Homily for May 2nd, Memorial of St. Athanasius

Today the Church remembers the witness of one of the most stalwart defenders of the Apostolic Faith- Saint Athanasius of Alexandria.

Athanasius was born in the year 296 AD and in 328 AD was appointed archbishop of what was once one of the great centers of Christian faith and culture- the cosmopolitan city of Alexandria in Egypt. Athanasius would serve as a bishop of the Church for 45 years, dying in the year 373 AD.

The Church during Athanasius was riven with conflict and controversy. During his early life, it was illegal to be a Christian. Professing and practicing the Apostolic Faith was considered to be an act of treason against the emperor of Rome. This all fell away when the Emperor Constantine gave both legal and privileged status to the Christian faith, but with this new moment, the Church remained in a perilous state.

The faithful were afflicted by a quasi-Christian movement called Arianism, an alternative to the Apostolic Faith, that believed that the Lord Jesus was something like a demi-god, rather than the Incarnation of the one, true God.

Remember, the Apostolic Faith professes that the Lord Jesus is the one, true God who has accepted for himself a human nature and lived a real, human life.

Arianism rejected the Apostolic Faith and insisted that while the Lord Jesus was immortal, great and powerful, he was not God. For the Arians, this meant that there was a Supreme Being and then there was lesser god and this lesser god was Jesus. The move the Arians were making theologically was one of accommodation to the prevailing religious sensibilities of the time- in their construal of things, Jesus was properly understood as being like the demi-gods of the pagan religions- like Hercules or Achilles.

The Arians wanted a Jesus that a pagan culture would find easier to accept and so they created one. The Jesus of the Apostolic Faith was too extreme for the Arians, too strange, too different (too “Jewish”). In order to draw the pagans in, it was best, the Arians believed, to give them the kind of Jesus that they would want. (And in order to accomplish this goal, the Arians used the best marketing tools at their disposal- popular music).

Athanasius saw what this strategy was doing- it was producing a distorted image of Jesus and a Church that was so pre-occupied with accommodating itself to the culture and pleasing cultural elites that it lacked any real energy or interest for the work of the Gospel.

Athanasius opposed Arianism and worked tirelessly to promote and teach the Apostolic understanding of the divine identity of the Lord Jesus as the one, true God.

Athanasius knew that that the Jesus presented by the Arians was a deception and that what was at stake was not just a theological principle- instead it is the truth of God’s revelation in Christ. But more that this, Athanasius believed that the Arians would deprive the faithful of the greatest gift of God in Christ- participation in the divine life of God.

God has accepted a human nature so that humanity might share in his divine nature. This “sharing” in Christ’s divine nature is what salvation or redemption is all about. If God had not accepted a human nature, humanity was not saved then humanity was not redeemed.

Athanasius’ stubborn insistence that there be no compromises with the Apostolic Faith cost him dearly. He was driven into exile no less than five times and spent much of his life pilloried as a crank.

But in the end, the Athanasius’ critiques of Arianism enabled to the Church to clarify for the faithful the content of the Apostolic Faith and explain why this Faith is true. Athanasius spent much of his life against the world, and in the end it was Athanasius that prevailed.

The witness of Saint Athanasius teaches us that the Apostolic Faith, the Faith we profess and practice is not just a matter of opinions or something that we can just make into whatever it is that we want it to be to suit our purposes.

This is particularly the case in regards to the identity and mission of the Lord Jesus. Precisely who the Lord Jesus is, is not something that the Church is negotiating. The only real Jesus, the only true Jesus is one, true God, who accepted a human nature and lived a real human life.

Anything less than this is not Jesus, it is a lie.

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