(Article published in Leadership magazine, May 2016)
Feast: May 2nd.
At Sunday Mass we all recite or sing the Nicene Creed. It is a concise summary of all that we believe as Christians, more particularly as Catholics. Many of us may not be aware of the great struggle Church underwent in the first four centuries in formulating and finally agreeing on these set of beliefs, as revealed by scriptures and tradition. In the third and fourth century the ancient Church was deeply divided with Arian heresy that denied the Divinity of Christ.
The heresy originated from Arius, an ambitious priest of the Alexandrian Church whose belief and teaching contradicted the traditional Biblical understanding of the Holy Trinity and the Divinity of Christ. In brief, ‘it asserts that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, created by God the Father, distinct from the Father and therefore subordinate to the Father.’ It wrongly affirms that Jesus is a creature of the Father, thus denying the unity of Trinity and Divinity of God, the Son.
Matters became worse when the emperors and temporal rulers of lands took sides in supporting controversial groups by imposing exile and excommunications and even taking up arms. At this moment Athanasius who was only a deacon was called to take an active part in fighting the heresy. He assisted his Bishop Alexander of Nicaea in theological struggle and later succeeded him as the Patriarch of Nicaea in 326. Athanasius had his own share of exile and persecution for his belief and service to the Church. He exercised his Episcopal ministry until May 2, 373. From the earliest time he is considered a revered doctor of faith and a saint known for austerity. He was not only known for his intellect, but also for his holiness. Once he won the theological battle, he spent time in retreat in the desert with St. Anthony of the desert.
This great champion of Christian faith was born in Alexandria about the year 296 of Christian parents. From his early age he received excellent education in faith and virtue. His writings “Against the Heathens” and “On the Incarnation” are considered as valuable theological works even today. Let us not brush aside this ancient champion of faith as outdated or irrelevant. He continues to inspire us to live our faith meaningfully as the texts below exemplify.
O noble Virgin, truly you are greater than any other greatness. For who is your equal in greatness, O dwelling place of God the Word? To whom among all creatures shall I compare you, O Virgin? You are greater than them all. O Ark of the New] Covenant, clothed with purity instead of gold! You are the Ark in which is found the golden vessel containing the true manna, that is, the flesh in which divinity resides. Should I compare you to the fertile earth and its fruits? You surpass them, for it is written: “The earth is my footstool”. But you carry within you the feet, the head, and the entire body of the perfect God.
As for Eve, she is the mother of the dead, “for in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive”. Eve took fruit from the tree and made her husband eat of it along with her. And so they ate of that tree of which God had told them: “The day you eat of it, you shall die”. Eve took fruit from it, ate some of it, and gave some to her husband that he might eat with her. He ate of it, and he died.
In you, O wise Virgin, dwells the Son God: He, that is, Who is the tree of life. Truly He has given us His body, and we have eaten of it. That is how life came to all, and all have come to life by the mercy of God, your beloved Son. That is why your spirit is full of joy in God your Saviour!
Though this prayer-poem is written in praise of Blessed Virgin Mary, it affirms and confirms the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ, who is truly the Son of Mary, a mortal human. Through this prayer Athanasius teaches us about divine conception of Jesus, a saviour designed to redeem humanity from the time of creation, and the God-Man Jesus is consubstantially united with the Father and the Spirit. He also speaks of the fallen nature of human beings and it ought to be redeemed by Jesus who is also human like us in the lineage of Adam and Eve.
Speaking about Athanasius historian Cornelius Clifford says: “His career almost personifies a crisis in the history of Christianity; and he may be said rather to have shaped the events in which he took part than to have been shaped by them.” The saint is often remembered in connection with Arian heresy. He defended the Church not only with his intellect, he was able to stand by the orthodoxy of the Church due to his virtuous life. Without solid spirituality and untainted virtues we cannot stand for truth.