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The sound of Alleluias fills the 50 days of Easter Sunday to Pentecost as we give thanks for the gift of our salvation. The Easter Triduum recalls the passion and resurrection of Christ in the sacred journey from Holy Thursday to Easter Vigil. "Dying he destroyed our death. Rising he restored our life."
Athanasius, Bishop and Doctor, 295-373
Athanasius was born into a Christian family and was given an excellent education. At the age of about twenty-one, he was ordained a deacon and became the secretary to Bishop Alexander of Alexandria. In this position, he attended the Council of Nicaea. This council was called to denounce Arianism, the heresy which denied the divinity of Jesus, and it is from decrees of this council that the Nicene Creed came about. While Athanasius did not play an especially active role in the council, it at least presaged the later work of his life.
Elected bishop of Alexandria following Alexander’s death in 327, Athanasius set out to visit his far-flung diocese which included Ethiopia. It is probably during this journey that Athanasius came to know St. Anthony the Abbot, a friend who came to his aid in the fight against Arianism and about whom Athanasius wrote in later years.
The Council of Nicaea provided only a temporary setback to the Arians, who were joined in Egypt by the Meletians, another dissident group. Athanasius provided a strong voice against the heresy and made many enemies by the position he took. In one case, his adversaries accused Athanasius of murdering a Meletian bishop. The “dead” bishop was actually in hiding and Athanasius, aware of this, ignored the summons to answer this charge.
The Arians then persuaded the emperor Constantine to call a council which was held in Tyre in 335. Realizing that a guilty verdict had been reached prior to the council meeting, Athanasius left the council and presented himself to the emperor. Constantine at first sided with Athanasius, but then agreed with the condemnation of Athanasius and sent him into exile in northern Gaul.
Upon the emperor’s death in 337, Athanasius was returned to his see. But Eusebius, who was the Arian bishop of Nicodemia, persuaded Pope Julius to hold a synod in Rome for the purpose of reopening the charges against Athanasius. During this time, an Arian bishop was installed in Alexandria. Although he was wholly vindicated by the synod, Athanasius was unable to return to Alexandria and remained in exile in Rome.
Athanasius’ third exile came after Roman soldiers broke into his church one night while a vigil celebration was going on. Several people were killed or wounded in this raid and Athanasius had to flee to a monastery in the desert. He remained hidden there for many years, during which time he completed most of his major writings.
Under the emperor Valens, Athanasius was finally able to return to his see in Alexandria. He remained there for the last seven years of his life and continued his writing. A greatly beloved shepherd of his people, Athanasius was also the strongest bulwark of the faith during the Arian heresy. He was praised by John Cardinal Newman as the principal instrument by which the faith has been “secured to the world.”
St. Athanasius’ memorial is celebrated on May 2.
Athanasius’ message today: Athanasius kept the faith when it would have been easy to give in to the heavy pressures which he was under. There are a lot of false gods in our times: more money, a bigger house, a fancier car. Our culture would have us put these things into our lives at the cost of our faith.