+Christ is risen!
Saint Athanasius, who reposed in the Lord almost 1700 years ago, is still one of the most revered people in all of Christendom, and studied by Christians and non-Christians alike. He gifted the Christian world with our faith, and our Creed. This star didn’t come out of nowhere, he was a kid, a teen, and an adult at various points in his life. Today let’s look particularly at his youth and what he was like, and hopefully we can be inspired to struggle as he did.
His feast day is May 15.
In praising Athanasius, I shall be praising virtue. To speak of him and to praise virtue are identical, because he had, or, to speak more truly, has embraced virtue in its entirety.
These are the words of St. Gregory Nazianzen speaking of the 20th Pope of Alexandria, the 13th Apostle. In an age where desire for miracles seems to dominate our hearts, it is all the more important for us to see the greater miracle of virtue itself for it was by his virtue that Athanasius stood alone against the world, and it is for his virtue that we can call his life a great miracle for all who profess themselves Christians. Let us then examine aspects of his youth that are relevant to us young Orthodox Christians.
Christ in All
With his friends on the shores of the sea, Athanasius is called in to see Pope Alexander, who has seen him playing. Athanasius, it seems, has been performing baptisms with his friends, himself taking the role of bishop. It is found that not only had he done this in play, but all was done in perfect accordance with the rites of the Church Universal. A child of twelve managed to hold the Pope of Alexandria, the most influential leader of the centre of all Christian theology, in absolute awe. Here we see a child whose heart belongs to God from his youth, a child that has put God before all things, that even in his play he directs himself toward living his love for Christ. While most of us probably cannot name every part of the body anointed with the Holy Chrism, let alone recite the oath that we or our parents took to live the life of right praise, it is important that we draw from Athanasius a lesson: his childhood was no excuse for living a worldly life. Athanasius did not ask God to live his life the way he chose and to follow the Lord later: his existence was for the Lord, whether a child, a youth, or an old man.
Before the age of 20, Athanasius had completed his education at the great School of Alexandria. He had swallowed the works of Origen and Clement of Alexandria; he had mastered rhetoric, oratory and logic, and could quote both Egyptian and Greek philosophers and sages. Athanasius was successful. We often forget the importance of success in the service. A true servant must strive to be successful and honest with the gifts given by God. A servant must be an example for others; one who works hard. In so doing, the servant is faithful to the Lords requirement that we make use of our talents, and we avoid falling into the sin of laziness. By developing these gifts, the Lord uses you as a vessel to carry out His will, and you grow in your love and knowledge of Christ. By fully taking advantage of the gift that the Lord gave him, not only did Athanasius become one of the most effective and triumphant Shepherds of Alexandria he single-handedly saved the church from a denial of their salvation: Arianism, hatred of the Logos.
Fellowship with Light: A Youth of Service
Athanasius chose his company carefully. one who wants to live righteously must do so, for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? (II Cor. 6:14) Tradition tells us that St. Athanasius lived with St. Antony the Great, from the age of 20 to 23. Here, as our Pope later writes of himself, I was his attendant for a long time and poured water on his hands. Not only was he living among the saints, he was serving them in humility thus showing all the more his great love for Christ in all that he did, and also showing that he had chosen Christ above all things.
It is also evident, that selective in choosing his company, he was not prideful or condescending about it. Athanasius writes, I hastened to write to your piety what I myself know, having seen him many times, and what I was able to learn from him. A student who graduated from the universal centre of knowledge, was learning from St. Antony a man who was, by social standards, well, ignorant. Furthermore, he was rushing to share what he learned to all those who desired to live the life of sanctity.
His love for others reflected back on him, as it was the monks who would harbour him during a few of his exiles. His love for the great Abba Antony was not one-way, aS it the most holy Antony who came down from the mountain to set straight and chastise the Arians who claimed that he, Antony, was an Arian and against Athanasius.
Few people have ever known God like Athanasius did. His understanding of the Mystery of Incarnation cannot be attributed to his intelligence alone. This is a man who had seen Christ, who had true Divine Revelation.
While living at the monastery and only in his twenties, Athanasius authored two great works: On the Vanity of Idols, and On the Existence of the one God. Nobody can forget that Athanasius, at the young age of 25, was the lone deacon among 318 Bishops from the ends of the earth. Furthermore he was the principal defender and author of the Creed, not budging over even one iota.
Though none of us can compare with Athanasius genius in theology, there is an important lesson here for all youth who desire to know God: Theology is one method of knowing Him. When you truly love someone, you can think of little but him, you seek to be in his presence you desire to fully know him not out of pride, but of love. Not for one moment was Athanasius standing against the world for the sake of arguing, he stood against the world because he loved the Lord, and he loved all men and desired that none be led astray. So much did He love Him, that he could not tolerate any slander against the one he knew so well. If he had desired just to have victory over the Arians, he would not have later set rules for accepting them that the Alexandrian bishops considered too lenient. Athanasius knew God because He loved Him, he loved others because He loved God.
Athanasius desired that the world know God, that they might love Him as he did. His knowledge in theology, his success, his courage, his genius, his wit, his perseverance they did not develop in one night. They were the result of the life he lived, a result of his desire to know God, and his decision to put Christ above all else, no matter how old he was. Athanasius contra mundum, and Athanasius triumphed, but only because the Lord was on his side.