Monday, May 2, 2011

May 2 - Athanasius of Alexandria, Patriarch, Opponent of the Arians, Repeatedly Exiled

When Athanasius became the Patriarch of Alexandria (a territory that included the area we call Egypt and Libya) it was greeted with loud cheers and the general approval of the crowds who heard the news. He had been the secretary of the previous Patriarch--Alexander of Alexandria--and had established himself as one of the most highly respected theologians within the Faith while serving the Church in that position. Alexander had died and Athanasius was the logical successor. As Patriarch, Athanasius did something surprising but important: he traveled constantly through his territory to build relationships with priests and lay people wherever he might find hospitality. He became intimately connected with the people he had been called to guide and shepherd and this strengthened his ability to speak truthfully and powerfully to them. They listened to Athanasius because he had demonstrated his love for them and not simply his enjoyment of power and privilege. In fact, it was the case--and it seemed to be the case to the people--that Athanasius was more interested in the pastoral care responsibilities of his position than in any influence or status that the position gave him. His love for the people and their love for him was well known and attested to. So, when he was exiled from Egypt by Constantine it came as a surprise.

Athanasius had disputed with some Arians about the nature of their theology and what he saw as a theological defect that might lead to moral or spiritual corruption. They had agreed to take measures leading toward reconciliation at the First Council of Nicaea but they had failed to produce any effort or growth toward Church unity. When he criticized them for it rumors began to spread that Athanasius was threatening them with their lives and livelihoods and was even going so far as to threaten to hold the Roman empire hostage by refusing to let grain and food out of his territory. This was a lie but it was persuasive and soon the emperor Constantine responded by signing an order commanding the exile of Athanasius from Alexandria and the related territories. He fled to Rome where he found refuge under the western emperor Constans. An Arian bishop was appointed in his place and for many years he continued to write letters to the congregations he had been forced to leave behind. He had been unwilling to compromise on promises of reconciliation and unity and it had cost him the ability to do what he loved: loving the people entrusted to his care. The congregations of the west tended to support Athanasius strongly and he ended up back in Alexandria on more than one occasion when an emperor or rule would die and his exile would be forgotten or unwritten. Yet, it only took a little while after his return for him to be exiled again by a new ruler or emperor who favored the Arian cause.

Near the end of his life he was able to return once again to Alexandria to be the official Patriarch. He was welcomed by the people of the Church and so he continued his pastoral care among those who had missed him in his exile. Instead of using his regained power to punish those who had hurt him, though, Athanasius convened a council focused on establishing unity among Christians even if they differed theologically. He could have done what many before him had done and convened a council with a carefully selected guest list to banish, punish, exile, and hurt those who had hurt him. Instead, he took the first step toward reconciliation because he knew that the burden for peace and unity rested squarely on his shoulders as Patriarch. This council was instrumental in beginning the process of defining the Trinity and bringing peace between groups of disagreeing Christians. Ultimately, Athanasius was willing to agree to a more relaxed definition of the Trinity than he personally professed because of his own eagerness to find peace amidst turmoil and unity amidst strife. Shortly after the council he was again exiled--first by Julian the Apostate and second by Valens--but he only went so far as a little ways north into the desert to be with the monastics--including Pachomius. He died in the territory he had been called to shepherd still writing letters and caring for those that God had entrusted into his loving arms. His many theological writings and treatises earned him the status of Doctor of the Church and remain widely read even today.

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