Posted by: Fr Chris | January 19, 2012

A challenge from St Athanasius




Feast: January 18.

Here is an inspiration to young clergy and laymen both. This great Saint, defender of the Person of Jesus Christ, stood up – literally – at the first ecumenical council to do so. He was one of the leading voices atNicaea I against Arianism, and he was only 27. He continued to do so, becoming not only a major leader of theEgyptianChurch, but a renowned theologian as well.

Athanasius was what we call a teenager today, around 15-17 years old, when the Edict of Milan was issued (313). The persecution of Diocletian and Galerius had only ended in 303. He grew up in a church of martyrs and confessors, with stories of the all-too recent violent past, and the heroism of the faithful. Recall that confessors were people who suffered, but did not die, during the persecutions. Thus the churches were often led by priests and deacons who were missing an eye, ear, or limb, or their bodies were twisted or deformed because of violent torture.  At Nicaea I, most of the bishops who came looked like that.  As for martyrs, many of their graves were marked with chapels and altars, and Christians went there to worship. So this deacon who went off to Byzantium’s suburb of Nicaea went with a vivid history of orthodox Christians who were willing to die in defense of the faith given by Christ. And now teachings about Christ were being attacked.

Having seen those persecutions, and having been around the survivors  is a good thing, because though he was elected as the 20th bishop ofAlexandria in 328 (at the age of 30 or so), he had to lead a new Christian campaign against continued incursions of Arian theology and Arian influence.

He was bishop for over forty years, of which seventeen were spent in exile, exiles he was given by Christian emperors. How sad it must have been for the orthodox  Christians to see such infighting after they were finally able to live in peace! How frustrating for the ordinary person and saint alike!

Athanasius was nicknamed “Athanasius Contra Mundum”: Athanasius against the world, because so many bishops and political leaders still remained Arians. But through his writings, he became a “pillar of the church” according to Gregory Nazianzus. His steady adherence to the True Faith despite church leaders and political leaders urging  him to come over to their side should prove an inspiration to us when we see things we hold dear being despised, and we know that life would be easier if we were to go with the flow.

But as a little boy told me once, to go with the flow was stupid, because if the flow was like a river, only dead fish would go with the flow.  “And, Father Chris,” he said, “I am smarter than a dead fish.”  Wouldn’t the world be better if a lot of our leaders were smarter than dead fish, and fought against the flow like Saint Athanasius?

The ancient orthodox catholic Church was torn apart by schisms and adoption of heresies. Now we see that some of those adoptions, like the support given to Monophysitism in Athanasius’Egypt,Syria, andPalestinewas due to both language problems and political-cultural issues. Perhaps Saint Athanasius takes some comfort in heaven that today the Catholics, Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox all revere him, and his Creed is used by many main-line Protestant churches. Now, if only everyone could look at his orthodox faith, and find a way to bring us together again, in the  Body of Christ.

In this political year, when many will be asked to give up their beliefs for the sake of peace, or promotion, or to please a loved one, don’t be a dead fish! Don’t go with the flow -we are all smarter than that!

A great Father, a great man, who sought to be holy and to worship and serve our Lord Jesus Christ. May we imitate him well!


  1. If Catholics cannot stand up for their faith when there is no overt persecution, what will they do when it does come???

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