The Early Life of Saint Athanasios
Athanasios was born in the last decade of the third century in Alexandria Egypt, then the cultural and intellectual center of the empire. Raised as a Christian, as a boy he lived through the Great Persecution. When he was a young adult, Constantine became emperor, and Christianity became the favored religion of the empire. Athanasios was a short man. When he was young he had red hair and a red beard. All his life he had a brilliant mind and a feisty disposition toward his enemies, but it was said he showed great kindness towards everyone else.
While he was in his twenties, he may already have written his classic book On the Incarnation *, which sets forth simply and clearly the Orthodox understanding of who Jesus Christ is, why he came to earth and what he accomplished. From it comes the famous line “God became man so that man might become god.” Athanasios became a deacon and secretary to Patriarch Alexander, and when he was in his late twenties went with him to the First Ecumenical Council where he was the Patriarch’s chief spokesman.
* Read it! if you have not. It’s published by Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, with an insightful preface by C.S. Lewis, as part of their excellent “Popular Patristics” series. You can also get it from Amazon.
As you have read these past three weeks the issue was Arianism, the priest Arius who denied the divinity of Christ. Young Deacon Athanasios impressed the bishops and the emperor with his firm, clear defense of Orthodox faith, and he won the day. In the end only two bishops out of 318 or so voted to support Arius. The emperor commended the young deacon for his work. The man whom the Arians blamed for it, and whom the majority Orthodox gave credit for it, was Athanasios.
When Patriarch Alexander died, by popular acclamation Athanasios was chosen to succeed him. On June 8, 328, Athanasios, only in his early 30s, was enthroned as Patriarch and Pope (“papa”) of Alexandria. He must have felt a great future lay ahead. He was part of the “establishment”, as we used to say. The empire was going Christian, the Orthodox had won overwhelmingly at Nicaea, the emperor was behind him, he had popular support at home, and God willing he would have many years to shepherd his people in peace.
However, soon Athanasios’ enemies began to plot against him. As you read last week, the Council had anathematized Arius, but it could not eliminate Arianism, and across the sea Constantinople was becoming an Arian stronghold. Emperor Constantine the Great did many great things, but he was apparently no theologian. He just wanted peace in the empire. Not long after the Council the Arians convinced Constantine that if he suppressed them there might be civil disorder (possibly true) and furthermore that Athanasios was threatening to cut off wheat supplies * to the capitol (not true), so why don’t we get rid of that hard nosed young Patriarch of Alexandria? They tried to get a Church council to condemn Athanasios on theological grounds; when that failed, Constantine suspended him anyway. Athanasios, supported by the clergy and people of Alexandria, simply ignored the emperor. Constantine responded by arresting Athanasios and sending him into exile in faraway Gaul.
* North Africa, even Libya, was then the “breadbasket” for the empire.
Outside the Camp
The central theme of the epistle (Hebrews 13:7-16) which the Church appoints for May 2, the feast of Saint Athanasios, is this: Christians should not fear to go “outside the camp” with Jesus.
In Exodus 33 Moses set up a tent of meeting “outside the camp” and went there to consult with God. There, not in the camp, is where the Pillar of Fire was seen. Hebrews, speaking to first generation Jewish Christians who were being persecuted, saw this as a prefiguring: Jesus Christ was rejected and executed outside the gates of Jerusalem, condemned to death by both the Jewish and Roman establishments. There, “outside the camp” is where we now find the true God.
The ways of the world are unstable. The world blows with the winds of the times – left and right, forward and back. As Hebrews tells us, we have here “no enduring city”, so do not be carried about by these various and strange doctrines. Only Jesus Christ is “the same yesterday and forever”. Therefore stand firm on this solid foundation established by the grace of God in Christ.
That has been the “paradigm” in which all the saints have lived. We who follow Jesus Christ do not take our standards, our principles from the world. Ultimately we belong nowhere on earth. We are “in the world but not of it”. We are citizens of heaven.
On the other hand there have always been Christians who will sacrifice anything – their virtue, their principles, their minds – to keep their careers, to be accepted by those who are in control, who have power – what C.S. Lewis called “the inner ring”. One can think of many examples, both past and (unfortunately) present, both political and religious. Saint Athanasios was not one of those Christians. He was not afraid to go “outside the camp”.
When Emperor Constantine died, Patriarch Athanasios returned to Alexandria in triumph, but not for long. A new co-emperor Constantius sympathized with Arianism, and he immediately exiled Athanasios again. The people of Alexandria rioted, and the other co-emperor of the east Constans convinced Constantius to restore Athanasios. But then Constans died, and Constantius struck again: he sent troops to arrest Athanasios and bring him to Constantinople where he could keep an eye on him. The patriarch fled by boat. It was a close call. During the night on the Nile an imperial ship came up to the boat in which Patriarch Athanasios was escaping, disguised. They called out, “Have you seen Athanasios?” Athanasios replied, “He is not far away”. (It sounds like the line from western movies, “He went thata way”! except note that Athanasios was careful not to lie.) So off the imperial ship went, while Athanasios went the other way and disappeared into the desert, where he was given shelter by the desert monks who always supported him. This was apparently when he got well acquainted with Saint Antony, the greatest of the desert fathers. He later wrote The Life of Saint Antony, a book which swept the empire, was immensely popular in both east and west, and is still much read. (This is also available from Amazon.)
Constantius died. Athanasius returned home to Alexandria. But now a new emperor Julian the Apostate tried to restore paganism, and on trumped up charges had Athanasios exiled – “outside the camp” once more. Then Julian died, and Athanasios returned, until the new emperor Valens, another Arian, banished him again. This was the fifth time. Twice he had fled to Rome (which in the early centuries often upheld Orthodoxy when the east did not), and by now western Christians stood firmly behind him against the Arian Byzantine emperors.
Against the World
Christians all over now saw Athanasios as the lightning rod of Orthodox faith. The saying became popular: “Athanasios against the world”. When the whole world seemed against Athanasios he had stayed calm, firm, undaunted by enemies, even by imperial power. Yet it was said he was kind even to his persecutors when he dealt with them personally. He was firm but not nasty. (Some modern folks, both religious and political, need to learn how to do that.) Orthodox Christians rallied ’round him. In Alexandria the people rose up against the emperor and, lest the province be lost, he gave in and restored Athanasios.
When the old patriarch returned home for the last time on February 1, 366, there was a great celebration as he was restored to his throne. Athanasios now had seven years of peace before he died at age 78 on May 2, 373. He had been patriarch for 45 years of which 25 had been spent in exile. If he had lived only eight years longer he would have seen the Second Ecumenical Council vindicate him and the Orthodox doctrine of Christ, and heard himself honored as Saint Athanasios the Great.
In one way or another faithful Christians have always stood outside the camp.
Do not be afraid to stand against the world – so long as you are standing for Christ, with Christ, for the principles of Christ. But be careful here. Some people like to be outside the camp for other reasons, because it’s “kicky”, or because it gets them attention, or because they enjoy being thought eccentric and off the wall. Some people are very steadfast for things other than Jesus Christ, other than the Orthodox faith – national or ethnic pride, manmade ideas, economic or philosophical or religious or political opinions, both liberal and conservative. Sometimes people hold to their positions because they’re just too stubborn to face facts and change their minds and admit they’ve been wrong. Remember, Arius also stood outside the camp for his principles.
Going outside the camp for anything other than Jesus Christ and the Orthodox faith – that’s not virtue, that’s a lack of wisdom. Because everything else finally fades away, falls apart. And if that’s what you’re standing firm for, when that falls, you’re going to fall too. Remember what Jesus said about the danger of building your house on sand instead of on solid rock. Jesus Christ is that rock. The Church of Jesus Christ is that rock.
In fact it’s no great virtue, no big deal to go outside the camp for Christ. The saints and the martyrs were never impressed with themselves because they stood strong for Christ. They just thought they were being wise, building on a firm foundation, sensibly attaining eternal security for themselves – because they were building on Jesus Christ who alone has overcome the the world, alone has triumphed over worst that can be done, Jesus Christ who is no longer subject to death, who can never be conquered in this world or the next. And if, like Saint Athanasios, we stand with Christ neither can we.
This is a Coptic icon of Saint Athanasios.
Holy Father Athanasios, pray to Christ our God that he may save our souls.
Next Week: On the Road Again. The Big Trip – Spain, Switzerland, Italy, Greece, England