362 and convened a synod that anathematized Arianism, supported the Nicene Creed, and made room for reconciliation with his opponents. The effort at reconciliation again reveals the pastoral heart of the man. Julian, however, promoted a revival of paganism, and, not interested in a strong Christianity, was alarm that Athanasius might succeed in reconciling the factions under the Nicene Creed. He had Athanasius exiled yet again in October 362. The emperor died the following June, and Athanasius returned to his see. In February 364, the co-emperor Valens resumed the persecution of those opposed to the Arian creed, and yet again Athanasius went into hiding for four months before he was permitted to return to Alexandria, where he remained until his death, May 2, 373. During his forty-five-year episcopate he was almost murdered twice, had been exiled five times and had spent altogether seventeen years away from his see.
After Athanasius, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzus completed the struggle and secured the final victory of Nicene orthodoxy at the Council of Constantinople in 381.
The writings of this small but dauntless man mainly reflect the battles he had to fight and so are very important in our understanding of Nicene orthodoxy. His Defense against the Arians and The History of the Arians are the best sources of knowledge about Christianity in the period from 300 to 350. His brilliant pamphlet On the Incarnation, written in his youth, and his Discourse against the Arians remain among the clearest and most forceful explanations of the unity of the Triune God and of the Incarnation of Christ. His Life of St. Antony was immensely popular and had a wide influence in spreading monastic ideals. Since Alexandria was recognized as having the best astronomers, it was the duty of the Bishop of Alexandria to send, soon after the Epiphany each year, a Festal or Easter letter announcing the proper date for the beginning of Lent and the celebration of Easter day. Even in exile, Athanasius continued the practice and they are a wonderful example of his pastoral heart. In the Easter letter he sent in 367, his thirty-ninth, Athanasius produced the oldest surviving list of the twenty-seven books in the New Testament, although in a different order than in modern Bibles, and declared them to be “the springs of salvation.”
The Athanasian Creed, though not composed by Athanasius, is named in his honor because it confesses the doctrinal orthodoxy he championed throughout his life. We, like many others, use it on Trinity Sunday, which is the First Sunday after Pentecost.
By his tireless defense of the faith, Athanasius is recognized as one of the four great Greek doctors (that is, teachers) of the church; the others are Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, and Gregory Nazianzus.
Appropriate prayers include:
• For a deeper knowledge of Jesus Christ as the Son of God
• For tireless pursuit of the truth, even when opposed by powerful forces
• For single-minded devotion to the Triune God
• For reconciliation between quarreling parties in the Church
• For those who do not believe in the divinity of Christ
• For Egypt
• For those persecuted for remaining faithful to the Triune God
Collect for the Day: O God of truth, you raised up your servant Athanasius to be a courageous defender of the truth of Christ’s divinity: Strengthen us by his teaching to maintain and proclaim boldly the Christian faith against all opposition, trusting solely in the grace of your eternal Word, who took upon himself our humanity that we might share his divinity; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and Forever. Amen.
Blessings in Christ
Pastor John Rickert