On May 2, we celebrate the feast day of St. Athanasius the Great (296-373), who was the bishop of Alexandria (328-373). He is considered to be a renowned Christian theologian, a Church Father, the chief defender of the Trinitarian faith (against Arianism), and a noted Egyptian leader of the fourth century.
He is remembered for his role in the conflict with Arius and Arianism. In 325, at the age of 27, he had a leading role against the Arians in the First Council of Nicaea. At the time, he was a deacon and a personal secretary to the then bishop of Alexandria, Alexander. The council dealt with the nature of Jesus Christ. He is quoted as saying at that council, “Jesus that I know as my Redeemer cannot be less than God.”
When he became bishop of Alexandria, at the age of 30, in 328 he continued to lead the fight against Arianism which he considered to be the most dangerous enemy of the true faith. He was banished by four times by Arian emperors and once by Julian the Apostate, because of his strict adherence to the trinitarian faith, spending a total of 20 years in exile. He was permitted five times to return to his church. He led the fight against Arianism and heresy for the rest of his life.
Athanasius spent his last years peaceably but vigorously writing against heresy. The passion of his life was to vindicate the deity of his Lord Jesus Christ. His writings were well regarded by all of the Church Fathers in both the East and the West. The writings of St. Athanasius display a rich devotion to the Word-become-man, great pastoral concern, and profound interest in monasticism. They include Three Orations Against Arius and Of the Incarnation of the Word of God. My favorite quote from him is “The Son of God became man so that we might become God” or also phrased as “Christ became like man so that we might become like him.”
Athanasius is counted as one of the four great Eastern Doctors of the Church in the Roman Catholic Church and in Eastern Orthodoxy, he is labeled as the “Father of Orthodoxy.” St. Gregory of Nazianzus called him the “Pillar of the Church.” Protestants see him as the “Father of the Canon” due to the fact that he was the first to recognize all 27 books of the New Testament. The following prayer celebrates his great legacy:
“Uphold your church, O God of truth, as you upheld your servant Athanasius, to maintain and proclaim boldly the catholic faith against all opposition, trusting solely in the grace of your eternal Word, who took upon himself our humanity that we might share his divinity, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen”