Today, 2nd May, the Church celebrates the feast day of St Athanasius (295-373). I suspect that very few of us have a devotion to St Athanasius and perhaps most of us have never heard of him. This is a shame because without him, we may not be Christian today. How so?
Athanasius was born in Alexandria in Egypt at the end of the third century. He was a Christian and became the assistant to Bishop Alexander at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD (Nicaea is just outside modern day Istanbul, Turkey). The Council of Nicaea was called by the emperor Constantine to settle a dispute that threatened the whole Church and the integrity of the entire Christian faith. The dispute centred on the identity of Jesus Christ – was he just human or was he divine? On one side of the argument was a priest called Arius who argued that although Jesus was a man of outstanding holiness and moral virtue, he was created by the Father and so belonged to the order of creation. In other words ‘there was a time when he was not’ (this was a phrase of the Council that summed up the position of each party). On the other side of the debate were people like Athanasius who argued that Jesus was both human and divine. He was divine in the sense that, as ‘the Word of God’ he existed with the Father from all eternity and was somehow equal in divinity with the Father. To sum up this position: ‘there was never a time when he wasn’t’. At a time in history, Athanasius argued, this Word became flesh in the form of Jesus of Nazareth. This was the ‘incarnation’ when divinity became en-fleshed in the humanity of Jesus Christ and through this mystery, humanity would be redeemed and saved by being assumed or taken into the life of God. By this mystery, in the now famous words of Athanasius, ‘he became human so that we might become divine’.
In the end, the Council of Nicaea sided with the position of Athanasius and condemned the position of Arius. That is why, every Sunday we profess the ‘Nicene Creed’ that says that Jesus was ‘begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father’; in other words Jesus is co-eternal with the Father and of the same divine essence as Him.
Now, lest you think that this history is a theological abstraction with little to do with us today, think again. After the Council of Nicaea, the followers of Arius re-grouped and did not disappear. The belief lingered that Jesus was not God but just a prophet or a special human being. As Islam began to grow and spread in the seventh century, it adopted this position and still does today. Jesus was a prophet but to claim him as divine like God is blasphemous.
Yet, it’s not just other religions such as Islam who hold this. It has subtly penetrated our culture and even the Church. What this error looks like is that while Jesus of Nazareth was one of the great leaders and figures of history, he was one among many human beings who lived, made an impact and died. We remember him and his legacy in history but nothing more.
Even within the Church, Jesus can be presented only as an archetype or model to be imitated in charity and virtuous living. He was a moral teacher who showed us how to be kind, merciful and just. Now Jesus certainly did show us how to be kind merciful and just, but he did far more. As God he became human like us and became the Saviour we needed to save us from sin, death and every form of dysfunction. If Jesus was only human and an external example to be copied, he could not do this as God. But by the power of his Holy Spirit, the saving power of God through Jesus has been offered to us through faith and the sacraments of the Church. And by the power of that same Spirit, Jesus penetrates our humanity, uniting himself to our humanity in order to conform it to the image and nature that God intended. It is because of this that we can dare to speak of the divine indwelling as we find in St John’s Gospel where Jesus invites us to ‘make your home in me as I make mine in you’ (John 15:4). It is why we can understand why Jesus promises us a share in his own immortality through union with him in the Eucharist.
By his incarnation, Jesus also took into the divinity of God all the material world with him. In him, creation and the Creator are united while both remain distinct. This is why we speak of creation containing the presence of God but of God not being contained by what he has made. God is always greater.
All of these insights that have been distilled through the Church for centuries, began with St Athanasius who defended the divinity of Jesus while holding onto the fullness of his humanity. He did so at great expense to himself as he was exiled and persecuted several times. Without him we might all be Muslim today or have drifted into a vague admiration of Jesus but nothing more. This is not Christianity. For this reason, we owe St Athanasius a debt of gratitude. Today on his feast, we thank God for raising up this champion of the orthodox faith whose teaching counters modern forms of Arianism that reduce the identity of Jesus Christ as just another model to be imitated but not worshipped.