St Athanasius of Alexandria

Gregory DiPippo

May 2nd is the feast of St Athanasius of Alexandria, who died on this day in the year 373. The Roman Rite shares with the Byzantine and Coptic churches the custom of keeping the feast of St Mark the Evangelist exactly one week before his, a sign of harmony between the Gospel and the Church’s teaching on the Incarnation, which Athanasius spent most of his life defending.

In 318, when he was about 21 years old, he was ordained a deacon of the church of Alexandria by the patriarch Alexander. Seven years later, he accompanied his bishop to the Council of Nicaea, which was convened to respond to the heresy taught by a priest of their city named Arius, that the Son of God was created by the Father. Alexander was a leader of the opposition to Arius; Athanasius himself, as a mere deacon, would not have spoken at the council, but his subsequent career has led to much speculation (which can be no more than that) that he may have been an influential figure behind the scenes.

When Alexander died a few years later, Athanasius was elected to succeed him as patriarch. Alexandria was one of the three most important sees in all of Christendom, on a par only with Antioch and Rome. It could boast not only of an Evangelist as its founder, but also of a catechetical school that produced two of the greatest minds of the early Church, Clement (called ‘of Alexandria’ to distinguish him from his namesake of Rome, the fourth Pope) and Origen. Its bishop held a position of the highest authority in the Church, and it is a testament to the great esteem in which Athanasius was held that he was elected to it when he was not yet 30.

(An icon of St Athanasius, a late work of the Cretan icon painter Michael Damaskinos, (1530/35 – 1593)) 

For nearly half a century, he would use that authority against all and sundry to defend the Faith proclaimed at Nicaea, and still professed every Sunday by hundreds of millions of Christians around the world when they recite the Nicene Creed. After the death of Constantine in 337, the majority of the emperors professed the Arian heresy; as a result, Athanasius, the champion of orthodoxy, was driven into exile from his see five times. Three of these exiles were quite brief, but the second lasted for seven years (339-46), and the third for six (356-61).

However, these controversies, while not irrelevant to the West, were less prominent there than in the East. This is shown inter alia by the fact that Athanasius’ contemporary, St Hilary of Poitiers, no less ardent a defender of orthodoxy, and also exiled for it, once wrote that he had been a bishop for 20 years before he even heard of the Council of Nicaea. He and various other Latin Fathers of the Church, most particularly Saints Augustine and Leo the Great, also wrote important treatises in defense of the Trinity and the Incarnation, and by the end of the 5th century, the Latin-speaking Church had an impressive body of its own work on these subjects. As a result, much of Athanasius’ theological writing was not translated, and remained unknown to the Latin-speaking West until the Renaissance or even later. St Thomas Aquinas, for example, cites St John Chrysostom twenty times more often.

The most broadly influential of Athanasius’ works, therefore, in both East and West, is not one of his theological treatises, but his biography of the great monastic founder St Anthony of Egypt. This was translated into Latin (and various other languages), and inspired within the Church a deep respect for the ascetic ideals represented by Anthony’s life. The most famous example of this influence comes from St Augustine’s autobiography, The Confessions (8, 15), in which he tells of two officials of the imperial court who, on reading the life of Anthony, renounced their position and worldly ambitions to become monks.

(St Anthony, also by Damaskinos)

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