May 2, 2008, Feast of Saint Athanasius: 1 Jn 5:1–5; Mt 10:22–25

 

You will be hated on account of me. Certainly Saint Athanasius, whose memory we honor at this Eucharist today, witnessed to the truth of these words of Jesus. He also illustrates by his fidelity to the Catholic faith concerning the full divinity of Christ Jesus the statement we have just heard from Saint John’s First Epistle: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been begotten of God.” For it was his insistence that in Jesus it was God himself who was substantially present in the body. Homoousios, not homoiousios, that is, ‘the same substance’, not merely similar ‘similar in substance’, he insisted, is the only true way to characterize the person of Christ Jesus. Adding the iota changed the meaning of the very person and entire life of Jesus of Nazareth. The gap between being God and being like God is nothing less than infinite in every respect. Athanasius grasped this truth with a strength of conviction that proved invincible. The result was the preservation of the faith as taught at Nicaea and as it has been preserved in the Roman Catholic Church to the present.

 

The life story of Athanasius of Alexandria is a palmary example of the way in which history and biography can assist us in understanding with a fuller appreciation the realities and beliefs that we live out day by day. The role of history is not to provide answers to challenges arising from new situations, but rather to assist in clarifying the nature of new challenges, allowing them to be seen in depth and consequently better understood. Based on such insight the kinds of solutions that are called for can more readily be discovered.

Saint Athanasius had taken part in the first Ecumenical Council of Nicaea as a young man of twenty-eight, serving as assistant to the Patriarch of Alexandria. Early in his ministry he encountered the men who maintained that Jesus was a representative of God, but not equal to the Father, and saw clearly that such a stand changed the whole of faith. “If God himself did not become man we are not saved”; since God became man we are to become god, deificari. It was a daring expression that he used with a boldness that resulted in repeated conflict with the highest authorities.  To be saved is become a child of God; we receive this status by adoption because Christ who is God by nature obtained this gift on our behalf, which he could make possible only because he himself is God. In his book On the Incarnation (54.3), Athanasius wrote the formula that is at the heart of orthodox faith: “God became man that we might be made god (theopoiethomen).” This conviction was the fruit of experience made in contemplative faith and preserved intact by fidelity to the insight into the meaning of the Incarnation. This teaching was taken up in the course of history by men of faith and enlightenment, such as Gregory of Nyssa, who followed Athanasius in time. It remains the fundamental principle of Christian life. We are sanctified, made children of God by sharing in the body of Christ who is God. This belief was the cause of the five exiles Athanasius suffered. It explains why we have assembled here at this altar to offer the Eucharist, confident that, as members of the body of Christ we have been accepted by the Father into his intimacy. We are made his children by adoption, called by grace to become worthy of the One God whose life we share.  &  

 

      

 


 

[1] Gegoire le Grand, Commentaire sur le Cantique des Cantiques, 44 S Chr 114, 134.

 

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger