St. Athanasius was the most central figure in Fourth Century Christianity.


Friday, 5/2/14

St. Athanasius, whose feast we celebrate today, was at the very center of early Church History. Born in Alexandria in 298, he was an eager learner who in time became a proficient author in both the Greek and Egypt’s Coptic languages. As a twelve-year-old, playing with other boys on the beach in Alexandria, and showing them just how a bishop administers Baptism and Confirmation, it happened that he  caught the eye of Alexandria’s bishop, who then brought Alex into his household.

At age twenty-two he was in the bishop’s house when a Father Arius, an old pastor in Alexandria, began telling his people that Jesus was a very good man, but no more than a good man. As word of that got around, the other pastors petitioned the bishop to call together a synod to decide whether or not to let Father Arius stay in his parish.

At that synod young Athanasius impressed the pastors with his thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He quoted St. John as saying, “The Word was God,” and “The Word became flesh.” That established  the Catholic teaching that Jesus was the Son of God.

Father Arius, exiled from Alexandria,found support in Syria and Byzantium  where tradesmen and churchmen had all been traditional rivals of Alexandria. There, the followers of Arius became known as Arians. When they became as numerous as the Christians, Emperor Constantine, angered over a split in the Roman Empire, told the two sides to shake and makeup.

But the split just widened. So, in 325 Constantine summoned all the church’s bishops to Nicea, near Byzantium. There he forced them all to swear to the Nicean Creed which calls God’s Son of one substance with the Father. (I’m am making this as short as I can.)

In 328 the old bishop of Alexandria died, and Athanasius became the new archbishop. In 330 Constantine did the unthinkable by moving the capitol of the Roman Empire from Rome to Byzantium, renaming it Constantinople. He died in 337, leaving his empire to his oldest son, Constantius, who had gone over to Arianism

Although Athanasius was Archbishop of Alexandria from 328 to his death in 373, for seventeen of those years he was banished from there by Arian emperors. (Really, I am trying to make this short.) Often he took refuge in the desert with the hermit St. Anthony, and also with the first Catholic monks who had St. Pachomius as  abbot.

Athanasius wrote about this new holy way of life, and it caught on in Rome. There St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. Gregory, and other great churchmen took to living as monks who followed St. Anthony in chanting the Psalms every day.


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