May 2, 2019: ST. ATHANASIUS
May 2, 2019: ST. ATHANASIUS, BISHOP, CONFESSOR, & DOCTOR OF THE CHURCH
Hail, Athanasius! model of virtue, most brave defender of the Faith! who didst courageously rout the impiety of Arius by the force of thy venerable words. Thou didst preach the power of the Godhead, one in three Persons, which made all creatures, both spiritual and material, out of nothing, solely because of his own infinite goodness. Thou explainedst to us the difficult mysteries of the divine operation. Pray for us to Christ, that he grant to our souls his great mercy.
Hear, O Lord, we beseech thee, the prayers we offer on this solemnity of blessed Athanasius, thy Confessor and Bishop; and by his intercession, who worthily served thee, deliver us from all our sins. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, thy Son, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. Amen.
The Court of our divine King, during this grandest of Seasons, is brilliant beyond measure: and, to-day, it is gladdened by the arrival of one of the most glorious champions that ever fought for his holy cause. Among the guardians of the Word of Truth, confided by Jesus to the earth,—is there one more faithful than Athanasius? Does not his very name remind us of dauntless courage in the defence of the sacred deposit, of heroic firmness and patience in suffering, of learning, of talent, of eloquence,—in a word, of everything that goes to form a Saint, a Bishop, and a Doctor of the Church? Athanasius lived for the Son of God; the cause of the Son of God was that of Athanasius: he who blessed Athanasius, blessed the eternal Word; and he insulted the eternal Word, who insulted Athanasius. Never did our holy Faith go through a greater ordeal, than in the sad times immediately following the peace of the Church, when the Bark of Peter had to pass through the most furious storm that hell has, so far, let loose against her. Satan had vainly sought to drown the Christian race in a sea of blood; the sword of persecution had grown blunt in the hands of Dioclesian and Galerius; and the Cross appeared in the heavens, proclaiming the triumph of Christianity. Scarcely had the Church become aware of her victory, when she felt herself shaken to her very foundation. Hell sent upon the earth a heresy which threatened to blight the fruit of three hundred years of Martyrdom. Arius began his impious doctrine,— that he, who had hitherto been adored as the Son of God, was only a creature, though the most perfect of all creatures. Immense was the number, even of the clergy, that fell into this new error; the Emperors became its abettors; and had not God himself interposed, men would soon have set up the cry throughout the world, that the only result of the victory gained by the Christian Religion, was to change the object of idolatry, and put a new idol, called Jesus, in place of the old ones.
But He who had promised, that the gates of hell should never prevail against his Church, faithfully fulfilled his promise. The primitive faith triumphed; the Council of Nicæea proclaimed the Son to be consubstantial to the Father; but the Church stood in need of a man in whom the cause of the Consubstantial Word should be, so to speak, incarnated,—a man, with learning enough to foil the artifices of heresy, and with courage enough to bear every persecution without flinching. This man was Athanasius: and every one that adores and loves the Son of God, should love and honour Athanasius. Five times banished from his See of Alexandria by the Arians, who even sought to put him to death, he fled for protection to the West, which justly appreciated the glorious Confessor of Jesus' Divinity. In return for the hospitality accorded him by Rome, Athanasius gave her of his treasures. Being the admirer and friend, of the great St. Antony, he was a fervent admirer of the Monastic Life, which, by the grace of the Holy Ghost, had flourished so wonderfully in the deserts of his vast Patriarchate. He brought the precious seed to Rome, and the first Monks seen there were the ones introduced by Athanasius. The heavenly plant became naturalised in its new soil; and though its growth was slow at first, it afterwards produced fruit more abundantly than it had ever done in the East.
Athanasius, who has written so admirably upon that fundamental dogma of our Faith,—the Divinity of Christ,—has also left us most eloquent treatises on the mystery of the Pasch: they are to be found in the Festal Letters, which he addressed, each year, to the Churches of his Patriarchate of Alexandria. The collection of these Letters, which were once thought to have been irretrievably lost, was found, years back, in the Monastery of St. Mary of Scete, in Egypt. The first, for the year 329, begins with these words, which beautifully express the sentiments we should feel at the approach of Easter: “Come, my beloved Brethren, celebrate the Feast; the season of the year invites you to do so. The Sun of Justice, by pouring out his divine rays upon you, tells you that the time of the Solemnity is come. At such tidings, let us keep a glad feast; let not the joy slip from us, with the fleeting days, without our having tasted of its sweetness.” During almost every year of his banishment, Athanasius continued to address a Paschal Letter to his people. The one in which he announces the Easter of 338, and which he wrote at Treves, begins thus: “Though separated from you, my Brethren, I cannot break through the custom which I have always observed, and which I received from the tradition of the Fathers. I will not be silent; I will not omit announcing to you the time of the holy annual Feast, and the day on which you must keep the Solemnity. I am, as you have doubtless been told, a prey to many tribulations; I am weighed down by heavy trials; I am watched by the enemies of truth, who scrutinise everything I write, in order to rake up accusations against me and, thereby, add to my sufferings; yet notwithstanding, I feel that the Lord strengthens and consoles me in my afflictions. Therefore do I venture to address to you the annual celebration and from the midst of my troubles, and despite the snares that beset me, I send you, from the further-most part of the earth, the tidings of the Pasch, which is our salvation. Commending my fate into God's hands, I will celebrate this Feast with you; distance of place separates us, but I am not absent from you. The Lord who gives us these Feasts, who is himself our Feast, who bestows upon us the gift of his Spirit,—he unites us spiritually to one another, by the bond of concord and peace.”
How grand is this Pasch, celebrated by Athanasius an exile on the Rhine, in union with his people who keep their Easter on the banks of the Nile! It shows us the power of the Liturgy, to unite men together, and make them, at one and the same time, and despite the distance of countries, enjoy the same holy emotions, and feel the same aspirations to virtue. Greeks or Barbarians, we have all the same mother-country,—the Church; but what, after Faith, unites us all into one family, is the Church's Liturgy. Now there is nothing, in the whole Liturgy, so expressive of unity, as the celebration of Easter. The unhappy churches of Russia and the East, by keeping Easter on a different day from that on which it is celebrated by the rest of the Christian World, show that they are not a portion of the One Fold of which our Risen Jesus is the One Shepherd.
We will now read the sketch of St. Athanasius’ Life, given in the Breviary.
Athanasius, the stern defender of the Catholic Faith, was born at Alexandria. He was made Deacon by Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria, whose successor he afterwards became. He accompanied that Prelate to the Council of Nicæa, where, having refuted the impious doctrine of Arius, he became such an object of hatred to the Arians, that from that time forward, they never ceased to lay snares for him. Thus, at a Council held at Tyre, at which the majority of the Bishops were Arians, the party suborned a wretched woman, who was to accuse Athanasius, that when lodging in her house, he had offered violence to her. Athanasius was accordingly brought before the Council. One of his priests, by name Timothy, went in with him, and pretending that he was Athanasius, he said to the woman: “What! did I ever lodge at thy house? Did I violate thee?” She boldly answered him: “Yes, it was thou.” She affirmed it with an oath, besought the judges to avenge her, and punish so great a crime. The trick being discovered, the impudent woman was ordered to leave the place.
The Arians also spread the report, that Athanasius had murdered a certain Bishop Arsenius. Having put this Arsenius into confinement, they brought forward the hand of a dead man, saying that it was the hand of Arsenius, and that Athanasius had cut it off for purposes of witchcraft. But Arsenius having made his escape during the night, presented himself before the whole Council, and exposed the impudent malice of Athanasius’ enemies. But even this they attributed to the magical skill of Athanasius, and went on plotting his death. They succeeded in having him banished, and accordingly, he was sent to Treves in Gaul. During the reign of the emperor Constantius, who was on the Arian side, Athanasius had to go through the most violent storms, endure incredible sufferings, and go wandering from country to country. He was driven several times from his See, but was restored, at one time by the authority of Pope Julius, at another by the help of the emperor Constans, Constantius’ brother, at another by the decrees of the Councils of Sardica and Jerusalem. During all this time, the Arians relented not in their fury against him; their hatred of him was unremitting; and he only avoided being murdered, by hiding himself, for five years, in a dry well, where he was fed by one of his friends, who was the only person that knew the place of his concealment.
Constantius died, and was succeeded in the Empire by Julian the Apostate, who allowed the exiled Bishops to return to their respective Sees. Accordingly, Athanasius returned to Alexandria, where he was received with every possible mark of honour. Not long after, however, he was again obliged to flee, owing to the persecution he met with from Julian, who was instigated by the Arians. On one occasion, when he was being pursued by the Emperor’s satellites, who were ordered to put him to death, the Saint ordered the boat, in which he was fleeing from danger, to be turned back. As soon as he met the persecutors, they asked him if Athanasius was anywhere near. He answered, that he was not far off. Whilst they, therefore, went one way, he sailed the other, and got back to Alexandria, where he remained in concealment till Julian’s death. Another storm soon arose in the City, and he was obliged to hide himself, for four months, in his father’s sepulchre. Having thus miraculously escaped from all these great dangers, he died peacefully in his own bed, at Alexandria, during the reign of the emperor Valens. His life and death were honoured by great miracles. He wrote several admirable treatises, some on subjects pertaining to practical piety, and others on the dogmas of Catholic faith. He for six and forty years, and amidst the most troubled of times, governed the Church of Alexandria with extraordinary piety.
Letter of St. Athanasius to His Flock (4th Century A.D.)
St. Athanasius wrote the following letter, during the terrible Arian persecution - in order to encourage his small flock of (uncompromising) Catholics still remaining - to persevere in The Faith. The letter is even more applicable today, during this dreadful time of the Apostasy: that was purposely launched by the Synagogue of Satan via their coup d'etat of the Papal Throne at the 1958 Conclave. (“ ... and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”)
“May God console you! ... What saddens you ... is the fact that others have occupied the churches by violence, while during this time you are on the outside. It is a fact that they have the premises --- but you have the Apostolic Faith. They can occupy our churches, but they are outside the true Faith. You remain outside the places of worship, but the Faith dwells within you. Let us consider: what is more important, the place or the Faith? The true Faith, obviously. Who has lost and who has won in the struggle --- the one who keeps the premises or the one who keeps the Faith?
True, the premises are good when the Apostolic Faith is preached there; they are holy if everything takes place there in a holy way ...
You are the ones who are happy; you who remain within the Church by your Faith, who hold firmly to the foundations of the Faith which has come down to you from Apostolic Tradition. And if an execrable jealousy has tried to shake it on a number of occasions, it has not succeeded. They are the ones who have broken away from it in the present crisis.
No one, ever, will prevail against your Faith, beloved Brothers. And we believe that God will give us our churches back some day.
Thus, the more violently they try to occupy the places of worship, the more they separate themselves from the Church. They claim that they represent the Church; but in reality, they are the ones who are expelling themselves from it and going astray.
Even if Catholics faithful to Tradition are reduced to a handful, they are the ones who are the true Church of Jesus Christ.”
(Coll. selecta SS. Eccl. Patrum, Caillau and Guillou, Vol. 32, pp. 411-412)
Taken from: The Liturgical Year – The Paschal Time, Vol. II, Dublin, Edition 1871; and
The Divine Office for the use of the Laity, Volume I, 1806.
St. Athanasius, pray for us.