Athanasius, the Iota, and the Homoousion
Today is the memorial of one of the most heroic bishops in the history of the Church, the late, great Saint Athanasius (+373), a foundational Eastern Doctor, along with Basil, Gregory Nazianzen and Ambrose. He was the hero of Bd. John Henry Cardinal Newman, who wrote erudite and engaging essays on Athanasius and his battle with Arianism, and it was in part the example of Athanasius that brought the great Victorian from his compromise via media Anglicanism to full Roman Catholicism.
Athanasius’ life was full, consecrated bishop of the great see of Alexandria in 328, while still very young (some even dispute whether he was of the licit then-canonical age of 30), was one of the main influences at the Council of Nicaea in 325 held against Arianism, and the Patriarch continued a lifelong struggle against the heresy and the Emperors who held to the heresy. He left a vast corpus of profound writings, still very readable today, the most famous perhaps being his treatise De Incarnatione, on the Incarnation.
And it is likely for his devotion and steadfastness to the full truth of the Incarnation that Athanasius is best remembered, especially his role in defining this truth at the Nicene Council against the pernicious heresy of Arius, which denied, however subtly, the full divinity of Christ. Athanasius was adamant that Christ truly was God, of the same ‘substance’ or ‘being’ as the Father, as we recite in the Creed that derives from this Council: “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father”.
It is this term ‘consubstantial’ (gladly retranslated from the previous vague and milquetoast ‘one in being’) with which the name Athanasius will forever be linked. In his own Greek tongue, it was homo-ousios, of the ‘very same substance’. The Arians wanted to add just one iota, and would gladly have accepted homoi-ousios, that Christ was similar to the Father, as a compromise.
Not exactly false, one might say, but not exactly true either, and Athanasius knew that the whole future of the Church depended on the clarity gained by rejecting that one iota. Either Christ was (is) God, or He was not. He convinced the Fathers of the Council and more importantly (as things were back then) the Emperor Constantine. The truth won out, at least in the Church’s official teaching, even if the Arians battled on for centuries to come. Athanasius himself suffered five exiles from his See under various emperors sympathetic to the more ‘rational’ and politically expedient Arianism (bear in mind that an exile back then was nearly akin to a death sentence). Even after the death of Athanasius, Saint Jerome in the early fifth century would write that the whole world awoke and groaned to find itself Arian.
We see in Athanasius the absolute and fundamental important of orthodoxy, of knowing the ‘right truth’. It is all well and good to do good (orthopraxy) but one must know why and wherefore one is doing good, otherwise one may do evil, while thinking one is doing good (just look at the more benighted and deluded members of the United Nations and various sundry groups trying the save the world from man, oops, person-kind). Just ask a simple question, is the Earth for Man, or Man for the Earth? Or more theologically, is Man a divine and supernatural being, for whom the whole cosmos was created, or is he no more than an intelligent, dextrous and, to their minds, dangerous ape, who must make way more room for the other species to frolic?
The truth not only of Christ, but of Man himself, hung upon that one iota, which is why we emphasize the homo-ousios in our Creed to this day, at least, when we do say the full Nicene creed, a rare event for some reason in most parishes. We are supposed to ‘bow profoundly’ at the mention of the Incarnation in the Creed at Mass, et homo factus est, but this also is a nearly non-existent event (I might look a little out of place doing so, careful not to bump my forehead against the posterior of the person in front of me, but happy to suffer my own little martyrdom of humility). I would recommend going back to full-bore genuflection, so we are all on the same liturgical page.
And speaking of being on the same page, I wonder how many Catholics in our vast suburban parishes know and accept the full truth of Christ’s divinity? Do they believe that He was truly God, come in the flesh? Do they realize that Christ was not even a human person, but a divine One, who took upon Himself human nature, so to redeem and transform all of said nature into the very form of God?
I sometimes wonder how much I realize these truths, for which countless martyrs through the ages gave their life. Has the great truth of God-become-Man become humdrum, or are we filled with the zeal of Athanasius, ready to suffer exile and death rather than take one iota from the central truth of our Christian faith? That question is very real to many Christians in the world, for if there is one thing that Islam, even in its ‘moderate’ forms, denies and cannot tolerate, it is the divinity of Christ. And if there is one thing the secular world cannot stand, it is the inviolable dignity that belongs to each human person, with a nature that now shares in the very nature of God Himself.
As today’s Gospel prophesies:
Indeed the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do this because they have not known the Father, nor me
We should each day pray that we might stand with Athanasius against anything that violates the truth of Christ and the truth of Man.
Our annual graduation ceremonies were just held here on Saturday at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, and each year as I see our fresh-faced soon-to-be alumni completing their course of studies, I become more convinced of the need for a solid intellectual formation, both in reason and in faith, especially for the youth. For only such a foundation can keep them going in what look to be difficult, but hopeful, years ahead.
Yes, even beyond youth, I think a little more orthodoxy in our Catholic community, and by that I mean a full immersion in the truths of our faith, making them ‘our own’, would go a long way to more vibrant orthopraxy. The heart follows the mind, and it is only the truth that will truly set us free.
Saint Athanasius, ora pro nobis!