Today,2 May 2012, is the memorial of St Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, Egypt and doctor of the Church, who certainly lived in interesting times. Following the cessation of the persecution of Christians when Constantine came to power in the early 4th century, a period of intense debate began about how to understand the relationship between God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. At the forefront of the debates was St Athanasius, who was the major defender of the divinty of the three persons in the Blessed Trinity.
Born around the year 295 and dying on 2 May 373, St Athanasius lived the kind of life that could have been the inspiration for the Scarlet Pimpernel novel. As the major champion of orthodox teaching in his era, Athanasius often had his life threatened by heretics. Five times he was exiled from his episcopal see and determinedly hunted. ‘We seek him here, we seek him there’. Yet the good Lord preserved his life each time and permitted him to die in peaceful old age. In God’s loving plan, every time Athanasius went into exile he was able to spend his time writing defences of Catholic doctrine. Eleven excerpts from those writings are part of the current Office of Readings. To have believers still regularly reading your writings some 1650 years later says a lot about how much the Church has valued them over the centuries.
Talking today about whether Jesus was truly God or whether the Holy Spirit was truly God might seem purely academic questions, until you realise that the answers to those questions have a huge impact upon how to understand God’s plan for our salvation, and the extent of the price paid to win that salvation for us. Good and holy men came to violent disagreement with each other over this. Largely to sort all this out, the good Lord raised up Athanasius as His champion. We benefit from the fruits of Athanasius’ cooperation with the Holy Spirit each time we pray ‘ begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father’ in the Creed at Mass.
To be an effective instrument for truth in God’s hands, Athanasius was given many natural and spiritual gifts. To be chosen as Bishop of Alexandria, a major ancient centre of learning, at the tender age of 33 implies that Athanasius was an extraordinary scholar, writer, researcher, preacher and devout follower of Jesus from an early age. Even today whenever a priest under the age of 50 is appointed bishop it makes headline news and implies that the individual concerned has exceptional talents.
In honour of his feast day, I’ve started reading St Athanasius’ First Epistle to Bishop Serapion Concerning the Holy Spirit. See http://archive.org/stream/TheLettersOfSaintAthanasiusConcerningTheHolySpirit and then choose how you wish to read it. ‘Read Online’ has worked well for me – just skip the lengthy introduction. The Kindle option results in very messy formatting so that it’s hard to determine where the text stops and the footnotes start.
To back up the heretical notion that the Holy Sprit is but a creature, albeit higher than the angels, the heretics quoted from the prophet Amos ‘ I am He that establisheth thunder and createth spirit and declareth unto men His Christ, that maketh dawn and mist, that ascendeth unto the high places of the earth. the Lord God omnipotent is His name.’ Chapter 4, verse 3. Athanasius to refute this goes through the whole of Scripture, Old Testament and New, pointing out that whenever spirit in the sense of Holy Spirit is used there is a clear written qualifier, ‘My, of Christ, of God, etc and the article the‘. Everywhere else when there is no qualifier or article ‘spirit’ refers to wind, breath, the inner life of man etc.
It struck me that in order to write such a long letter, firstly you had to be really passionate about the subect matter and secondly you had to have the perseverance to hand write that much. The research needed to prove this point, and others in the Letters, required painstaking diligence. To provide these extensive lists of Scriptural quotations without a concordance and having to roll and unroll countless scrolls to read and find them speaks of a man of extraordinary patience, perseverance and diligence, possessed of an orderly mind. That’s really impressive, before you even get to the elegance and eloquence of his arguments.
If you have never read one of St Athanasius’ works, have a go. The vast majority of his writings have been translated and made available for free online. Without a doubt you will come away with a greater love for God and deep appreciation for St Athanasius.
May the good Lord always provide His Church with holy scholars like this one, to teach, preserve, explain and defend the deposit of truth that comes to us from the Apostles.
St Athansius of Alexandria, pray for us.