Saturday, May 2, 2009

"Athanasius Contra Mundum"

St. Athanasius (296-373)
(Window in Chapel of the Resurrection in Pusey House, Oxford,
by Sir Ninian Comper)

We 21st century Christians owe a lot to our brother-in-Christ, Athanasius of Alexandria.  Had he not "taken on the world" against the Arian heresy, we likely might not have the Church today.  We read in books and hear in sermons about the struggles of our forebears in the faith, and I'm afraid too often the implications of what they did roll right over us, in one ear and out the other.  We forget that some day, centuries down the line, our successors in the faith will inherit what we have or have not stood up for.  Each generation, according to its own situation and challenges, bears, as Athanasius and his contemporaries did,  a tremendous responsibility to hand on the teaching of Jesus Christ faithfully.

Essentially, the followers of a priest, Arius, taught that Jesus was less than God but more than man.  Arius and his gang were very creative and persistent, even creating hymns to perpetrate their mistaken ideas.  Arianism became the rage of the time; one could say that many felt very "hip" to be called an "Arian", unmindful as many of us can be in the 21st century that not every fad that comes along can be trusted to deliver the truth.  Athanasius wrote, preached and argued that to hold the teachings of Arius would not benefit either God or human beings, and certainly could not reconcile humanity with its God.  In his On the Incarnation, Athanasius notes that Jesus, God's Son, "became as we are in order that we might become as he is."

As the Patriarch of Alexandria, Athanasius was in and out of his diocese more times than you could count -- by being deposed by his opponents: that's how fierce the struggle was! In the end, Athanasius was vindicated and his teaching, which profoundly influenced the great Councils of Nicaea in 325 and of Constantinople in 381, became understood as the most accurate intellectual expression of the universal catholic faith.  It became embodied in what we now call the Nicene Creed, as well as in another form, found in the Book of Common Prayer, pp. 864-865: the Quicunque Vult or Athanasian Creed, perhaps the most unambiguous expression of the Church's understanding of God.  See also the contemporary translation at: www.elca/Statements-of-Belief/The-Athanasian-Creed.aspx.

Athanasius was also a seriously holy and prayerful bishop.  A friend of Pachomius, he championed the cause of the newly emerging monastic movement in Egypt, and has left us with an absorbing account of the Life of Antony of Egypt, foremost among the early hermits.

The great Patriarch of Alexandria spent his 77 years in living out his convictions and in trying to lead others to the truth who is Christ.  His words, in the treatise On the Incarnation, inspire us to this day: "The Word of God, incorporeal, incorruptible, and immaterial, entered our world.  Yet it was not as if the Word had ever been remote from it.  Indeed, there is no part of creation deprived of his presence; together with his Father, he fills everything, everywhere, at all times...

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