Alone Against the World
By Alec Bianco
Athanasius' courageous stand even against popes and emperors is an exemplary legacy.
St. Athanasius, arguably one of the most beloved early Church fathers, was Patriarch of Alexandria, and in the west is considered one of the Doctors of the Church. His life is one of great insight into the beliefs and doctrines of the Church, but more so of his faithfulness to her orthodoxy. Like the famed St. Nicholas, Athanasius is most well known for his defense against the heresy of Arius. Fittingly, both of these saints are brought to mind around the Christmas season. (Why not, since Arius denigrated the very birth of Christ by making him a mere creature!)
Athanasius’ On the Incarnation is one of the preeminent texts on the birth of Jesus Christ, expertly defending the nature of Christ, examining the purpose of his birth, and explaining the human condition in light of His birth. In other words, On the Incarnation gives us the “reason for the season.”
But let us turn to the life of St. Athanasius. Born around the year 297, Athanasius was given an excellent secular education, but pursued tirelessly the study of Holy Scripture. He was noticed at an early age by the Patriarch of Alexandria (the aptly named St. Alexander). The story goes that a group of children, Athanasius among them, were playing by the seashore with their pagan friends. The Christians decided that it would be fitting to “baptize” their unbelieving friends, and so “ordained” Athanasius bishop to perform this sacrament. He did so with the precise words he heard during liturgy. Patriarch Alexander witnessed this whole event from a window, and afterwards commanded that the children and their parents be brought to him. After a long conversation, he decided that the sacrament had been performed properly and effectually, and he sealed the baptisms with Holy Chrism.
Patriarch Alexander watched Athanasius closely after this, and took care of his spiritual life, eventually ordaining him as deacon. Athanasius was a deacon in 325, when Patriarch Alexander brought him to the First Ecumenical Council at Nicæa. This was where Athanasius confronted Arius, and gave a speech repudiating his and his followers’ heresies.
Within a few short years of the First Council of Nicæa, St. Alexander died, and Athanasius was unanimously elected his successor. While lengthy, his bishopric was troubled due to his stance against the Arians. He suffered many exiles during his forty-seven years as Patriarch of the See of Alexandria, and his life was threatened often. However, he maintained the faith, despite many other bishops falling into Arianism, writing prolifically in defense of true orthodoxy. Eventually—having survived even Julian the Apostate’s persecution of the Church—Athanasius died in the year 373.
In this Christmas season, the life and work of St. Athanasius can encourage us, and perhaps give us some gentle correction. In his preface to On the Incarnation, C.S. Lewis writes:
There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books … It has always therefore been one of my main endeavors as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.
Lewis rightly points out that not only is it worth it to read the original texts, but it is good to do so. If one desires to truly understand what Christmas is, one must understand why Christmas is.
Read the Fathers of the Church and imitate them. Athanasius’ life was not one of simply arguing about doctrine or faith. It was something that he lived and in defense of which he faced exile and near death.
Of course Christmas is about gifts, holiday cheer, and feasting with family. More importantly, however, it is about the Nativity of Christ—not simply in a narrative or thematic way, but in a real way. St. Athanasius knew this, loved this, and lived this. Let us remember this Christmas, like him, not just celebrating the birth of Christ, but defending it.
Alec Bianco is an alumnus of St. John’s College here in Annapolis, was classically homeschooled, and firmly believes that Plato is greater than Aristotle. He works for the CLT Marketing and Sales department.
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
If you enjoyed this essay, check out some of our other pieces here at the Journal, like this author profile of William James or this piece from an Australian Benedictine monk on the virtue of humility. And be sure to check out our weekly podcast, Anchored.