Today is the feast of St. Athanasius, and it is worth your while getting to know him. Born in Alexandria Egypt in 298 A.D. He was well educated, as we can see from the easy way in which he quoted from Homer and the Greek classics and philosophies. In 320 an old Alexandrian priest named Arius began telling his people that Jesus was a good man, but not the Son of God. The bishop of Alexandria, whose name was Alexander, leaned heavily on Athanasius in disputes with Father Arius. St. Athanasius often quoted from the first Chapter of the Gospel according to John, bringing people around to believing that Jesus, the Word, was with God and is God.
Again, at the Council of Nicea in 325 Athanasius was the champion of orthodoxy, and his wisdom won praise from the Emperor Constantine. Things then began changing. In 327 Bishop Alexander died, and Athanasius was chosen as the new bishop of Alexandria. A bigger change came in 330 when Constantine moved the seat of his empire from Rome to Constantinople. Once there, Constantine fell under the influence of the followers of Father Arius. He sanctioned them holding a council at which they planned to have Athanasius executed as a heretic.
Once, for eighth graders I made up a play on the life of St. Athanasius. We had fun with one act when Athanasius broke the law to gain an audience with Constantine. The emperor had a walled hunting ground that no commoner was allowed to enter. Athanasius scaled the wall. Then, he hid behind a tree. As the emperor’s hunting party came close I had the kids singing to the tune of: “When Johnny comes marching home again, hurrah, hurrah!” They all sang, “When the emperor lets his arrows fly, they zing the zing”
Athanasius stepped out from behind a tree, and his two sons argued over how to dispose of him. The emperor’s oldest son, an Arian, wanted an immediate execution; but a second son had his father settle for banishing Athanasius to a freezing port on the Baltic Sea.
Over his forty-three years as bishop of Alexandria St. Athanasius was banished from his diocese five times. One long exile was in the Egyptian desert where he alternately lived with the hermit St. Anthony and with St. Pacomius, the founder of the Church’s first monastery. Then, on a subsequent banishment to Rome, Athanasius wrote a book on the lives of St. Anthony and St. Pachomius. In it he described the way those holy men and women chanted the Psalms every day. As well he wrote about the way they made frequent confessions as part of their lives.
That book of St. Athanasius was eagerly read by Christians in Rome. It played a major part in the lives of St. Jerome, St. Augustine, St. Benedict, and St. Patrick.