The life of St. Athanasius is one of the most compelling stories in Christian history. Athanasius was a genius, a good and holy bishop, and an authentic disciple of Jesus Christ. The Church celebrates his feast this Saturday, May 2nd. And more than 1,600 years after he lived, the Church is still shaped by the heroism of Saint Athanasius!
Of his 45 years as Bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius spent 17 in exile. He fled from threats of arrest, and violence, and even death. He trekked through deserts and was chased by armies and emperors. He hid with monks and hermits. He even took refuge in his family tomb.
Athanasius was exiled and persecuted because he was a defender of the truth. In the fourth-century, when Athanasius lived, the Arian heresy had grown popular across the entire Christian world. Arians denied belief in the most Holy Trinity. Instead, the Arians taught that the Son was a kind of lesser God, who did not share in the same nature and substance of God the Father. For Arians, the Son stood between God and his creation, as a mediator and redeemer, but not as the co-eternal God.
Christians, of course, believe that the Trinity is comprised of three distinct persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—who share the same divine nature, and who are equal in dignity and divinity. And because Athanasius was faithful to the truth, he defended the Trinity, and, for that, he paid a heavy price.
The Arians held sway in the imperial courts of Rome, and persecuted faithful bishops like Athanasius. He was chased from his home and his city, and he was even ostracized by bishops who had been convinced of the Arian heresy.
The truth mattered to Athanasius because it was deeply personal. Athanasius knew that because Christ became incarnate as a man, we are thus able to share the inner life of the Trinity itself. The Arians undermined the divinity of Jesus Christ. And Athanasius knew that if Christ were not divine, we could never expect deep and eternal unity with God.
In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI wrote that, “the fundamental idea of Athanasius’ entire theological battle was precisely that God is accessible.” The Holy Father said Athanasius battled heresy because “it is through our communion with Christ that we can truly be united to God.”
Athanasius gave his life—his intellect, his imagination, his will, and his liberty—in order to lead souls to eternal communion with Jesus Christ.
Christ is divine, and he shares the life of the Trinity. That matters, because when we are baptized, we become members of the Body of Christ. Because of God’s mercy, if we die in the communion of Jesus Christ, we can know God intimately forever. If Jesus Christ were not divine, the greatest promise of the Gospel would be false.
“He became what we are,” wrote Athanasius, “so that He might make us what He is....”
By the time Athanasius died, the Arian heresy had largely been defeated—mostly due to his leadership. He died quietly, restoring order to his diocese, and writing about the meaning of Christ’s divinity. He died having helped preserve the revealed truth of Jesus Christ.
We have much reason to be grateful to St. Athanasius. And we should imitate him. We should—with charity, dedication, and fervor—witness to the truths of the Gospel. We should proclaim the truth, and encourage others to believe it. We should pursue real unity with Jesus Christ. And we should invite others to become Christ’s disciples, depend on his mercy, and hope for eternal life.