ATHANASIUS (whose name signifieth immortal) was the man whom God the Holy Ghost chiefly used, next after the Apostles themselves, to convey and secure unto future generations the truth which Jesus Christ had revealed concerning his own divine person. Because of the immense opposition which he withstood there arose the saying : Athanasius contra mundum - Athanasius against the world : whereby he won for himself the title of Champion of the Faith ; and hence he is justly numbered among the first four Eastern Doctors. He was born of Christian parents about the year 297 at Alexandria. Concerning his boyhood, Rufinus saith that the Patriarch Alexander of Alexandria once happened to observe him, and some other lads, playing at Church ceremonies with such dignity and devotion that he took them all to be educated for the priesthood. For the writings of Athanasius it is evident that he was well versed in both the secular and the sacred studies of his time ; and that he was acquainted with the hermits of the Thebaid, and with Saint Anthony the Great in particular, of whom he saith : I was his disciple. For some six years he served the Church in the office of lector, and at about the age of twenty-one was ordered deacon, and became the secretary of the said Alexander, whom he accompanied to the Council of Nicaea in 325. About this time he wrote his Treatise against the Gentiles, wherein he carefully set forth the true and Catholic doctrine of the incarnation and of the Trinity. This and his several later writings were controversial in purpose, but they also manifest how profound and loving was his spiritual insight, albeit he had keen wit and a tongue which could be sharp as a sword. Shortly after the Council of Nicaea, Alexander died and Athanasius became Patriarch in his stead, and at once undertook a visitation of his vast diocese, which included the Thebaid, where he was welcomed by the holy ascetics as one of themselves, who afterwards strongly supported his defence of orthodoxy. At this time Athanasius appointed a Bishop of Ethiopia, which far country was also under his jurisdiction.
In spite of the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, many of those who were wise in their own conceits refused to receive the Nicene decrees and, under the leadership of the archheretick Arius, continued to deny that Christ was divine except in a figurative sense, whereby they speciously accepted Christianity in the letter, but overthrew all that was of its spirit. Against these men, many of whom were learned, or highly placed in the Church, Athanasius gave battle all the rest of his life. During the more than forty years of his episcopate he was exiled five times, and was persecuted city to city, spending thus a total of seventeen years in hardship or suffering away from his See. For it was his lot, as a prince of the Church, to oppose the princes of this world, including even the Emperors themselves, who used all the means of their wealth and power to silence his voice which was sounding throughout the world. Various assemblages were convened to hear his case, by some of which he was unjustly but publicly condemned. At Arles in 353 the Emperor Constantius succeeded in inducing certain timorous bishops to condemn him again ; and thereafter a number of friendly prelates were also exiled, including Pope Libertius, who was so broken by persecution that even he temporarily acquiesced in the aforesaid censure.
ARIOUS stories are told of the hatred by which the Arians ever honoured him, such as the following. In 335 there had been called together an assemblage at Tyre, composed largely of Arian bishops, where they suborned a wretched woman to charge Athanasius with having raped her. Whereupon a certain priest arose, as though he were Athanasius, and asked her, saying : Woman, was it I that was thy guest, and thus mistreated thee? And she cried out indignantly under oath : Yea, thou it was. Upon discovery of her perjury, they were obliged to drive the shameless woman from their presence, but nevertheless they slacked none of their efforts to blacken his name. For they also accused him of having murdered the Bishop Arsenius ; and it is said that they introduced as evidence a dead man's hand, which they declared had been his, and had been cut off by Athanasius to use in sorcery. But Arsenius, whom they had kidnapped, made his escape and appeared before all the Council whole and sound ; whereupon they attributed this appearance to black magic on the part of Athanasius, and persisted still in their attack on him. Never did the vindictiveness of the Arians leave him alone, so that he was sent wandering all about the Roman world. In his third exile it is said that he was obliged to hide for five years in a dry cistern, unknown to all men, save one of his friends who brought him food. In his fourth exile a band of soldiers was sent to kill him. As he fled up the Nile, their boat pressed hard upon his, whereupon he had his own boat turned around, to go down stream to meet them. When the vessels passed one another the murderers called out to ask where Athanasius was, and the servant of God himself cried to them in answer : Ye are close to him ; row hard : whereupon they redoubled their exertions to ascend the stream, while Athanasius went peacefully down to Alexandria, and found concealment. In his fifth exile he is believed to have hidden himself for four months in his own father's sepulchre. From such many and great dangers did God deliver him, and at last he died in his own bed at Alexandria, upon May 2nd, 373, in the reign of Valens. He wrote much that is both godly and luminous in explaining the Catholic Faith, and governed the Church of Alexandria in great holiness amid all changes of weather, for well over forty years.
A Homily by St. Athanasius the Bishop
Apologia de fuga sua, ante medium
It is written in the Law : Ye shall appoint you cities to be cities of refuge for you. Into such cities, they which were pursued by a slayer might enter and be safe. And in the latter days, when that same Word of the Father, who aforetime had spoken unto Moses, was come amongst us, he gave again the same commandment in these words : When they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another. And another time he added : When ye shall see the abomination of desolation (spoken of by Daniel the Prophet) stand in the Holy Place (whose readeth, let him understand,) then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains ; let him which is on the house-top not come down to take anything out of his house ; neither let him which is in the field return back to take his clothes.
The saints, knowing these words of the Lord, have obeyed them in their lives. For what the Lord hath thus commanded by his own mouth was the same as he had spoken through his Saints before his coming in the flesh ; and to obey this commandment worketh in a man perfection, since whatever God commandeth is a thing which it behoveth man to do. For this cause, that very Word of God himself, after he was made man for our sake, thought it meet when they sought him, even as at this present time they are seeking us, to hide himself ; to fly and escape from their laying in wait for him ; although when that time was come which he had himself decreed, and wherein he willed to suffer in the body for us all, he willingly gave himself up to his enemies.
Holy men of God, therefore, having learnt from this ensample of their Saviour, (for the same is and hath been the Teacher of all such, whether of old time, or in these latter days,) have known how that it is lawful to baffle their persecutors by taking flight, and by hiding themselves when sought after. For since they know not the day nor the hour wherein an all-seeing God hath ordained their end, they do not daringly give themselves into the power of such as hate them. But rather, knowing it to be written : My time is in thy hand : and again : The Lord killeth, and maketh alive : they endure to the end, as saith the Evangelist. Yea, they wander about, as saith the Apostle, in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented, of whom the world is not worthy ; they wander in deserts, and in mountains, and hide in dens and caves of the earth, until either their appointed time is come, or until God, the Appointer of times, more plainly speaketh unto them, and chaineth up the persecutors, or manifestly giveth them over into the hands of the same, as may be his own good pleasure.
Collect:Grant us grace, we beseech thee, Almighty God: that we may believe in our hearts, and confess with our lips, the true faith in thy Consubstantial Word ; like unto that which thy blessed Bishop Athanasius maintained with so marvelous a stedfastness, and amid such innumerable labours and persecutions, through the same Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.