May 2: Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, 373

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Rarely in the history of the Church has the course of its development been more significantly determined by one person than it was by Athanasius in the fourth century. Gregory of Nazianzus called him “the pillar of the Church,” and Basil the Great said he was “the God-given physician of her wounds.”

Athanasius was born about 295 in Alexandria, and was ordained deacon in 319. He quickly attracted attention by his opposition to the presbyter Arius, whose denial of the full divinity of the Second Person of the Trinity was gaining widespread acceptance. Alexander, the Bishop of Alexandria, took Athanasius as his secretary and adviser to the first Ecumenical Council, at Nicaea in 325, which dealt with the Arian conflict. Athanasius was successful in winning approval for the phrase in the Nicene Creed which has ever since been recognized as expressing unequivocally the full godhead of the Son: “of one Being with the Father” (homoousios).

When Alexander died in 328, Athanasius became bishop. He fearlessly defended the Nicene Christology against emperors, magistrates, bishops, and theologians. Five times he was sent into exile. He often seemed to stand alone for the orthodox faith. “Athanasius contra mundum (against the world)” became a by-word. Yet, by the time of his last exile, his popularity among the citizens of Alexandria was so great that the Emperor had to recall him to avoid insurrection in the city.

Athanasius wrote voluminously: biblical interpretation, theological exposition, sermons, and letters. His treatise, On the Incarnation of the Word of God, is a still widely read classic. In it, he writes, “The Savior of us all, the Word of God, in his great love took to himself a body and moved as Man among men, meeting their senses, so to speak, half way. He became himself an object for the senses, so that those who were seeking God in sensible things might apprehend the Father through the works which he, the Word of God, did in the body. Human and human-minded as men were, therefore, to whichever side they looked in the sensible world, they found themselves taught the truth.”


I.  Uphold thy Church, O God of truth, as thou didst uphold thy servant Athanasius, to maintain and proclaim boldly the catholic faith against all opposition, trusting solely in the grace of thine eternal Word, who took upon himself our humanity that we might share his divinity; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

II. Uphold your Church, O God of truth, as you upheld your servant Athanasius, to maintain and proclaim boldly the catholic faith against all opposition, trusting solely in the grace of your eternal Word, who took upon himself our humanity that we might share his divinity; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.


Psalm  71:1–8

Ezekiel 3:1–14a

1 John 5:1–5

Matthew 10:22–32

Preface of Epiphany 

From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

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We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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26 thoughts on “May 2: Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, 373

  1. This commemoration is already included in the Calendar. The Hebrew Scripture reading is new.

  2. New Hebrew reading. At last … a new reading that fits very well with the commemoration.

  3. Athanasius

    NARRATIVE: True though the first paragraph is, I would prefer beginning with the present second paragraph, moving the lead paragraph to a subordinate spot – I prefer my conclusions after, rather than before, I know the basics. It is an excellent narrative, even to the point of fully warranting the superlatives used.
    “Athanasius wrote voluminously” sounds funny to me – as if it describes a particular manner in which one writes. “A’s writings were voluminous” would be my choice but I’m often not on solid ground with things like this illustrating Elihu’s phrase: “words without knowledge.” My mistakes I make voluminously.
    I don’t see much point to including Latin words (“contra mundum”) when the necessary English meaning is provided (in parentheses) anyway, to forestall their being totally mystifying to so many.
    The closing quotation illustrates A’s style of reasoning. I have to wonder how many listening to the narrative will find it illuminating. Aside from that, the narrative might have been the ideal teaching moment to comment on the Athanasian Creed. (I love it when they talk “incomprehensible.”)
    COLLECT: The form is most unusual, being a petition from its very first word, incorporating the perfect attribute in the delayed invocation (“O God of truth”), and asking for a share of divinity(!) in the “ut” (so that) clause. Sharing in divinity itself is an alien concept to me, even though it isn’t novel. It reminds me more of Egyptian Pharaohs or Roman Emperors’ becoming divine than Christian soteriology. I’ve heard it is more characteristic of Eastern Orthodox than Western ascetical thinking, but I can’t say that for sure (– more of my “words without knowledge,” — but does it illustrate the imagery of the creeds and scriptures, I wonder).
    READINGS: All are well chosen. I don’t see why the OT lesson includes verses 12-14a (below) but they don’t present any particular problems:
    12 Then the spirit lifted me up, and as the glory of the LORD rose from its place, I heard behind me the sound of loud rumbling;
    13 it was the sound of the wings of the living creatures brushing against one another, and the sound of the wheels beside them, that sounded like a loud rumbling.
    14a The spirit lifted me up and bore me away;
    The psalm and gospel selections are good choices for this commemoration.
    The epistle’s first verse functions like a theme statement for Athanasius.
    The Epiphany preface is perfect: “the mystery of the Word made flesh.”

    • Athanasius’ death in usually given as 2 May 373. The year in the title is the year of death. When the year of death is not know, I think there are some persons where the date gives the approximate years when the person lived or was active.

      There is debate about Athanasius’ year of birth. The estimate year of birth ranges from 293-298. The biography chose a middle date of 295. Despite his years of exile, Athanasius lived to be an very old man by the standards of his day.

      • I see that widely published biographies give the date of birth for Athanasius as 296-298 A.D. Perhaps the birth year should be revised upward to 296-298 in the biography. The debate was over whether Athanasius had reached the age of 30 years when he was made bishop in 328.

  4. A better subtitle would be: “Theologian”. We do not commemorate him because he was a bishop.

    • Mr. Renton, you have once again raised an issue which has come up many time over the past year. For members of the holy orders of the church, HWHM frequently adds deacon, priest, or (arch)bishop after the name. Sometimes, but not consistantly, the reason for remembrance is given such as martyr. If the person was a missionary or theologan or reformer, this more more frequently not mentioned. Even a monk or nun might be mentioned but at other times religious is used. For lay persons, usually the reason for the remembrance is given such as missionary or hymnwriter, etc. but other times vague terms such as prophetic witness is used. I would suggest to the editors of Holy Women, Holy Men that all the titles be reviewed so that the useage of terms is consistant. I do not mind being reminded that a person is a deacon or priest, for example, but then the reason for the commemoration should be given for both clergy and laypersons. I suspect these titles and biographies have been written over a long period of time and have not been reviewed as a whole for consistancy and applicability of descriptors given in the title.

      • Suzanne’s point is not only well put, it is theologically justified in light of a shift in our ecclesiology from “office” or Order-focused to Baptism-focused.

        In the older theology it made sense to provide name, rank and serial number (well, only the bishops had OFFICIAL serial numbers).

        The Baptismal theology, which is so basic to eliciting the vital depth of Christian identity for every member (and every community) of the Body of Christ, not only “invites” this kind of review as a stylistic matter of editorial consistency, it DEMANDS it as a matter of theological affirmation of “full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church” (BCP, p. 298).

        The descriptions in the BCP listed under the heading, “The Ministry” (pp. 855-56), provide an important touchstone in this regard. It is high time we brought this part of our common life as Christ’s community into line with our ancient Baptismal Covenant and the sound theology underlying our prayer book’s most fundamental sacrament .

  5. Perhaps it’s not enough to sum up his special contribution “theologian.” From the bio: ” He fearlessly defended the Nicene Christology against emperors, magistrates, bishops, and theologians. Five times he was sent into exile. He often seemed to stand alone for the orthodox faith.”
    “Fearless theologian”? “Controversial theologian in his day and on into the present time”? “Fighting theologian”? “Anti-Arianist”?

      • Maybe we have trouble with some of the titles (resorting to vague, miscellaneous ad-hoc, or undefined ones — “prophetic witness” applied to non-Christians flops immediately to mind) because we really haven’t appreciated or embraced the centrality and language of our Baptismal theology. Looking there (at the Baptism rite and its rationale) and in the BCP catechism under the roles of the various categories of ministers, may well yield a more consistent array of significant titles, — titles grounded in the core identity of the calling and purpose of Christian life and of the church as a whole.

      • I don’t see why there can be only one ‘defender of the faith’—and a case can be made that Athanasius would be a better recipient than Henry VIII. At the time he received the title, Henry was defending Roman Catholicism. I think ‘Defender of the Faith’ suits Athanasius better than ‘Theologian’, personally.

        Which brings me to the collect: famous as it is, I don’t think the idea ‘who took upon himself our humanity that we might share his divinity’ belongs there. Once you unpack this idea it raises all sorts of theological questions that not all Anglicans will answer in the same way. The collect would be improved if it didn’t leave some people having to qualify their ‘Amen’.

    • I noticed that most of the time “red letter” saints’ days which are now part of the Book of Common Prayer 1979 have not been posted for comment on this site. As a layperson, I am not completely certain about any revisions of corrections to the biography/commentary for these special saints’ days. Perhaps The Rev. Dr. Meyers could clear up my bit of confusion. I do think that the Standing Commission on Litrugy and Music can make corrections in the biographies and commentaries without going through the Prayer Book revision process if there are mistakes or other errors.

      • Suzanne.

        Yes, the SCLM can make changes to all of the bios and titles in HWHM without consideration of General Convention. General Convention must act on the Commemoration itself, its date, lections, and the Proper Preface.

        This has been covered here on the blog on previous occasions – but bears repeating from time to time.

        Philip and James have not been lost. Fear not. They are observed together as a Major Feast of the Book of Common Prayer 1979.
        All of the Major Feasts are included in HWHM (as they were in recent editions of LFF, but not the most ‘ancient’ editoins) as a convenience to those conducting liturgical observances.

      • Clarification: Of course a change in the list of Major Feast commemorations, or their dates, would require a revision of the Book of Common Prayer and all that that entails.

  6. On a different note I don’t think anyone has touched yet:

    The word Athanasius is so closely associated with — “homoousis” — is not well translated by “of one Being with.” “Ousis” is almost universally translated “substance” and certainly means that in the Nicene creed; recall that Nicea I was nigh-contemporary with a rise in neo-Platonism in Christian philosophy that would have held that all things (up to and possibly including Satan) shared in the sole “being” of the Father.

    The Chalcedonian definition found on p.864 of the BCP gives the “substance” rendering of “ousis” as does Cranmer’s masterful translation of the Nicene creed.

    In light of all this, would it not be better to cite the “Rite I” creed as a more accurate reflection of Athanasias’ theology both in his own time and translation into our own?

  7. The biography is unchanged from LFF, and I think it needs wholesale revision in light of recent scholarship. To quote Peter Brown (The Rise of Western Christendom, pp 79-80)

    “Athanasius was a portent of a new age. He combined an ability to provoke the unrelieved suspicion that his local power, as bishop, was based on peculation and violence, with a gift (a sincere gift, but one that he put to use with great political acumen) for presenting himself as the representative of a timeless and universal Christian orthodoxy, declared forever, in 325, at the Council of Nicea. He persistently denied legitimacy to his accusers by labeling their views as “Arian”- as those of the followers of Arius (250-336), a learned Alexandrian priest. In this way, Athanasius defended his own growing local power in Alexandria by appealing to all that was most majestically nonlocal and fiercely metaphysical in the Christianity of his times.

    “Athanasius’ career included five periods of exile and many adventures when on the run from his enemies. . . . It was only later agreed, by the victorious “Nicene” party, that Athanasius had been the hero of a Christian orthodoxy laid down once and for all at Nicaea. But the story of Athanasius and of his defense of the “Nicene Creed” gained in the telling. It did so especially in the Latin West. By the end of the fourth century, the “Arian Controversy” was narrated in studiously confrontational terms: it was asserted that “orthodox” bishops had defeated “heretics”; and, in so doing, they had offered heroic resistance to the cajolery and, at times, to the threats, of “heretical” emperors.

    “This view of the “Arian Controversy” was constructed after the event. It contains little truth.”

    HWHM’s biography needs to be more honest and nuanced than what was part of LFF.

  8. I have been searching for the actual debate that occurred in the Nicene Conference but can’t find it.

    Does anyone know where I can find it.

    My e-mail address:

    Many Thanks

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