Thursday, June 1, 2017

Against the World

‘Athanasius against the World.’ It was a phrase, nay, a name by which St. Athanasius was known.  ‘Athanasius against the World.’ It’s stark, hard-edged, antagonistic even.  But so too was the man himself.  We tend to think of the saints of old as soft and demure vessels of a beautiful and holy light.  And while that may be true of some of those saints, it isn’t necessarily true of St. Athanasius.  In all of the biographies written about him, there is remarkable consistency in the way Athanasius is described: small in stature, great in courage, fearless in the face of Roman Emperors, and surprisingly confrontational in his struggles for the Apostolic Faith.  This is no St. Francis hanging out in fields of wildflowers, communing with birds and wolves.  This is a man who had a singular purpose in his life: defending belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ, even if it led to his exile and death.

Just listen to this description, taken from Robert Payne’s book The Holy Fire: “There are times when the dark heavy syllables of his name fill us with dread. In the history of the early Church no one was ever so implacable, so urgent in his demands upon himself or so derisive of his enemies. There was something in him of the temper of the modern dogmatic revolutionary: nothing stopped him. The Emperor Julian called him “hardly a man, only a little manikin.” Gregory of Nazianzus said he was “angelic in appearance, and still more angelic in mind.” In a sense both were speaking the truth. The small dauntless man who saved the Church from a profound heresy, staying the disease almost single handed, was as astonishing in his appearance as he was in his courage. He was so small that his enemies called him a dwarf. He had a hook nose, a small mouth, short reddish beard which turned up at the ends in the Egyptian fashion, and his skin was blackish. His eyes were very small and he walked with a slight stoop, though gracefully as befitted a prince of the Church. He was less than thirty when he was made Bishop of Alexandria.  He was a hammer wielded by God against heresy.”

He was a hammer wielded by God against heresy. Born into a Christian family in late 3rd century Alexandria, he received a distinguished education in philosophical traditions of Plato, Origen, and other esteemed thinkers.  But even at an early age, Athanasius seemed to care far more about the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ than any prestige that came from his education or political standing.  He was born during an age of extreme conflict, both within the Church and within the Empire.  Christians were still being heavily persecuted, being put to death for their beliefs, and this persecution was particularly intense in Egypt.  He saw with his very eyes the spilt blood of the martyrs, and his resolve to remain faithful to his Lord was forged in the fires of their deaths.

Within the Church, various groups were competing for power, and one group in particular was winning.  Fueled by the writing and influence of a priest named Arius, the so-called ‘Arians’ put forth a theology that undercut the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth.  Rather than confessing his divinity, Arius and his followers preached that Jesus the Chris was simply the first and best creation of God.  For Arius, Jesus was not the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity, coequal with God the Father and the Holy Spirit.  For lack of a better phrase, Jesus was simply a better version of us.  Humanity 2.0 if you will.  But in a Church, a movement, anchored by the belief that Jesus was God incarnate, God in the flesh, whose very life, death, and resurrection set us free from the bonds of death, hell and the grave…Athanasius saw this for what it was: a redemption-less theology, devoid of the radical truth found in the Gospels and the Epistles of our Sacred Scripture.

As Peter proclaimed in his first epistle, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls,” and as Jesus claimed of himself, "Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep…Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture... I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” For Athanasius, these Scriptural claims would be nothing more than hollow nonsense if Jesus was unable to save us as both God and human.  For in the economy of God, creatures cannot save themselves.  We need the wonderworking of God to be redeemed.  And if Jesus was simply the best of God’s creation, the whole enterprise of redemption comes crashing down.

In his ministry as a deacon, priest, and eventually a bishop, Athanasius fought back against this deeply flawed understanding of Jesus.  It was not an easy struggle, and it came with great personal sacrifice.  Running afoul of both bishops and Emperors who took the side of Arius, Athanasius was exiled five times for remaining faithful to his convictions.  During his fifth exile, he even kept himself safe by hiding in his own father’s tomb.  In total, Athanasius spent seventeen years in exile for contending for the faith that was passed onto him.  This was a man who, with every fiber of his being, resisted the confusion and compromise that crept into the 4th century Church, resisted the overbearing hand of an Empire that lacked a faithful understanding of Jesus of Nazareth.  As the story is told, a friend once exclaimed to Athanasius, “The whole world is against you.” His reply: “Then it is Athanasius against the world.”

Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit…very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.” If Jesus is the Gate, than Athanasius should truly been seen as one of the greatest shepherds of all time.  Without his witness, the Nicene Creed would be without one of the most significant of its lines: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.” Quite literally, without the labor, witness, and tenacity of Athanasius, that line would not be in the Creed.  He fought for its inclusion at the Council of Nicaea.  Without his fearless courage, our understanding of Jesus would be incomplete.  Without the life and witness of Athanasius, we would have no way to make sense of the claim that Jesus is the Gate…that Jesus, the Son of God, is the means by which we enjoy communion and fellowship with the Divine.

In the spirit of St. Athanasius, our newly named patron, what are we called to fearlessly and courageously resist? What are the challenges confronting the Church of our day? By and large, we are not facing cataclysmic threats to belief in the Divinity of Jesus Christ, or in the incarnation of God in the flesh.  But we are seeing challenges all around the world to the human family for which God became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth.  The crushing weight of poverty, the systems of racism still present in our world, the rising tides of violence in our land and elsewhere…the very thing which God in Christ came to do, to reconcile all people together into one redeemed human family…this is what is under attack.  In the incarnation of God in Christ, it became clear that matter matters to God…that our bodies, and what makes us human, are worth redeeming, worth restoring.  And there are forces at work in the world that seek to dehumanize our sisters and brothers in the human family.  To break apart God’s family into a fractured mass of divided individuals.  In the spirit of St. Athanasius, following the example of Jesus our Good Shepherd, we must respond to the summons of God to proclaim, to shout, to resist that which dehumanizes God’s creation.  We remain faithful to the Risen Lord when we resist any forces that would dehumanize us, that would cheapen the wondrous work of the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection.  Yeah, the world seems dark as of late.  But we have the light  We have the witness and example of our patron saint.  And we have the truth of our Good Shepherd.  “All the dark forces of the world stand against us,” some might say. Well, there’s only one faithful way to respond. “Then it is the Church against the world.”

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