The Church is largely indebted to St. Athanasius for hammering out the dogma of the Incarnation, the mystery of God’s Son becoming a human person by Mary of Nazareth. This core belief of Christianity is not only the mystery of God; it is also the mystery of human life in which Jesus assumes the human condition without reserve, exception, or limit to man’s cruelty to man. It is the mystery of God’s solidarity with the world for the redemption of the world.
The life of Athanasius may be summarized as one bitterly long and hard battle to defend the mystery of the Incarnation.
His outer appearance was off-putting: Athanasius “was so small that his enemies called him a dwarf. He had a hook nose, a small mouth, a short reddish beard which turned up at the ends in the Egyptian fashion, and his skin was blackish. His eyes were very small and he walked with a slight stoop, though gracefully . . . .” (Robert Payne, The Holy Fire, 67).
In 295, not far from the Nitrian desert (northwest of the Nile delta), Athanasius was born into a period of relative tranquility without imperial persecution. He entered the Alexandrian clergy and received a fine classical education and theological formation. Accompanying Bishop Alexander to Council of Nicaea in 325 as a peritus, he gained a name for himself as a firebrand, he was repeatedly exiled with many threats made to his life. He died in 373. The Church celebrates his feast day on May 2.
Arius and Athanasius Lock Horns
The Council of Nicaea (325) was convened by Constantine to refute a doctrinal error of Arius. It taught that Jesus Christ is made divine by the Father, the true God. 1,800 bishops gathered at the Council to resolve the controversy, but Athanasius single-handedly defended the doctrine of the Incarnation: Christ is a Divine Person who unites his divinity with humanity. He is fully God and fully man – the ultimate paradox. He left his divine status, condescended to take on human nature, and became a man in order to raise men and women to godliness. The wonder is not that God became man but that we might become gods.
Arius was a priest from Libya whose learning, grave manners and ascetical life gained him a large following. But his unorthodox views came under attack. He asked a logical question posed by some of his like-minded friends: If the Father is God, how is the Son God? Arius argued that the Father created the Son and the Holy Spirit. Consequently the Son is not equal to the Father; he is subordinate to the Father, adopted by the Father, was made God by the Father. Arius pursued this line of reasoning by popularizing it in a song with a catchy chant-tune: “There was a time when he was not.” If true, the Son was infinitely lower than the Father. This would mean that Jesus did not exist before his birth in Bethlehem. This would mean that a mere man, Jesus, died on the cross, an event without salvific effect.
As if to counterbalance the Arian phrase, Athanasius kept hammering at the dictum: “He was humanized that we might be deified.” This pithy aphorism has been translated in various ways, but perhaps the most noted is the paraphrase of Psalm 8:5: God condescended to become a human being that we might become as gods ... through our consent and cooperation. St. Paul puts the Incarnation this way: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not cling to his equality with God, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even to death on a cross” (Phil 2:5ff). Then God exalted him as the Lord of the universe.
Athanasius and a Classic Biography
Athanasius wrote a classic biography of St. Antony of Egypt (d 356), considered to be the Father of desert monasticism. Antony was the son of wealthy parents. At twenty years of age, on hearing the gospel message, he divided his property, keeping only enough to support himself and his sister. He chose the desert to live a simple and uncluttered life. There he became a master of the spiritual life and became famous for his discernment of good and evil spirits. His works of charity were many, such as assisting Christians in prison with material and spiritual solace.
Athanasius structured his biography around the theme of withdrawal: Antony first withdrew from family, then from others to gain a certain inner equilibrium, and finally he withdrew to the “inner mountain” where the power of the Spirit worked through him to serve others.
Why the Desert?
In the desert-dominated land of Egypt, it was easy for Christians to draw a lesson from the temptation of Jesus in the desert. The desert is first the archetypal symbol of a world, hostile to God and subject to Satan, to a dead world, bereft of nourishment and growth. Second, through its naked landscape, the desert is the place of physical stripping. One is not valuable for what one has or does but for what one is. Parts of “Lawrence of Arabia,” and “The Four Feathers” paint this picture. Third, in the desert, one struggles psychologically against fatigue, discomfort, thirst, loneliness, hunger, against the devil, the world, oneself; it is the struggle for peace. Fourth, the desert is a place that settles what is important, a place where the essential is revealed. Flight into distraction is impossible. Finally, the desert is a place of wonder. Out of solitude comes something beautiful – a new attitude, a new vision, a new mandate, a new mission, and new service. The desert, as described by Athanasius, can exist anywhere. And it does.