Born: c. 296
Died: 2 May 373
Patriarch of Alexandria: 8 June 328
There is a classic phrase associated with one of the most important saints in the history of all the Church: Athanasius Contra Mundum – Athanasius Against the World. St. Athanasius of Alexandria, though having lived more than 1,500 years ago, is a most relevant saint for the times in which we live.
Born some time between the years 293-296 AD, he grew up in the North African city of Alexandria in Egypt. Born to a Christian family, his upbringing was deeply immersed in the study of theology until, in his early twenties, he would receive ordination as a deacon. In this office, he served as the secretary and general assistant to the Patriarch of Alexandria (their bishop), Alexander.
It was also during this time that a fellow priest of their local Church, Arius, began to promote his view that Jesus, being “begotten of the Father before all ages,” was not of equal substance to the Father. This rendered Jesus as a creature of God, and though highly exalted among all of creation and the closest thing to God Himself, He was not God. As such, the two central dogmas on which the first three hundred years of Christianity had been firmly planted, namely, the Triune nature of God and the Divinity of Christ, were cast into confusion.
The Patriarch Alexander never stood for this position, but Arius’ masterful rhetoric and influence among the Christian community propelled his speculative positions into the forefront of Christian thought. Well before any resolution in this regard was reached, Patriarch Alexander had died and his young protege emerged as his successor, Patriarch Athanasius.
St. Athanasius’ forceful opposition to the Arian heresy cost him almost everything except his very life. Though, indeed, there were moments when it appeared as though it might cost him that, too. It is hard to comprehend so many hundreds of years removed what it was about the Arian position that won such popularity. However, it stands to reason that the perfection of Christ, seeming less like the model on which we pattern our humanity and more like an unreachable burden imposed on us by the Gospel and the Church, is much more palatable if it is softened. It is for this reason, perhaps, that Arianism, though formally denounced repeatedly throughout the Church’s history, has never stopped being proposed. In one way or another, so many of the heresies which have crept up since the fourth century are somehow contingent upon the rejection of the divinity of Christ, rendering either the effectiveness of His sacrifice (Islam), the institution of His Church and Sacraments (Protestantism) or the authority of His Magisterium (Modernism), as dispensable if not null and void. The world remains ever transfixed by Arianism. Hence why the life of St. Athanasius was truly a battle he fought against the whole world. Athanasius Contra Mundum.
With unwavering fidelity to the Truth of the Catholic Faith, St. Athanasius stood his ground in defence of the Divinity of Christ. At varying times this cost him his reputation, his ecclesiastical office, his influence in the empire, his home, his country and sometimes even the literal clothes on his back. Yet, not one of these costs was counted too high. Whatever integrity of Faith we enjoy in the Church today is owed to St. Athanasius’ heroic sacrifice. St. Gregory of Nazianzus once said, “When I praise Athanasius, virtue itself is my theme: for I name every virtue as often as I mention him who was possessed of all virtues. He was the true pillar of the Church. His life and conduct were the rule of bishops, and his doctrine the rule of the orthodox faith.”
In our own times, we are in need of another Athanasius – or even many others! As the truths of our Faith, whether as recorded in the Gospel or handed down to us through Sacred Tradition, are attacked by the enemies of the Church in modern society, or sadly, even attacked by some within the Church, it must be the example of saints like Athanasius who inspire us to take up these words of St. Paul and live them, “So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter” (2 Thes. 2: 15).
Though reasonably questioned by modern scholarship, this ancient formula of articles of faith was once said to have been written by St. Athanasius. Although we cannot be sure whether or not he composed it, we can be sure, indeed, that he did profess it:
The Athanasian Creed
Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith. Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the Catholic Faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity. Neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost is all One, the Glory Equal, the Majesty Co-Eternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father Uncreate, the Son Uncreate, and the Holy Ghost Uncreate. The Father Incomprehensible, the Son Incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost Incomprehensible. The Father Eternal, the Son Eternal, and the Holy Ghost Eternal and yet they are not Three Eternals but One Eternal. As also there are not Three Uncreated, nor Three Incomprehensibles, but One Uncreated, and One Incomprehensible. So likewise the Father is Almighty, the Son Almighty, and the Holy Ghost Almighty. And yet they are not Three Almighties but One Almighty.
So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not Three Gods, but One God. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not Three Lords but One Lord. For, like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by Himself to be God and Lord, so are we forbidden by the Catholic Religion to say, there be Three Gods or Three Lords. The Father is made of none, neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created, but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father, and of the Son neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.
So there is One Father, not Three Fathers; one Son, not Three Sons; One Holy Ghost, not Three Holy Ghosts. And in this Trinity none is afore or after Other, None is greater or less than Another, but the whole Three Persons are Co-eternal together, and Co-equal. So that in all things, as is aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved, must thus think of the Trinity.
Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting Salvation, that he also believe rightly the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right Faith is, that we believe and confess, that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man.
God, of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and Man, of the substance of His mother, born into the world. Perfect God and Perfect Man, of a reasonable Soul and human Flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His Manhood. Who, although He be God and Man, yet He is not two, but One Christ. One, not by conversion of the Godhead into Flesh, but by taking of the Manhood into God. One altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by Unity of Person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one Man, so God and Man is one Christ. Who suffered for our salvation, descended into Hell, rose again the third day from the dead. He ascended into Heaven, He sitteth on the right hand of the Father, God Almighty, from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies, and shall give account for their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting, and they that have done evil into everlasting fire. This is the Catholic Faith, which except a man believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved.