May 6, 2011

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

The wisdom of the saints: St. Athanasius

John F. FinkOf all the Doctors of the Church, St. Athanasius, whose feast we celebrated on May 2, lived the most tumultuous life.

He was exiled from his position as bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, five times and spent six years hiding among monks in the Egyptian desert because people wanted to kill him. People took religious controversy very seriously in the fourth century.

All this happened because he taught exactly what the Council of Nicaea of 325 taught about Jesus. Athanasius became bishop just after that council. The bishops of the council thought they had defeated Arianism, which taught that God the Son was created by God the Father and therefore wasn’t equal to him. But Arianism proved to be difficult to defeat, and caused a great deal of trouble for the Church for several centuries.

Athanasius was the Church’s greatest champion against Arianism, asserting that God the Son was eternal and equal to God the Father. However, he also wrote much about why God became man.

In one of his discourses, he said that the Word of God, “incorporeal, incorruptible and immaterial,” entered our world. He took to himself a body, no different from ours, because “he could not stand aside and see death have the mastery over us.”

Therefore, he said, “Within the Virgin, he built himself a temple, that is, a body; he made it his own instrument in which to dwell and to reveal himself.” He could have assumed a nobler body, he said, but he chose to take our body in all its reality.

With a body like ours, he said, the Word “delivered this body over to death for all, and with supreme love offered it to the Father. He did so to destroy the law of corruption passed against all men since all died in him.”

Furthermore, he said, this was the way the Word restored mankind to immortality after it had fallen into corruption, and summoned it back from death to life. Through the grace of the Resurrection, which we are celebrating during this Easter season, Christ “utterly destroyed the power death had against mankind—as fire consumes chaff—by means of the body he had taken.”

That was the reason why the Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, assumed a body that could die, he said, “so that this body, sharing in the Word who is above all, might satisfy death’s requirement in place of all. Because of the Word dwelling in that body, it would remain incorruptible, and all would be freed for ever from corruption by the grace of the Resurrection.”

The Word made a spotless sacrifice and oblation of the body he had taken, Athanasius said. “By dying for others, he immediately banished death for all mankind.”

In this way, he said, the Word of God dedicated his temple, the instrument that was his body, for us all. “The immortal Son of God, united with all men by likeness of nature, thus fulfilled all justice in restoring mankind to immortality by the promise of the Resurrection.” †

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