Thursday, May 02, 2019

“O Athanasius, you think to escape, but you will not escape” ~ May 2, Feast day of Saint Athanasius the Great

Saint Athanasius is exiled from Alexandria.
Today is the feast of Saint Athanasius, 4th century patriarch of Alexandria, and a doctor of the universal Church. Athanasius has been revered through the ages primarily for his Holy Spirit-inspired steadfastness in defending orthodoxy of doctrine, even in the face of overwhelming opposition. He served as patriarch of Alexandria for nearly fifty years, though with frequent interruptions due to his being exiled by Arian heretics during the intervals when they attained political supremacy. In all, Athanasius was exiled from Alexandria five separate times.

An interesting account of Athanasius’s early life and testament of his many virtues may found in the Ecclesiastical History of Hermias Sozomen. Here, Sozomen tells the extraordinary story of how Athanasius first came to the attention of Alexander, Patriarch of Alexandria, while still a boy:
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[Alexander] chanced to cast his eyes towards the sea, and perceived some children playing on the shore, and amusing themselves by imitating the bishop and the ceremonies of the Church. At first he considered the mimicry as innocent, and took pleasure in witnessing it; but when they touched upon the unutterable [that is, the Holy Mass], he was troubled, and communicated the matter to the chief of the clergy. The children were called together and questioned as to the game at which they were playing, and as to what they did and said when engaged in this amusement. At first they through fear denied. But when Alexander threatened them with torture, they confessed that Athanasius was their bishop and leader, and that many children who had not been initiated had been baptized by him.
Alexander carefully inquired what the priest of their play was in the habit of saying or doing, and what they answered or were taught. On finding that the exact routine of the Church had been accurately observed by them, he consulted the priests around him on the subject, and decided that it would he unnecessary to rebaptize those who, in their simplicity, had been judged worthy of the Divine grace. He therefore merely performed for them such offices as it is lawful only for those who are consecrated to initiating the mysteries. He then took Athanasius and the other children, who had playfully acted as presbyters and deacons, to their own relations under God as a witness that they might be brought up for the Church, and for leadership in what they had imitated.
Alexander soon found Athanasius to be very well educated and wise beyond his years. He invited the young man to dine with him and eventually made him his secretary. When Alexander’s health began to decline, he sought to make Athanasius his successor as patriarch. According to Apolinarius the Syrian (as quoted by Sozomen), Athanasius had other ideas:
In all these matters much disturbance was excited by impiety, but its first effects were felt by the blessed teacher [that is, Alexander] of this man [that is, Athanasius], who was at hand as an assistant, and behaved as a son would to his father. Afterwards this holy man himself underwent the same experience, for when appointed to the episcopal succession he fled to escape the honor, but he was discovered in his place of concealment by the help of God, who had forecast by Divine manifestations to his blessed predecessor, that the succession was to devolve upon him. For when Alexander was on the point of death, he called upon Athanasius, who was then absent. One who bore the same name, and who happened to be present, on hearing him call this way, answered him; but to him Alexander was silent, since he was not summoning this man. Again he called, and as it often happens, the one present kept still, and so the absent one was disclosed. Moreover, the blessed Alexander prophetically exclaimed, "O Athanasius, you think to escape, but you will not escape," meaning that Athanasius would be called to the conflict.
Athanasius’s appointment would generate controversy almost immediately. For his part, Sozomen offered a testimonial in favor of Saint Athanasius in the following terms:
“For my part, I am convinced that it was by Divine appointment that Athanasius succeeded to the high-priesthood; for he was eloquent and intelligent, and capable of opposing plots, and of such a man the times had the greatest need. He displayed great aptitude in the exercise of the ecclesiastical functions and fitness for the priesthood, and was, so to speak, from his earliest years, self-taught.”
The above excerpts from Sozomen are all taken from his Ecclesiastical History, Book II, Chapter 17. Sozomen’s History follows the entire career of Athanasius through his various defeats and triumphs and is well worth reading in that regard. An excellent, detailed summary of Saint Athanasius's eventful life may be found in the Catholic Encyclopedia entry for him here.

To close, here is a quote from Saint Athanasius’s treatise On the Incarnation of the Word in which he argues that the mighty works accomplished in the name of Christ in the aftermath of the Great Persecution of Diocletian constitute ample proof that the resurrected Savior is indeed alive:
The Savior works so great things among men, and day by day is invisibly persuading so great a multitude from every side, both from them that dwell in Greece and in foreign lands, to come over to His faith, and all to obey His teaching, will anyone still hold his mind in doubt whether a Resurrection has been accomplished by the Savior, and whether Christ is alive, or rather is Himself the Life? Or is it like a dead man to be pricking the consciences of men, so that they deny their hereditary laws and bow before the teaching of Christ? Or how, if he is no longer active (for this is proper to one dead), does he stay from their activity those who are active and alive, so that the adulterer no longer commits adultery, and the murderer murders no more, nor is the inflicter of wrong any longer grasping, and the profane is henceforth religious? Or how, if He be not risen but is dead, does He drive away, and pursue, and cast down those false gods said by the unbelievers to be alive, and the demons they worship?
For where Christ is named, and His faith, there all idolatry is deposed and all imposture of evil spirits is exposed, and any spirit is unable to endure even the name, nay even on barely hearing it flies and disappears. But this work is not that of one dead, but of one that lives — and especially of God. [Taken from On the Incarnation of the Word, Chapter 30]
These observations are even more remarkable in that they were ostensibly written about the year AD 318 when Christianity was less than a decade removed from outright government persecution.

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