Every May 2 we remember Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, Doctor of the Church, bishop of the s. III, defender of the Trinity and the Incarnation of the Word.
Athanasius was bishop of Alexandria, the city where he was born and grew up. He was one of the most important figures of the first centuries of Christianity thanks to his defense of orthodoxy against Arianism, one of the most powerful heresies of antiquity. Precisely because of his fidelity to his doctrine, he was a victim of persecution and suffered exile on repeated occasions. Despite this, he never desisted from proclaiming Christ nor did he depart from the Church.
Defender of the Incarnation
Athanasius was born in Alexandria in the year 295, and as a child he was aware of the bloody persecutions undertaken by the Roman Empire against the Christians. In the year 326 he was ordained a priest by Bishop Alexander, whom he served as secretary. He had significant academic training in philosophy, grammar, and theology. He was fluent in Greek in its various variants, as well as Coptic. From a young age he showed a talent for writing – a gift that he knew how to use as a theologian and pastor. His first two writings were “Against the Pagans” and the “Incarnation of the Word.”
However, what made Athanasius famous was the controversy he waged against the Arians or Arianists. Arianism had its origin in the doctrine of Arius, a priest of Alexandria, who held the idea that Christ was not true God.
The bishop of Alexandria in those days, Alexander, took Athanasius with him to the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea with the purpose of combating the supporters of Arius and asking him for a retraction. Although at first Athanasius played a secondary role in the Council, his eloquence led him to publicly refute the arguments of Arius, who would not retract and therefore be excommunicated.
Athanasius sent numerous letters to the bishops of the East in which he warned of the danger of misrepresenting the doctrine of Christ, also warning that assuming heretical positions would result in the excommunication of those who profess or defend heresy. Meanwhile, the controversy in Alexandria reached the ears of the Emperor Constantine, who decided to end the debate by sending a conciliator. Unfortunately, the controversy had already spread throughout almost the entire Christian East and Constantine’s measures did not give much results. The emperor knew that this controversy had to be resolved promptly and prevented from spreading in the West – it was recognized that it was a danger to the stability and unity of both the Empire and the Church.
On the death of Bishop Alexander, Athanasius, by acclamation, was chosen as his successor. From that moment on, the saint was recognized as a defender of the true faith, something that was evidenced by his participation in the Council of Nicaea. Simultaneously, he became the great enemy of the heretics, who still had power and influence. The Arians, for example, did not stop persecuting him until he was banished from Alexandria.
The successor to the imperial throne, Constantius II (son of Emperor Constantine), was under the influence of the Arian Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia. On his side, Saint Athanasius had become the target of innumerable attacks from political power.
In the year 356, five thousand soldiers surrounded the temple where Saint Athanasius lived with the purpose of arresting him. The bishop managed to escape and fled to the desert where he was taken in by hermit monks. From exile he continued to write to the faithful of Alexandria and wrote the biography of San Antonio Abad, his friend and companion.
In 362 the new emperor, Julian the Apostate, issued an edict calling for the return of all exiled bishops. However, Julian’s advisers perceived Athanasius as a dangerous man and managed to get the emperor to send him back into exile. The saint hid in the desert until Julian died. Then, he returned to Alexandria by order of the new monarch, Valens.
The saint would be exiled again in the year 365. Despite the tribulations, he remained firm in the doctrine and teaching. His final return to Alexandria came about by popular acclamation, as the city claimed him as its true bishop.
Athanasius died on May 2, 373, after serving as bishop for 45 years and having spent a total of 18 years of his life in exile.
If you want to know more about Saint Athanasius, you can read this article from the Catholic Encyclopedia: https://ec.aciprensa.com/wiki/San_Atanasio.