The first three centuries were times of persecution for the small Christian community. This is why they are known as the age of the martyrs. However these times were unique as they also saw the rise of an astounding number of theologians and spiritual writers from all over the Roman Empire, but particularly West Asia and North Africa. These men – and a few women too – struggled with interpreting the faith to their contemporaries. They wrote a lot, and often suffered much for their beliefs. Today’s saint, Athanasius, is one of the greatest of them all.
A native of Alexandria in Egypt, and the son of a prominent Christian family, Athanasius seemed destined for a brilliant career in the Church. While yet a deacon and secretary to the Patriarch Alexander, he accompanied his bishop to the great Council of Nicaea in 325, and became an outspoken opponent of Arianism, the heresy which declared that Christ was only human and not divine. Arianism was condemned atNicaea, but the Arians were a powerful influence at the court of the emperor and elsewhere, and when Athanasius was elected to the patriarchate ofAlexandriaa few years later, he had to bear the full force of their hostility. In the course of the 46 years he served as patriarch, he was exiled four times from his see, a total of 17 years.
Far from seeking revenge on those who had wronged him, Athanasius tried to win his enemies through kindness and humour. He preached and wrote continuously, on the mysteries of the faith as well as against the Arians. His treatise, On the Incarnation was composed while he was still a deacon in his twenties. His History of the Arians was written while in exile; and his Life of Anthony, on the famous desert monk who was a close friend and spiritual mentor, attracted many to the ascetical life.
Athanasius always wished to die a martyr. This last wish was however unfulfilled. He died peacefully at the age of 78, a champion of orthodoxy and a much beloved pastor.