There are some saints that are not well known and yet are very important. St Athanasius is certainly one of those. He is not well known in the Western Church and I doubt if many of us have a devotion to him. Despite this, Christianity and its survival as a religion owes him a depth of gratitude to such an extent that St Gregory named him ‘the pillar of the Church’ after his death. With courage and wisdom Athanasius defended, preached and argued that Jesus Christ was more than a human being – that he was also divine.
Athanasius was born in a city called Alexandria in the north of Egypt in 296 AD. In the fourth century, Alexandria was a place of vibrant Christianity. The faith of the Church of Alexandria tended to emphasise the divinity of Jesus whereas the city of Antioch (near Ankara in modern day Turley where St Peter went to after he left Jerusalem) tended to emphasise Jesus’ humanity.
Around that time, a heresy began to take hold in the Church that threatened to destroy the faith altogether. It was known as Arianism and held that although Jesus was a great human being, teacher and prophet, he was still only a man and therefore not God. This teaching horrified people like Athanasius in Alexandria who recognised the danger to Christianity’s future and core teaching. If Jesus was just a man and not God then the gulf between God and humanity still exists. If Jesus was not God then he could not save us and if he could not save us then we are still in our sin. Athanasius had an opportunity to argue his passionately held faith in Christ’s divinity when he attended the Council of Nicaea (about 10 kms outside modern day Istanbul, Turley) in 325 AD. Under his influence, the Council concluded that Jesus was indeed divine, more than a man and in the words of the creed we still say at Mass ‘consubstantial with the Father (literally made of the same stuff)’.
It would be wrong to think that Arianism has gone away. It hasn’t. Islam is a form of Arianism. It acknowledges Jesus as a prophet and holy man of God, but certainly not as God. In further comparisons, if Jesus was not God but only a good man then he is only on a par with people like Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul II, etc. He is one among many of the great world leaders of history but nothing more special than that. Our faith instincts tells us that Jesus Christ is more than this. He is human but also divine as the only begotten Son of the Father. Jesus came on earth to become human and offer that gift of sonship/daughtership to us so that we might share in the divine life. So in a real sense, Christ became human so that we might become divine. In the words of Athanasius, ‘He became what we are so that he might make us what he is’.
It also means that Jesus is more than an inspiring example or a model to be imitated. He is all that but much more. Because he is divine, he is present to us through his Spirit that penetrates our lives, our hearts, our bodies and our wills. His Spirit is active in us all the time, calling us away from sin and towards a life of ever deeper union with himself in love. This happens because we were anointed with the Spirit at baptism and Confirmation. It is also why St Paul could write ‘It is no longer I who love but Christ who lives in me’ (Gal. 2:20). Christ is at work in us all the time, transforming us more into his own image and likeness.