Christianity abounds in apparent contradictions with the world around us. Our symbol of triumph – the Cross – is, in the eyes of the world, a vehicle for execution and a symbol for failure. Our Savior’s call for loving our enemies and turning the other cheek is viewed as weakness by the world. Persecution by the forces of evil and martyrdom have often led to growth and strengthening of the faith in the Church. The personal characteristics of Christians contradict the ways of the world: perseverance and faithfulness are considered stubbornness and defiance; defending the truth is thought of as inflexibility and intolerance. St. Athanasius provides us with a perfect example of these contradictions. He was truly in this world but not of it.
Athanasius showed great promise from an early age. Born around 297 in Egypt of Christian parents, he received the best education that Alexandria had to offer and he proved to be an apt student, devoted to the study of Scripture and to serving the Church.
After ordination to the Diaconate, Athanasius accompanied Alexander, the Patriarch of Alexandria, to the First Ecumenical Council, held in 325 to settle the question of the nature of Christ. Athanasius spoke eloquently against Arius and his heretical views and helped to establish the Orthodox understanding of our Lord Jesus Christ, acknowledging Him as both God and man. On the death of Patriarch Alexander in 328, Deacon Athanasius was selected as his successor. In worldly terms, this young man had been quite successful in his “career”!
But while Patriarch Athanasius began his pastoral work peacefully and quietly, teaching the people and caring for the poor, the followers of Arius were working in political and legal circles to counteract and discredit him. A decade later, the Patriarch was forced into exile – the first of numerous such persecutions over his lifetime. At one point, the “whole world groaned to find itself Arian.” In exile, he spent time in Rome (339-46), Trier (355-7), and areas surrounding Alexandria, including desert monasteries where he hid at various times (356-61, 362-3, 365-6), eventually writing an influential biography of St. Anthony of Egypt. Added to these periods of exile were lawsuits and slanderous rumors. According to the world’s standards, the bishop was now a miserable failure.
But by God’s “contradictory” way, these troubled times brought greater wisdom and resolve to the saintly bishop and stronger devotion among his flock who trusted his guidance. St. Athanasius used his time in exile to write treatises on the Orthodox faith, works which, within a few hundred years, were known throughout the world. These works helped to defeat the Arian heresy, finally, and they have continued to guide Christians in every age.
The last years of St. Athanasius’ life were once again ones of peaceful, pastoral work, although he died eight years before the Second Ecumenical Council would vindicate his work against Arianism. He reposed in the Lord in 373 on May 2, the day we celebrate as his feast day, his “heavenly birthday.” May almighty God give us strength, like holy Athanasius, to contradict the ways of the world, to resist the world’s standards, and to remain steadfast and faithful all our days.