2 May 2009

St Athanasius

He is the "principle instrument after the Apostles by which the sacred truths of Christianity have been conveyed and secured to the world" is how Cardinal Newman described St Athanasius, whom we remember today. Bishop of Alexandria and the first ‘Doctor of the Church’; born in 296/7, he died in his mid 70s. He is known as the Father of Orthodoxy and for very good reason – he defended the divinity of Christ when all the world seemed set to follow Arius. Even Pope Liberius wobbled, yet our man in Egypt stood strong and resolute leading to his banishment on not less than four occasions.
It will not surprise you to know that his people loved him, not least for his pastoral strength. Described as a man of small stature, yet we are, indeed, standing on the shoulders of giants when we see the world through his eyes.
In our post Vatican II world, to be described as ‘orthodox’ is something of a pejorative term in some circles. Perhaps it is a term of ridicule only in those circles of liberalism, where anything and everything goes. Maybe to be orthodox is a badge of honour, to show that we are, indeed, in this world but not of it. I read recently, in Maryanne Confoy’s recent book that prior to the Second Vatican Council orthodoxy was measured in conformity. In other words, if you didn’t agree with us, you were accused of not being orthodox; ergo you were not following the teaching of the church, was the general gist. In a certain sense, this is the definition of orthodox. It is the “authorised or generally accepted theory, doctrine, or practice”.
Yet if St Athanasius teaches us anything in our modern world it is simply this – don’t follow the crowd. He heard the teaching of the Council (in his case Nicea in 325) as a brave young man, less than 30 years old, looking to make his way in the world. He then witnessed the church pull itself apart as it continued to fight over what the very Council had said, over who Jesus was. Clearly there were those who refused to accept the teaching of the Council and sought to undermine those who, like Athanasius, stood resolute in the face of adversity. I wonder, do you think they accused him of being orthodox? No they did not. They called him, or more specifically those who agreed with him, Athanasians! They missed the point. It was never about the man, it was all about the Son of Man; Jesus Christ; the Word made flesh.
Today, the gospel tells us “after hearing his doctrine, many of the followers of Jesus said, ‘this is intolerable language. How could anyone accept it?’” There were some “who do not believe”, those who simply couldn’t accept the Good News. If there were disciples then who struggled with Jesus’ teaching, we should not be surprised to find Catholics today who now struggle to hear the utterances of the Body of Christ, his Church, speaking in Council. The Vatican II fathers did not offer us an opinion, or a view, or even a persuasive argument. They taught the truth. The Church has spoken, my friends.
St Athanasius did not, however, hold fast because he blindly accepted what the Church teaches. No he, like Peter, says “Lord, who shall we go to? You have the message of eternal life, and we believe; we know that you are the Holy One of God.” It is Peter, who speaks for the Apostles, but it is also a well informed conscience and the Holy Spirit, which directs us toward the “straight or right opinion”; the orthos doxus.
St Athanasius, Father of Orthodoxy...Pray for us.

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