Science of the Saints, 2 May, Our Holy Father Athanasius the Great

Sainted Athanasius the Great, Archbishop of Alexandria, was a great father of the Church and a pillar of Orthodoxy. He was born in about the year 297 in the city of Alexandria into a family of pious Christians. He received a fine secular education, but still more he acquired profound knowledge by diligent study of the Holy Scripture. From his childhood years the future great hierarch Athanasius became known to the Alexandrian Patriarch, Saint Alexander, through the following circumstances. One time a group of children, among whom was the lad Athanasius, was playing at the shore of the sea. The Christian children decided to baptise their pagan playmates. The lad Athanasius, whom the children chose as “bishop,” performed the baptism, precisely repeating the words, heard by him in church during this sacrament. Patriarch Alexander observed all this from a window. He then commanded that there be brought him the children and their parents, and having conversed with them for a long while, and having attested that the baptism performed by the children at play was in everything in accord with the Church rule, he acknowledged the Baptism as real and supplemented it with the sacrament of Chrismation. From this moment the Patriarch looked after the spiritual upbringing of the youth Athanasius and in time brought him into the clergy, at first as a reader, and then he ordained him to the dignity of deacon.

It was in this dignity of deacon that Saint Athanasius accompanied Patriarch Alexander in the year 325 to the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea. At the Council, Saint Athanasius stepped forth with a refutation of the heresy of Arius. This speech met with the approval of the Orthodox fathers of the Council, but the Arians – those openly so and those concealed – came to hate Athanasius and subjected him to persecutions for all the rest of his life.

After the death of holy Patriarch Alexander, Saint Athanasius was unanimously chosen his successor to the See of Alexandria. He long refused, accounting himself unworthy, but at the insistence of all the Orthodox populace that it was in agreement, at age 28 he was ordained to the dignity of bishop and put at the head of the Alexandrian Church. For 47 years Saint Athanasius guided the Church, and during this time he suffered much persecution and grief from his antagonists. Several times he was expelled from Alexandria and hid himself from the Arians in desolate places, since they repeatedly tried to kill him. Saint Athanasius spent more than twenty years in his exiles, and returned then to his flock, and then again was subjected to banishment. There was a moment in time when he remained as the only Orthodox bishop, a moment when all the other bishops had deviated into heresy. At the false councils of Arian bishops he was declared deprived of the bishop’s dignity. Despite the persecution of many years, the saint continued firmly to defend the purity of the Orthodox faith, and he wrote incessantly both missives and tracts against the Arian heresy. When Julian the Apostate (361-363) began a persecution against Christians, his wrath then first fell upon Saint Athanasius, whom he considered the great pillar of Orthodoxy. Julian intended to kill the saint so as to strike Christianity a grievous blow, but he himself soon perished infamously. Mortally wounded by an arrow during the time of a battle, he cried out with despair: “Thou art victorious, Galilean.” After the death of Julian, Saint Athanasius guided the Alexandrian Church for seven years and died in 373, at age 76.

Numerous works of Saint Athanasius have been preserved: four “Orations,” directed against the Arian heresy; likewise an Epistle to Epictetus, bishop of the Church of Corinth, about the Divine and Human natures in Jesus Christ; four Epistles to Serapion, bishop of Thmuis, about the Divine Holy Spirit and Its Equality with the Father and the Son – directed against the heresy of Macedonias. There have been preserved also other works of apologetical character in defence of Orthodoxy, among which is the Letter to the emperor Constantius. Commentaries of Saint Athanasius on Holy Scripture are known of, and also books of a moral didactic character, as well as a detailed biography of the Monk Anthony the Great, with whom Saint Athanasius was very close. Saint John Chrysostom advised every Orthodox Christian to read this life. The memory of Sainted Athanasius is celebrated also on 18 January conjointly with the memory of Sainted Cyril of Alexandria.

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