The Life of Saint Athanasius
(Commemorated on September 5)
St. Athanasius was born at the very end of the third century, near the city of Alexandria in Egypt. One day the bishop of Alexandria was in his home gazing through a window at the beach. He was surprised to see a group of small boys moving back and forth with solemnity and dignity. He asked his assistant to bring the children to his palace, where he asked them what they were doing.
have selected Athanasius as our bishop and we are following his order,”
one of them said.
“What order?” asked the bishop.
“We are baptizing some heathen children,” Athanasius explained. “I have chosen some of these Christian boys to be priests, and we were baptizing the others, just as the priests do in Church.”
He went on to tell the bishop exactly how he had done it. He had instructed the heathen boys in the Christian faith, then following the church service of baptism exactly, he had led the children into the water to be baptized. The bishop was very pleased that Athanasius knew and understood the service so well. He called the boy’s parents and advised them to give a good education to their son in preparation for the priesthood. The bishop became especially fond of Athanasius. The boy spent so much time at the bishop’s home that he became like a son to the venerable old man. Under the bishop’s guidance, Athanasius studied hard and was writing important theological works even before he was twenty.
At about this time,
the Roman Emperor Constantine stopped the persecutions of Christian and they
no longer had to worry about being tortured and killed for refusing to worship
the Roman Emperor. Athanasius wrote a book, explaining what the coming of Christ
on earth as man meant for the whole world. “He did not come to make a display
of glory; He came to heal,” Athanasius wrote of Christ. “Physically,
he was entirely human with a body which suffered and died, but at the same time
he remained God, with power over everything. By His coming He overcame death,
because He was promising eternal life.” This short work of Athanasius,
“Concerning the Incarnation,” is very moving, and is one of the best
books about the Christian faith.
Just after young
Athanasius wrote this book, a new teaching about Christ was spreading. Arius,
a priest in Alexandria, believed that if Christ was the Son of God, then God
must be older than Christ. If this were so, Christ could not be as important
as God. “There was a time when Christ was not, ” shouted Arius, and
therefore Christ could not be really God.
The leaders of the
Church were horrified by the new heresy, later known as Arianism. If Christ
was a sort of superhuman instead of God, what would happen to the Christian
Church? This was against all the accepted Church traditions about Jesus.
Although most leaders
of the Church were against it, Arius’ teaching gained wide acclaim. People could
easily believe that Christ was a hero who had shown us the way to God. Even
the Emperor Constantine heard of it. He was friendly to the Church and was troubled
to hear of the controversies that were upsetting it. Bishops were arguing with
other bishops, and the people were fighting each other. Even members of the
same family began to argue about these questions. How could he stop this argument?
He decided to call a Church council of all the bishops.
The first great Council was called at Nicea in Asia Minor in 325 AD. Three hundred and eighteen bishops came from all over the empire, bringing priests and laymen with them. Arius was there to present his side, and he did so by singing a poem about his beliefs to the tune of a popular song. Athanasius, still a young deacon, answered him very seriously, pointing out all the evil which would come from a belief in Arianism. Most of the bishops were against Arius, and they decided to write a creed that would show exactly what Christians believed about Christ. This creed forms part of what we say at every Divine Liturgy. “I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God; being made of one essence with the Father by whom all things were made.” This creed was to express the Faith of the Church, which Athanasius had so eloquently defended, and to reject Arianism. The Council of Nicea, the first of the seven great Ecumenical Councils, supported Athanasius and threw Arius out of the Church.
to Alexandria triumphant and successful, and soon afterward he became bishop
of Alexandria. He was much loved by the people of the cities and by the hermits
of the desert, whom he liked to visit and with whom he occasionally lived. But
Arius was still strong. The Emperor Constantine allowed him to continue preaching,
and he had many powerful friends. People began to spread rumors attacking Athanasius,
saying he was against the Emperor and was disobeying the law, even committing
murder. The Emperor called him to Constantinople and asked him to defend himself
against the accusations.
As Athanasius stood
before the court, he felt that his enemies were all around him. The followers
of Arius hated him because he had led the Church’s attack on their leader. They
shouted at him, calling him a murderer. He answered them by bringing into the
courtroom the man they said he had murdered. The people were amazed and ashamed.
The Arians were angry, but they could do nothing against the strong and popular
bishop. They held another trial, and blamed Athanasius of opposing the Emperor.
The Emperor himself was present and sent Bishop Athanasius far away in exile
A few years later,
the Emperor Constantine died and Athanasius was allowed to return to his own
city. Alexandria met him with a great and solemn ceremony; the whole city was
turned into a church. Although he had been away a long time, the Fathers in
the desert remembered his great work for the Church and reminded the people
of their bishop.
The next Emperor
was under the influence of the Arians, and he hated and feared Athanasius. He
sent an Arian to replace him as bishop, and the new bishop started a reign of
terror, closing and destroying churches and torturing priests, monks and believers.
How could Athanasius fight now, with the Emperor and all his armies against him? “Only the knowledge of the truth can save us!” he exclaimed. He escaped to Rome, once again an exile. He was supported by the bishop of Rome, while the new bishops in the East supported Arianism. Later he was allowed to return to Alexandria, but the Emperor was always trying to get rid of him.
Once, when Athanasius
was at a church service at night, soldiers broke in and surrounded the people
and the sanctuary. Bishop Athanasius remained seated and ordered the deacon
to read a psalm. At first the soldiers did not date to attack worshipers in
church, but finally they did so, killing, wrecking and stealing. The clergy
managed to get Athanasius away and into the desert before the soldiers could
get him. He spent twenty years of his life in exile, away from his Bishop’s
seat, but he never stopped writing and fighting to preserve the Christian faith
against its enemies.
At the end of his life, he was finally able to return to Alexandria and live peacefully as an honored, loved, and powerful bishop. All his life he had steadfastly opposed the Arians, challenged the Emperors, and maintained the traditional Orthodox faith which he knew must triumph. If Athanasius had not stood up for our faith, perhaps the Church would not be the same today.