An Army of One(ness)
Here are some things you should know about St. Athanasius, whose icon is the newest denizen of our sanctuary.
In August we welcomed two new denizens to our sanctuary, the icons of Saint Nicholas and Saint Athanasius in the Deisis (Supplication) pose alongside the Platytera. The first saint is well-known to all Christians, especially the Orthodox. The second is a spiritual giant whose labors blessed all Christians, but who is not so well-known. These icons are the gifts of the families of Nick and Stacie Neros and Nick and Dana Gavrilides, and of the Ann Pappas family.
Here are some things you should know about St. Athanasius:
- He was born circa 295 A.D. near Alexandria of Egypt to a Christian family.
- His name means “Immortal,” in honor of Christ’s victory over Death.
- He had a top-notch education, which he used in the service of Christ.
- He was ordained a deacon by Archbishop Alexander, whom he accompanied to the 1st Ecumenical Council in Nicea.
- He became in time the archbishop of Alexandria, a city whose hierarch is called a “Patriarch.”
- He stood alone at times in defending the divinity of Christ, and there is a Latin phrase that says it was “Athanasius contra mundum!” (Athanasius against the world.)
- He was exiled from his city and throne on 5 separate occasions by misguided Roman emperors.
He spent 17 of his 45-year patriarchate in exile.
- He always returned to the love and acclaim of his people, who recognized only him as their true spiritual leader.
- He died in peace in 373 A.D.
- His feast-day in the Orthodox Church is January 18, shared with St. Cyril, another archbishop of Alexandria and preeminent theologian.
- He is known by an epithet that is given to only a few other saints (e.g., Basil, Photios, Anthony), namely, as Athanasius “the Great.”
And here’s why … 1
St. Athanasius life was all about the unity of the Church. He wanted the Church to be One in its belief, One in its practices, One in its worship, One in its love for God and mankind. And oftentimes he stood up alone, one man against the world, in defense of the truths that unite us. He was an Army of One and an Army of Oneness.
- St. Athanasius was the first one to publish a list of the 27 books of the complete New Testament, sealing these and these only as the new Christian Scriptures. All Christians—Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant—owe him a debt of love for the gift of his authoritative declaration, sealed by the Holy Spirit through the universal acceptance of the worldwide Church.
- St. Athanasius desired for all the Christians in his care to celebrate Lent and Easter on the same days. (There was in early centuries great variety in the dates for Pascha.) To this end, he sent out letters each year to all his congregations, announcing the appointed dates. These “encyclicals” also instructed the people in the right way to live the Christian life and manage the Church, so that there would be unity and uniformity of practice.
- St. Athanasius stepped in at a crucial juncture in the early monastic movement and kept the monks and nuns close to the Church. The monastic movement began in part as a protest of the laxness of ordinary Church life; people who desired a fuller obedience to the Gospel despaired of being able to live a truly Christian existence in their home parishes. They left for the wilderness to live in small communities or as hermits. Monasticism could have broken off into a thousand little sects, separated from and disdainful of the historic Church.St. Athanasius befriended the monks of the Egyptian desert. He supported and encouraged them, and thereby kept them within the embrace of the Church. He also wrote a book, The Life of Saint Anthony, which told the saint’s life in a way that encouraged the monastics to follow certain spiritual practices and shun others, with the result that they remained close to the mainline Church and did not wander off into spiritualism or heresy.
- St. Athanasius wrote another book, On the Incarnation, in which he defended the full divinity of Jesus Christ. There was a priest at the time, Arius of Alexandria, who was an eloquent and charming advocate of the idea that Christ was divine in a lesser sense than God the Father. Arianism spread like wildfire throughout the Empire, and for a time it seemed like this idea would become the new orthodoxy. But St. Athanasius made an impassioned argument from Scripture and Church Tradition that only the “Light of Light, true God of true God” could possibly save the human race from death.
St. Athanasius’ key sound bite is the sentence: “The Son of God became man so that man might become God.” Christ took on our human qualities so that we might take on God’s spiritual qualities, including immortality. This one sentence defines our Orthodox understanding of salvation. St. Athanasius over time persuaded the rest of the Church that Arius was wrong, that Christ was God co-equal and co-eternal with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God in three persons. His theology was later summarized in a short formula called the “Athanasian Creed,” which is accepted alongside the Nicene Creed in much of Western Christianity
With all due respect to the U.S. military, St. Athanasius was the original “Army of One,” as well as an “Army of Oneness.” He was the Great Unifier, whose life’s work has lasted down through the ages. Therefore, we sing this hymn on his Feast-day:
Shining forth with works of Orthodoxy, you quenched every false belief and teaching and became trophy-bearers and conquerors. And since you made all things rich with true piety, greatly adorning the Church with magnificence, Athanasius and wise Cyril, you both have worthily found Christ God, who grants great mercy unto all.
Through the holy intercessions of St. Athanasius, O Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us … and keep us as a parish in Unity, peace, and love. Amen.
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