Tuesday, February 9

Contra Mundum

Athanasius (300-373) was one of the giants of the church's Patristic Age. As a young deacon from Alexandria, he attended the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea where he took a leading role in shaping the Nicene Creed. His bold defense of the doctrine of the Trinity against the Arian heresy demanded his attentions throughout his life and resulted in repeated exiles from his beloved home. He was also involved in various conflicts in the arena of politics, the arts, liturgical renewal, monastic development, New Testament canonisity, and judicial reform. He wrote several important works including biographies, commentaries, systematic theologies, and devotional treatises. His short classic, On the Incarnation, is still a staple of any solid theological education.

Late in the evening on this day in 356, nearly five thousand Byzantine troops surrounded the church of St. Theonas in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Inside, Athanasius was leading an all-night prayer vigil. When the troops burst through the doors, he was reading Psalm 103, "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me praise his holy name."

Amazingly, the members of his congregation, in all the confusion of the moment, managed to spirit him away. And so for the third time since the Council of Nicea, Athanasius was exiled from his beloved city. George of Kallistos, an Arian, had been sent with imperial authority to assume the bishopric. He unleashed a spate of persecution. Sixteen bishops were banished from Alexandria. Using terror and murder, George tried to force an Arian creed on the people. A price was placed on the head of Athanasius. Agents searched everywhere for him. But the Alexandrians loyally hid their beloved teacher. Eventually George was ousted. Athanasius returned—only to be forced into exile twice more.

Despite a life filled with furious activity and controversy it was for his personal piety and humble faith that he earned for himself the sobriquet "Athanasius conta mundum," or "Athanasius against the world." Long seasons of prayer and fasting punctuated his life with an air of humility and faithfulness that his opponents simply were unable to match.

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