In this episode of our volunteer-driven research project “Walking The Way with The Saints”, we focus on St. Athanasius of Alexandria, Protector of the Orthodox Faith.
Deacon Daniel Malyon presents us with his research into the life and impact on Christology. St. Athanasius inspires us today to dedicate ourselves to the faith that was handed down to us all the way from Jesus Christ to our present time – our apostolic heritage.
St. Athanasius was born in the year AD 298 to a rich Pagan family in Alexandria. He is often called the Father of Orthodoxy, and Pillar of the Church. However due to the faith of his family he did not begin to learn the faith formally at a young age. In his youth, he experienced Christianity for the first time when a group of Christian children re-enacting the Liturgy refused to allow him to join them. In response to this and his fascination with their liturgical re-enactment he professed his faith and the children allowed him to join them and play the role of Patriarch in their service, foreshadowing his eventual rise to Episcopal authority.
Being raised in Alexandria, a cultural and financial centre in the Roman Empire, St. Athanasius had access to the plethora of cultural and educational experiences, and he is known to have received an extensive education which he demonstrates through his understanding and use of both Greek and his native Coptic in his writing. This capacity to explore philosophical concepts and use them in his polemical writing against pagan writers, alongside his capacity to write in a more pastoral sense is seen throughout his letters and demonstrate his education immensely.
However, unlike most Greek educated youth at his time, St. Athanasius’ classical education did not lead him into business or politics, as his life took a turn when he was 19 years old when his father died and his mother sent him to live and serve as the Deacon of Pope Alexander, the 19th Patriarch of Alexandria. It was during his time at around the age of 20 that he wrote his famous texts ‘On the Incarnation’ and ‘Against the Heathens.’ During this time St. Athanasius also travelled around the See of Alexandria, becoming acquainted with beloved Anchorites such as St. Antony, whom he eventually wrote the biography of in his work, ‘The Life of St. Antony‘.
During this time also he became a vital part of the Church’s battle against the heresy of Arianism when Arius attempted to subvert the faith of the Alexandrian Church through the promotion of Christological heresy. This conflict in Alexandria led to Athanasius standing in for Pope Alexander to the First Ecumenical Council, in Nicea in AD 325, where he made himself known with his fiery defence of the faith against the Arians.
In AD 328, three years after the Council, Pope Alexander departed and St. Athanasius became the 20th Patriarch of Alexandria. His ascension was seen as joyous to most of the Church but was challenged by some groups who had favoured the Arians at the council, claiming that he was too young to be Patriarch. These struggles would continue, leading to him being exiled five times, in which he wrote his texts Apology to Constantius, Apology for his flight, The letter to the Monks, and The History of Arians. All five times St. Athanasius was exonerated by the Church and returned as Patriarch.
St. Athanasius’ Episcopacy lasted forty-five years, ending with his repose in AD 373. His last reported words being. “Glory be to God for all things,” a reminder of his joy and faith in God throughout both peaceful and turbulent times in his episcopacy.
St. Athanasius’ role in the defence and development of Orthodox Doctrine makes him one of the most important and influential Saints of the Early Church. His writing, especially, “On the Incarnation”, is seen as vital reading for understanding Orthodox theology, especially Christology, demonstrated in his defence of the belief that Christ was co-eternal and con-substantial with the Father at Nicaea. His work also reminds us of the sanctifying and Salvific nature of the Incarnation, stating “Christ was made man that we might be made God,” an expression which has become a vital reminder of the real role of the incarnation.
As well as this his letters play a vital role in the unity of the Church and its development in the times following the Council of Nicaea. His thirty-ninth letter is especially important since it affirms the Biblical canon in the manner we know today as the “Athanasian Canon.” This Canon specifically separates Scripture from other beneficial Apostolic Era works, saying, “there are other books besides these not indeed included in the Canon, but appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us,” and is a strong reminder of the Church’s role in the development of the Canon as well as the importance of other Apostolic texts.
A third notable impact of St. Athanasius was his willingness to defend the faith and remain steadfast despite overwhelming opposition. This is shown through his defence of the Faith at the Council of Nicaea as well as his continual work to strengthen his flock when exiled by opponents of the Church. His last words of, “Glory be to God for all things,” are a reminder of his acceptance of God’s will and continual dedication to the Church.
- “Athanasius” by Khaled Anatolios, 2004
- “Coptic Synaxarium” St. Mark and St. Bishoy Coptic Orthodox Church, 1987
- “Letter 39”, St. Athanasius, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2806039.htm
- “Martyrs, Saints & Prelates of The Syriac Orthodox Church,” Cor-Episcopo K. Mani Rajan, 2007
- “On the Incarnation”, St. Athanasius, (Popular Patristics series, 2014)
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