Saturday, May 2, 2009

Athanasius Contra Mundum

Today we honor St. Athanasius. "Athanasius Contra Mundum" literally means Athanasius against the world. Athanasius was born in Alexandria, in Egypt, the city in which was found one of the earliest seminaries of the early church, but also a city which was a seething cauldron of competing philosophies. Because of its strategic geographical position, it was a bustling center of trade and commerce where East and West met. Greek philosophy, Oriental mysticism, the Christian religion -- all clashed and fought for supremacy in this port city of Egypt on the Nile Delta. Not a lot is known of Athanasius' early life. He was born in 296 of parents of high rank and great wealth. In keeping with the social status of his family, he received a classical and liberal education and became well-versed in Greek philosophy. But also at an early time in his life he had come to know and love the Christian faith. The story, perhaps apocryphal, is told of a number of bishops of the Alexandrian church who, while meeting in the house of their chief bishop, saw through the window a group of boys on the street imitating certain rites of the church -- as children are wont to do. Watching, while one of the boys was going through the rite of the baptism of his playmates, they decided that the game had gone too far. After calling the boys into the house and quizzing them, they learned that the "baptizing bishop" was the young Athanasius. The chief bishop of Alexandria, named Alexander after the name of the city, took Athanasius under his wing and instructed him more carefully in the Christian faith. This was the beginning of a long period of close friendship between Alexander and Athanasius, the latter soon becoming the spiritual and theological superior of his mentor. Athanasius was soon made the private secretary of Alexander and deacon in the church of Alexandria. The story of Athanasius is woven into the of one of the greatest controversies that has ever troubled the Christian church, a controversy concerning the doctrine of Christ's divinity. Arius, a dynamic and popular speaker began preaching that the Son, just because He was the Son, could not be God. Though perhaps He was eternal, He nevertheless had to be created. And if He was created, there was a time when He was not. Thus He taught that our Lord Jesus Christ was not God, but a creature. Because of Arius' influence in the church, his views were widely accepted and many began to defend what he taught. The result was that the whole church was torn by confusion, controversy, schism, and bitterness. The unrest reached also into the city of Alexandria. Here Alexander and his bishops saw the evil of the views of Arius and resolved to do all in their power to combat them. Alexander's deacon and secretary was God's man to help in this noble cause. In 325 the Council of Nicea met, the decisions of which are incorporated into the Nicene Creed which we recite at Mass. The Church's position was loudly proclaimed, that Christ is "very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father." In the formulation of this creed, Athanasius played a leading role and emerged from the council as the most able defender of the truth of the divinity of Christ. He was recognized as a man of outstanding "zeal, intellect, and eloquence." In 328, after the death of Alexander, he became bishop of the church in Alexandria. While almost the whole world went chasing after the Arian heresy, Athanasius stood like a rock for the truth of Scripture and Nicene orthodoxy. For his troubles he was banished no less than five times. Of the 46 years of his ministry as bishop of Alexandria, he spent 20 years in exile. He is an example for us today on combating the heresies and immorality of the world today.

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