St. Athanasius is a favorite “all time tough guy” of Fr. Jeff Wharton. Fr. Jeff comments that Athanasius lived in a time of errant teaching among priest and bishops and didn’t flinch in defending the Son as “homo-ousios” (meaning “of the same substance, or nature, or essence”) with the Father. The term, itself, is one that grew out of the Council of Nicea to clarify the Church’s understanding of the Nature of Son as one with the Father. St Athanasius was to spend his life defending the full deity of Christ against emperors, magistrates, bishops, and theologians; James Kiefer explains that for this, he was regarded as a trouble-maker and banished from Alexandria a total of five times by various emperors. Hence the expression “Athanasius contra mundum,” or, “Athanasius against the world.”
James E. Kiefer writes of St. Athanasius:
Outside the pages of the New Testament itself, Athanasius is probably the man to whom we chiefly owe the preservation of the Christian faith. He was born around AD 298, and lived in Alexandria, Egypt, the chief center of learning of the Roman Empire.
In 313 the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which changed Christianity from a persecuted to an officially favored religion. About six years later, a presbyter (elder, priest) Arius of Alexandria began to teach concerning the Word of God (John 1:1) that “God begat him, and before he was begotten, he did not exist.” Athanasius was at that time a newly ordained deacon, secretary to Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, and a member of his household. His reply to Arius was that the begetting, or uttering, of the Word by the Father is an eternal relation between Them, and not a temporal event. Arius was condemned by the bishops of Egypt (with the exceptions of Secundus of Ptolemais and Theonas of Marmorica), and went to Nicomedia, from which he wrote letters to bishops throughout the world, stating his position.
The Emperor Constantine undertook to resolve the dispute by calling a council of bishops from all over the Christian world. This council met in Nicea, just across the straits from what is now Istanbul, in the year 325, and consisted of 317 bishops. Athanasius accompanied his bishop to the council, and became recognized as a chief spokesman for the view that the Son was fully God, co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.
Those were tumultuous times, the bishops gathered by Constantine were men who lived through the persecutions of the time and bore the scars of living martyrdom in testimony to their faith. Can you imagine their meeting one another in one great hall after their years of torture, lonely exile and torment suffered for the defense of the Faith?
Athanasius is the perfect model for our day. As best I can remember, Fr. Wharton said, “So much is not right in this world. Let it lead us to a zeal for the work and Word of God.” We, too, can bring Truth to the fore with love, leaving off anger that distresses our balance and prayer, that the Holy Spirit may use us mightily, doing great things even in little ways.