Recently, I was fortunate enough to pull St. Athanasius from its dusty position upon my “need to read” bookshelf. I was not only able to move the book to my sparsely populated “read” shelf, but I was also able to enjoy its short, sweet, and inspiring tale.
Saint Athanasius, the “Father of Orthodoxy,” was born in 297 A.D. a short time before Constantine declared Christianity legal with the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D. But even still, the dragon never stilled his attack against Christ’s Bride, the Church, for it was in this time of relative peace that the great heresy of Arian sprung forth proclaiming Jesus Christ was not God, but a creature.
St. Athanasius defended the Church against Arianism when even before the Council of Nicea was called in 325 A.D., he was fundamental in renouncing Arian and helping call the Council itself. The Council, which gave us the Nicene Creed we still declare today, clearly articulated that Jesus Christ was “Born of the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father…”
That Jesus is both God and man is taken for granted by Christians today, but real danger existed to the faith. While few Bishops believed that which Arian held (only 17 of the 318 present at the Council), there was not access to the Gospels like we have today and, of course, there was no Nicene Creed that the lay person could use to discern the truth of what he heard.
Though the faith prevailed in the Council, this was just the beginning of St. Athanasius’ battle. Bishop Eusebius of Nicodemia had fully accepted Arian and his heresy – even though he formally renounced it at the council – and he had great influence over Emperor Constantine’s sister Constantia. Using his position of influence, lie after lie was told against St. Athanasius who was now the Bishop of Alexandria. And, time after time St. Athanasius was proven blameless. Using the foolish logic that since he has been accused of so much, he must be guilty of something, the Arians were able to twist the mind of Emperor Constantine and St. Athanasius was exiled for the first time. Ever vigilant, St. Athanasius continued to lead and exhort his flock even from exile.
This was to be the persistent pattern St. Athanasius heroically endured. After returning from exile shortly before Constantine died, he was forced again from his flock to prevent the death of innocents and was exiled five separate times throughout the course of his life.
Even though, Athanasius always accepted back into communion those who renounced Arianism and those who had committed apostasy during persecution. “Those who had been led astray by the Arians were pardoned and received with the greatest charity. The weak ones who had given in through fear were strengthened with tender forebearance. Those who had been Athanasisus’ enemies were greeted as friends on their first sign of repentance.”1
St. Athanasius confessed the fullness of the Catholic Faith perfectly; he never deviated from preaching and defending the truth nor did he ever withhold love and mercy from those who erred. He lived the “both/and” of the Catholic faith and was a true Confessor of the faith until the day he died.
Though St. Athanasius died as a “white martyr,” there were many of his fellow Bishops who died agonious deaths defending the Church against Arianism. St. Athanasius and his brothers stood true to the faith and through these great men, our Bishops, God protected His Church and still does to this very day.
1F.A. Forbes. Saint Athanasius. 1919. Tan Books: Rockford, IL.