Saint Athanasius. Bishop of Alexandria, Egypt May2. Saint Athanasius. The Story.
Bishop of Alexandria, Egypt
St. Athanasius is one of the most important defenders of the faith in the Christian Tradition! One of the four Great Doctors of the East (along with Basil the Great, John Chrysostom of Constantinople and Gregory of Nanzianzus).
Athanasius was born about the year 298 A.D. to pagan parents in Alexandria, Egypt. The Alexandria that he grew up in was a major commercial and intellectual center in the Roman world. There was a Catechetical School there that had produced some very important Christian thinkers earlier, but by the time of Athanasius had become quite secular, even including some pagans among its members.
There is a story (in the Western Church) that Bishop Alexander of Alexandria was waiting for a meeting to start when he looked out and saw some boys playing by the sea shore beneath his window. The boys were enacting a Christian Service. One boy was playing the role of the Bishop. That boy was Athanasius. In fact, Athanasius had “baptized” several young boys during their play. BishopAlexander went down to the boys, to recognize these baptisms and to invite the boys into training for the priesthood.
About 319, when Athanasius was a Deacon, trouble began to break out in the beliefs of a presbyter named Arius. Apparently Arius had attacked Bishop Alexander, charging that Bishop Alexander was teaching and preaching heresy.
Arius and his followers said that there was a time when the Son of God was not, that God the Father had created the Son, and therefore inferior to the Father.
Athanasius taught what we have been taught: the Holy Trinity, one God in three persons, blessed Trinity.
Bishop Alexander of Alexandria excommunicated Arius in 321, even though Arius had powerful friends among the clergy in Alexandria and among some of the other bishops.
In 325 Emperor Constantine I, who had legalized Christianity in 313, disturbed as this controversy over the views of Arius spread around the world, called the first Ecumenical Council which met in Nicaea, Turkey.
All of the 1,800 bishops were invited to attend this Ecumenical Council. Bishop Alexander attended along with 317 other bishops. It is probable that Athanasius also attended.
From this First Ecumenical Council came the Creed of Nicaea or the Nicene Creed that we use today.
Arius and his followers were anethamized. But that isn’t the end of this story.
Arius and his friends fought back. When Bishop Alexander died (328) Athanasius was elected to take his place. Arius began to attack Athanasius.
Arius and his friends in the First Synod of Tyre (335), deposed Bishop Athanasius, who was sent into exile to Trier in the Rhineland.
Able to return a couple of years later, at the death of Emperor Constantine I, the new emporer, Constantine II, sent Athanasius into exile again.
Athanasius would go back and forth five times in exile, amounting a total of about 16 years in exile, out his total 45 years as bishop.
Finally, on May 2, 373 Bishop Athanasius died peacefully in his own bed.
Why do we remember St. Athanasius?
The Arian Controversy was one of the greatest disruptions in the life of the Church. At stake was our understanding of who Jesus is and that goes to the heart of our faith.
St. Athanasius also gave a list of 27 books that should be included in the New Testament. Various lists had circulated before, but his list of 27 books is the New Testament we have today.
One of the three Ecumenical Creeds is the Athanasian Creed. Though probably not written by him, it does speak powerfully about the Holy Trinity.
Let us remember the truth of our faith is always under assault! There are people who will tell us we don’t have to worry about sin. Others will deny the virgin birth or the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus. Others will tell us the Bible needs to be reinterpreted (by them) because we are so different, so modern, so well educated.
We need to know what we believe and be willing to stand up for what we believe! Learning the Athanasian Creed along with the Nicene Creed and the Apostles Creed will serve us well in defending our faith. Being well versed in Holy Scripture and well experienced in prayer will serve us well in defending our faith.
O heavenly Father, in your goodness you gave to your Holy Church and to us, the life, ministry and death of this champion of our faith, Bishop Athanasius, who worked hard and suffered repeated exile to defend our Trinitarian faith. Help us, in our time, to stand up for our faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen