When he was about 10 years old (around 306 A.D.), Athanasius was playing with a group of his friends on the beach, pretending to baptize one another, taking turns playing the part of the minister. When Athanasius took his turn, he so accurately recited sections of the baptismal service, bishop Alexander – who was walking along the beach at the time – approached Athanasius to talk about his faith.
While the Church at that time was relatively free of persecution, she greatly struggled with internal conflict and heresy. Athanasius served the Church at one of the most theologically dangerous times in history. While Athanasius served as Bishop Alexander’s assistant, a priest named Arius began openly teaching that Christ was created by the Father, and therefore, was not as divine as God the Father. He also claimed that “there was a time when the Son was not.”
A meeting of church leaders in the region condemned Arius’ teachings and ordered him to stop teaching it – but Arius refused. Eventually, Emperor Constantine called for a full Church council (Nicea in 325). In the end, the council sided with Athanasius, ordering Arius not to teach his beliefs any more. They wrote the Nicene Creed as the official response to Arius, but he and his followers refused to sign it or obey it. They were excommunicated from the Church.
Instead, Arius and his followers went to Constantine and apologized for their wrongs – but they did not change their beliefs. They wanted to be restored to the Church and to their leadership positions. Without consulting the bishops, Constantine agreed, even sending out a letter to Athanasius, telling him that if he did not welcome Arius and his followers back into the Church, he would be exiled. Athanasius refused.
Some records indicate that Athanasius was banished five separate times, but, he never gave up – continuing to preach and write the truth about who Christ is. The result was what still stands as his greatest work, On the Incarnation. Because of him, many of those who had been deceived by Arius returned to the truth and, to this day, churches around the world recite the Nicene Creed, but far fewer know who Arius was.
While we can learn many things from the life of St. Athanasius, let us remember at least these:
- First, the creeds of the Church were hard won. They were written in the midst of battles, struggles for the truth, and were handed down as protection to the Church. While they are not to be held on the same level as Scripture, no Christian should hold them lightly.
- Second, at the risk of sounding like a motivational poster, St. Athanasius teaches us that if something is true, it is true whether it’s easy to hold to it or not.
- And finally, doing what is right is not always easy, and doing what is easy is not always right.