Feast Day: May 2
Bishop of Alexandria; Confessor and Doctor of the Church; born c. 296; died 2 May, 373. Athanasius was the greatest champion of Catholic belief on the subject of the Incarnation that the Church has ever known and in his lifetime earned the characteristic title of "Father of Orthodoxy", by which he has been distinguished every since. While the chronology of his career still remains for the most part a hopelessly involved problem, the fullest material for an account of the main achievements of his life will be found in his collected writings and in the contemporary records of his time. He was born, it would seem, in Alexandria, most probably between the years 296 and 298. An earlier date, 293, is sometimes assigned as the more certain year of his birth; and it is supported apparently by the authority of the "Coptic Fragment" (published by Dr. O. von Lemm among the Mémoires de l'académie impériale des sciences de S. Péterbourg, 1888) and corroborated by the undoubted maturity of judgement revealed in the two treatises "Contra Gentes" and "De Incarnatione", which were admittedly written about the year 318 before Arianism as a movement had begun to make itself felt. It must be remembered, however, that in two distinct passages of his writings (Hist. Ar., lxiv, and De Syn., xviii) Athanasius shrinks from speaking as a witness at first hand of the persecution which had broken out under Maximian in 303; for in referring to the events of this period he makes no direct appeal to his own personal recollections, but falls back, rather, on tradition. Such reserve would scarcely be intelligible, if, on the hypothesis of the earlier date, the Saint had been then a boy fully ten years old. Besides, there must have been some semblance of a foundation in fact for the charge brought against him by his accusers in after-life (Index to the Festal Letters) that at the times of his consecration to the episcopate in 328 he had not yet attained the canonical age of thirty years. These considerations, therefore, even if they are found to be not entirely convincing, would seem to make it likely that he was born not earlier than 296 nor later than 298.
It is impossible to speak more than conjecturally of his family. Of the claim that it was both prominent and well-to-do, we can only observe that the tradition to the effect is not contradicted by such scanty details as can be gleaned from the saint's writings. Those writings undoubtedly betray evidences of the sort of education that was given, for the most part, only to children and youths of a better class. It began with grammar, went on to rhetoric, and received its final touches under some one of the more fashionable lecturers in the philosophic schools. It is possible, of course, that he owed his remarkable training in letters to his saintly predecessor's favour, if not to his personal care. But Athanasius was one of those rare personalities that derive incomparably more from their own native gifts of intellect and character than from the fortuitousness of descent or environment. His career almost personifies a crisis in the history of Christianity; and he may be said rather to have shaped the events in which he took part than to have been shaped by them. Yet it would be misleading to urge that he was in no notable sense a debtor to the time and place of his birth. The Alexandria of his boyhood was an epitome, intellectually, morally, and politically, of that ethnically many-coloured Graeco-Roman world, over which the Church of the fourth and fifth centuries was beginning at last, with undismayed consciousness, after nearly three hundred years of unwearying propagandism, to realize its supremacy. It was, moreover, the most important centre of trade in the whole empire; and its primacy as an emporium of ideas was more commanding than that of Rome or Constantinople, Antioch or Marseilles. Already, in obedience to an instinct of which one can scarcely determine the full significance without studying the subsequent development of Catholicism, its famous "Catechetical School", while sacrificing no jot or tittle or that passion for orthodoxy which it had imbibed from Pantaenus, Clement, and Origen, had begun to take on an almost secular character in the comprehensiveness of its interests, and had counted pagans of influence among its serious auditors (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., VI, xix).
To have been born and brought up in such an atmosphere of philosophizing Christianity was, in spite of the dangers it involved, the timeliest and most liberal of educations; and there is, as we have intimated, abundant evidence in the saint's writings to testify to the ready response which all the better influences of the place must have found in the heart and mind of the growing boy. Athanasius seems to have been brought early in life under the immediate supervision of the ecclesiastical authorities of his native city. Whether his long intimacy with Bishop Alexander began in childhood, we have no means of judging; but a story which pretends to describe the circumstances of his first introduction to that prelate has been preserved for us by Rufinus (Hist. Eccl., I, xiv). The bishop, so the tale runs, had invited a number of brother prelates to meet him at breakfast after a great religious function on the anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Peter, a recent predecessor in the See of Alexandria. While Alexander was waiting for his guests to arrive, he stood by a window, watching a group of boys at play on the seashore below the house. He had not observed them long before he discovered that they were imitating, evidently with no thought of irreverence, the elaborate ritual of Christian baptism. (Cf. Bunsen's "Christianity and Mankind", London, 1854, VI, 465; Denzinger, "Ritus Orientalium" in verb.; Butler's "Ancient Coptic Churches", II, 268 et sqq.; "Bapteme chez les Coptes", "Dict. Theol. Cath.", Col. 244, 245). He therefore sent for the children and had them brought into his presence. In the investigation that followed it was discovered that one of the boys, who was no other than the future Primate of Alexandria, had acted the part of the bishop, and in that character had actually baptized several of his companions in the course of their play. Alexander, who seems to have been unaccountably puzzled over the answers he received to his inquiries, determined to recognize the make-believe baptisms as genuine; and decided that Athanasius and his playfellows should go into training in order to fit themselves for a clerical career. The Bollandists deal gravely with this story; and writers as difficult to satisfy as Archdeacon Farrar and the late Dean Stanley are ready to accept it as bearing on its face "every indication of truth" (Farrar, "Lives of the Fathers", I, 337; Stanley, "East. Ch." 264). But whether in its present form, or in the modified version to be found in Socrates (I, xv), who omits all reference to the baptism and says that the game was "an imitation of the priesthood and the order of consecrated persons", the tale raises a number of chronological difficulties and suggests even graver questions.
Perhaps a not impossible explanation of its origin may be found in the theory that it was one of the many floating myths set in movement by popular imagination to account for the marked bias towards an ecclesiastical career which seems to have characterized the early boyhood of the future champion of the Faith. Sozomen speaks of his "fitness for the priesthood", and calls attention to the significant circumstance that he was "from his tenderest years practically self-taught". "Not long after this," adds the same authority, the Bishop Alexander "invited Athanasius to be his commensal and secretary. He had been well educated, and was versed in grammar and rhetoric, and had already, while still a young man, and before reaching the episcopate, given proof to those who dwelt with him of his wisdom and acumen" (Soz., II, xvii). That "wisdom and acumen" manifested themselves in a various environment. While still a levite under Alexander's care, he seems to have been brought for a while into close relations with some of the solitaries of the Egyptian desert, and in particular with the great St. Anthony, whose life he is said to have written. The evidence both of the intimacy and for the authorship of the life in question has been challenged, chiefly by non-Catholic writers, on the ground that the famous "Vita" shows signs of interpolation. Whatever we may think of the arguments on the subject, it is impossible to deny that the monastic idea appealed powerfully to the young cleric's temperament, and that he himself in after years was not only at home when duty or accident threw him among the solitaries, but was so monastically self-disciplined in his habits as to be spoken of as an "ascetic" (Apol. c. Arian., vi). In fourth-century usage the word would have a definiteness of connotation not easily determinable today.
It is not surprising that one who was called to fill so large a place in the history of his time should have impressed the very form and feature of his personality, so to say, upon the imagination of his contemporaries. St. Gregory Nazianzen is not the only writer who has described him for us (Orat. xxi, 8). A contemptuous phrase of the Emperor Julian's (Epist., li) serves unintentionally to corroborate the picture drawn by kindlier observers. He was slightly below the middle height, spare in build, but well-knit, and intensely energetic. He had a finely shaped head, set off with a thin growth of auburn hair, a small but sensitively mobile mouth, an aquiline nose, and eyes of intense but kindly brilliancy. He had a ready wit, was quick in intuition, easy and affable in manner, pleasant in conversation, keen, and, perhaps, somewhat too unsparing in debate. (Besides the references already cited, see the detailed description given in the January Menaion quotes in the Bollandist life. Julian the Apostate, in the letter alluded to above sneers at the diminutiveness of his person -- mede aner, all anthropiokos euteles, he writes.) In addition to these qualities, he was conspicuous for two others to which even his enemies bore unwilling testimony. He was endowed with a sense of humour that could be as mordant -- we had almost said as sardonic -- as it seems to have been spontaneous and unfailing; and his courage was of the sort that never falters, even in the most disheartening hour of defeat. There is one other note in this highly gifted and many-sided personality to which everything else in his nature literally ministered, and which must be kept steadily in view, if we would possess the key to his character and writing and understand the extraordinary significance of his career in the history of the Christian Church. He was by instinct neither a liberal nor a conservative in theology. Indeed the terms have a singular inappropriateness as applied to a temperament like his. From first to last he cared greatly for one thing and one thing only; the integrity of his Catholic creed. The religion it engendered in him was obviously -- considering the traits by which we have tried to depict him -- of a passionate and consuming sort. It began and ended in devotion to the Divinity of Jesus Christ. He was scarcely out of his teens, and certainly not in more than deacon's orders, when he published two treatises, in which his mind seemed to strike the keynote of all its riper after-utterances on the subject of the Catholic Faith. The "Contra Gentes" and the "Oratio de Incarnatione" -- to give them the Latin appellations by which they are more commonly cited -- were written some time between the years 318 and 323. St. Jerome (De Viris Illust.) refers to them under a common title, as "Adversum Gentes Duo Libri", thus leaving his readers to gather the impression which an analysis of the contents of both books certainly seems to justify, that the two treatises are in reality one.
As a plea for the Christian position, addressed chiefly to both Gentiles and Jews, the young deacon's apology, while undoubtedly reminiscential in methods and ideas of Origen and the earlier Alexandrians, is, nevertheless, strongly individual and almost pietistic in tone. Though it deals with the Incarnation, it is silent on most of those ulterior problems in defence of which Athanasius was soon to be summoned by the force of events and the fervour of his own faith to devote the best energies of his life. The work contains no explicit discussion of the nature of the Word's Sonship, for instance; no attempt to draw out the character of Our Lord's relation to the Father; nothing, in short, of those Christological questions upon which he was to speak with such splendid and courageous clearness in time of shifting formularies and undetermined views. Yet those ideas must have been in the air (Soz., I, xv) for, some time between the years 318 and 320, Arius, a native of Libya (Epiph., Haer., lxix) and priest of the Alexandrian Church, who had already fallen under censure for his part in the Meletian troubles which broke out during the episcopate of St. Peter, and whose teachings had succeeded in making dangerous headway, even among "the consecrated virgins" of St. Mark's see (Epiph. Haer., lxix; Soc., Hist. Eccl., I, vi), accused Bishop Alexander of Sabellianism. Arius, who seems to have presumed on the charitable tolerance of the primate, was at length deposed (Apol. c. Ar., vi) in a synod consisting of more than one hundred bishops of Egypt and Libya (Depositio Ar., 3). The condemned heresiarch withdrew first to Palestine and afterwards to Bithynia, where, under the protection of Eusebius of Nicomedia and his other "Collucianists", he was able to increase his already remarkable influence, while his friends were endeavouring to prepare a way for his forcible reinstatement as priest of the Alexandrian Church. Athanasius, though only in deacon's order, must have taken no subordinate part in these events. He was the trusted secretary and advisor of Alexander, and his name appears in the list of those who signed the encyclical letter subsequently issued by the primate and his colleagues to offset the growing prestige of the new teaching, and the momentum it was beginning to acquire from the ostentatious patronage extended to the deposed Arius by the Eusebian faction. Indeed, it is to this party and to the leverage it was able to exercise at the emperor's court that the subsequent importance of Arianism as a political, rather than a religious, movement seems primarily to be due.
The heresy, of course, had its supposedly philosophic basis, which has been ascribed by authors, ancient and modern, to the most opposite sources. St. Epiphanius characterizes it as a king of revived Aristoteleanism (Haer., lxvii and lxxvi); and the same view is practically held by Socrates (Hist. Eccl., II, xxxv), Theodoret (Haer. Fab., IV, iii), and St. Basil (Adv. Eunom., I, ix). On the other hand, a theologian as broadly read as Petavius (De Trin., I, viii, 2) has no hesitation in deriving it from Platonism; Newman in turn (Arians of the Fourth Cent., 4 ed., 109) sees in it the influence of Jewish prejudices rationalized by the aid of Aristotelean ideas; while Robertson (Sel. Writ. and Let. of Ath. Proleg., 27) observes that the "common theology", which was invariably opposed to it, "borrowed its philosophical principles and method from the Platonists." These apparently conflicting statements could, no doubt, be easily adjusted; but the truth is that the prestige of Arianism never lay in its ideas. From whatever school it may have been logically derived, the sect, as a sect, was cradled and nurtured in intrigue. Save in some few instances, which can be accounted for on quite other grounds, its prophets relied more upon curial influence than upon piety, or Scriptural knowledge, or dialectics. That must be borne constantly in mind, if we would not move distractedly through the bewildering maze of events that make up the life of Athanasius for the next half-century to come. It is his peculiar merit that he not only saw the drift of things from the very beginning, but was confident of the issue down to the last (Apol. c. Ar., c.). His insight and courage proved almost as efficient a bulwark to the Christian Church in the world as did his singularly lucid grasp of traditional Catholic belief. His opportunity came in the year 325, when the Emperor Constantine, in the hope of putting an end to the scandalous debates that were disturbing the peace of the Church, met the prelates of the entire Catholic world in council at Nicaea.
The great council convoked at this juncture was something more than a pivotal event in the history of Christianity. Its sudden, and, in one sense, almost unpremeditated adoption of a quasi-philosophic and non-Scriptural term -- homoousion -- to express the character of orthodox belief in the Person of the historic Christ, by defining Him to be identical in substance, or co-essential, with the Father, together with its confident appeal to the emperor to lend the sanction of his authority to the decrees and pronouncements by which it hoped to safeguard this more explicit profession of the ancient Faith, had consequences of the gravest import, not only to the world of ideas, but to the world of politics as well. By the official promulgation to the term homoöusion, theological speculation received a fresh but subtle impetus which made itself felt long after Athanasius and his supporters had passed away; while the appeal to the secular arm inaugurated a policy which endured practically without change of scope down to the publication of the Vatican decrees in our own time. In one sense, and that a very deep and vital one, both the definition and the policy were inevitable. It was inevitable in the order of religious ideas that any break in logical continuity should be met by inquiry and protest. It was just as inevitable that the protest, to be effective, should receive some countenance from a power which up to that moment had affected to regulate all the graver circumstances of life (cf. Harnack, Hist. Dog., III, 146, note; Buchanan's tr.). As Newman has remarked: "The Church could not meet together in one, without entering into a sort of negotiation with the power that be; who jealousy it is the duty of Christians, both as individuals and as a body, if possible, to dispel" (Arians of the Fourth Cent., 4 ed., 241). Athanasius, though not yet in priest's orders, accompanied Alexander to the council in the character of secretary and theological adviser. He was not, of course, the originator of the famous homoösion. The term had been proposed in a non-obvious and illegitimate sense by Paul of Samosata to the Father at Antioch, and had been rejected by them as savouring of materialistic conceptions of the Godhead (cf. Athan., "De Syn.," xliii; Newman, "Arians of the Fourth Cent.," 4 ed., 184-196; Petav. "De Trin.," IV, v, sect. 3; Robertson, "Sel. Writ. and Let. Athan. Proleg.", 30 sqq.).
It may even be questioned whether, if left to his own logical instincts, Athanasius would have suggested an orthodox revival of the term at all ("De Decretis", 19; "Orat. c. Ar.", ii, 32; "Ad Monachos", 2). His writings, composed during the forty-six critical years of his episcopate, show a very sparing use of the word; and though, as Newman (Arians of the Fourth Cent., 4 ed., 236) reminds us, "the authentic account of the proceedings" that took place is not extant, there is nevertheless abundant evidence in support of the common view that it had been unexpectedly forced upon the notice of the bishops, Arian and orthodox, in the great synod by Constantine's proposal to account the creed submitted by Eusebius of Caesarea, with the addition of the homoösion, as a safeguard against possible vagueness. The suggestion had in all probability come from Hosius (cf. "Epist. Eusebii.", in the appendix to the "De Decretis", sect. 4; Soc., "Hist. Eccl.", I, viii; III, vii; Theod. "Hist. Eccl.", I, Athan.; "Arians of the Fourth Cent.", 6, n. 42; outos ten en Nikaia pistin exetheto, says the saint, quoting his opponents); but Athanasius, in common with the leaders of the orthodox party, loyally accepted the term as expressive of the traditional sense in which the Church had always held Jesus Christ to be the Son of God. The conspicuous abilities displayed in the Nicaean debates and the character for courage and sincerity he won on all sides made the youthful cleric henceforth a marked man (St. Greg. Naz., Orat., 21). His life could not be lived in a corner. Five months after the close of the council the Primate of Alexandria died; and Athanasius, quite as much in recognition of his talent, it would appear, as in deference to the deathbed wishes of the deceased prelate, was chosen to succeed him. His election, in spite of his extreme youth and the opposition of a remnant of the Arian and Meletian factions in the Alexandrian Church, was welcomed by all classes among the laity ("Apol. c. Arian", vi; Soz., "Hist. Eccl.", II, xvii, xxi, xxii).
The opening years of the saint's rule were occupied with the wonted episcopal routine of a fourth-century Egyptian bishop. Episcopal visitations, synods, pastoral correspondence, preaching and the yearly round of church functions consumed the bulk of his time. The only noteworthy events of which antiquity furnishes at least probable data are connected with the successful efforts which he made to provide a hierarchy for the newly planted church in Ethiopia (Abyssinia) in the person of St. Frumentius (Rufinus I, ix; Soc. I, xix; Soz., II, xxiv), and the friendship which appears to have begun about this time between himself and the monks of St. Pachomius. But the seeds of disaster which the saint's piety had unflinchingly planted at Nicaea were beginning to bear a disquieting crop at last. Already events were happening at Constantinople which were soon to make him the most important figure of his time. Eusebius of Nicomedia, who had fallen into disgrace and been banished by the Emperor Constantine for his part in the earlier Arian controversies, had been recalled from exile. After an adroit campaign of intrigue, carried on chiefly through the instrumentality of the ladies of the imperial household, this smooth-mannered prelate so far prevailed over Constantine as to induce him to order the recall of Arius likewise from exile. He himself sent a characteristic letter to the youthful Primate of Alexandria, in which he bespoke his favour for the condemned heresiarch, who was described as a man whose opinions had been misrepresented. These events must have happened some time about the close of the year 330. Finally the emperor himself was persuaded to write to Athanasius, urging that all those who were ready to submit to the definitions of Nicaea should be re-admitted to ecclesiastical communion. This Athanasius stoutly refused to do, alleging that there could be no fellowship between the Church and the one who denied the Divinity of Christ.
The Bishop of Nicomedia thereupon brought various ecclesiastical and political charges against Athanasius, which, though unmistakably refuted at their first hearing, were afterwards refurbished and made to do service at nearly every stage of his subsequent trials. Four of these were very definite, to wit: that he had not reached the canonical age at the time of his consecration; that he had imposed a linen tax upon the provinces; that his officers had, with his connivance and authority, profaned the Sacred Mysteries in the case of an alleged priest names Ischyras; and lastly that he had put one Arenius to death and afterwards dismembered the body for purposes of magic. The nature of the charges and the method of supporting them were vividly characteristic of the age. The curious student will find them set forth in picturesque detail in the second part of the Saint's "Apologia", or "Defense against the Arians", written long after the events themselves, about the year 350, when the retractation of Ursacius and Valens made their publication triumphantly opportune. The whole unhappy story at this distance of time reads in parts more like a specimen of late Greek romance than the account of an inquisition gravely conducted by a synod of Christian prelates with the idea of getting at the truth of a series of odious accusations brought against one of their number. Summoned by the emperor's order after protracted delays extended over a period of thirty months (Soz., II, xxv), Athanasius finally consented to meet the charges brought against him by appearing before a synod of prelates at Tyre in the year 335. Fifty of his suffragans went with him to vindicate his good name; but the complexion of the ruling party in the synod made it evident that justice to the accused was the last thing that was thought of. It can hardly be wondered at, that Athanasius should have refused to be tried by such a court. He, therefore, suddenly withdrew from Tyre, escaping in a boat with some faithful friends who accompanied him to Byzantium, where he had made up his mind to present himself to the emperor.
The circumstances in which the saint and the great catechumen met were dramatic enough. Constantine was returning from a hunt, when Athanasius unexpectedly stepped into the middle of the road and demanded a hearing. The astonished emperor could hardly believe his eyes, and it needed the assurance of one of the attendants to convince him that the petitioner was not an impostor, but none other than the great Bishop of Alexandria himself. "Give me", said the prelate, "a just tribunal, or allow me to meet my accusers face to face in your presence." His request was granted. An order was peremptorily sent to the bishops, who had tried Athanasius and, of course, condemned him in his absence, to repair at once to the imperial city. The command reached them while they were on their way to the great feast of the dedication of Constantine's new church at Jerusalem. It naturally caused some consternation; but the more influential members of the Eusebian faction never lacked either courage or resourcefulness. The saint was taken at his word; and the old charges were renewed in the hearing of the emperor himself. Athanasius was condemned to go into exile at Treves, where he was received with the utmost kindness by the saintly Bishop Maximinus and the emperor's eldest son, Constantine. He began his journey probably in the month of February, 336, and arrived on the banks of the Moselle in the late autumn of the same year. His exile lasted nearly two years and a half. Public opinion in his own diocese remained loyal to him during all that time. It was not the least eloquent testimony to the essential worth of his character that he could inspire such faith. Constantine's treatment of Athanasius at this crisis in his fortunes has always been difficult to understand. Affecting, on the one hand, a show of indignation, as if he really believed in the political charge brought against the saint, he, on the other hand, refused to appoint a successor to the Alexandrian See, a thing which he might in consistency have been obliged to do had he taken seriously the condemnation proceedings carried through by the Eusebians at Tyre.
Meanwhile events of the greatest importance had taken place. Arius had died amid startlingly dramatic circumstances at Constantinople in 336; and the death of Constantine himself had followed, on the 22nd of May the year after. Some three weeks later the younger Constantine invited the exiled primate to return to his see; and by the end of November of the same year Athanasius was once more established in his episcopal city. His return was the occasion of great rejoicing. The people, as he himself tells us, ran in crowds to see his face; the churches were given over to a kind of jubilee; thanksgivings were offered up everywhere; and clergy and laity accounted the day the happiest in their lives. But already trouble was brewing in a quarter from which the saint might reasonably have expected it. The Eusebian faction, who from this time forth loom large as the disturbers of his peace, managed to win over to their side the weak-minded Emperor Constantius to whom the East had been assigned in the division of the empire that followed on the death of Constantine. The old charges were refurbished with a graver ecclesiastical accusation added by way of rider. Athanasius had ignored the decision of a duly authorized synod. He had returned to his see without the summons of ecclesiastical authority (Apol. c. Ar., loc. cit.). In the year 340, after the failure of the Eusebian malcontents to secure the appointment of an Arian candidate of dubious reputation names Pistus, the notorious Gregory of Cappadocia was forcibly intruded into the Alexandrian See, and Athanasius was obliged to go into hiding. Within a very few weeks he set out for Rome to lay his case before the Church at large. He had made his appeal to Pope Julius, who took up his cause with a whole-heartedness that never wavered down to the day of that holy pontiff's death. The pope summoned a synod of bishops to meet in Rome. After a careful and detailed examination of the entire case, the primate's innocence was proclaimed to the Christian world.
Meanwhile the Eusebian party had met at Antioch and passed a series of decrees framed for the sole purpose of preventing the saint's return to his see. Three years were passed at Rome, during which time the idea of the cenobitical life, as Athanasius had seen it practised in the deserts of Egypt, was preached to the clerics of the West (St. Jerome, Epistle cxxvii, 5). Two years after the Roman synod had published its decision, Athanasius was summoned to Milan by the Emperor Constans, who laid before him the plan which Constantius had formed for a great reunion of both the Eastern and Western Churches. Now began a time of extraordinary activity for the Saint. Early in the year 343 we find the undaunted exile in Gaul, whither he had gone to consult the saintly Hosius, the great champion of orthodoxy in the West. The two together set out for the Council of Sardica which had been summoned in deference to the Roman pontiff's wishes. At this great gathering of prelates the case of Athanasius was taken up once more; and once more was his innocence reaffirmed. Two conciliar letters were prepared, one to the clergy and faithful of Alexandria, and the other to the bishops of Egypt and Libya, in which the will of the Council was made known. Meanwhile the Eusebian party had gone to Philippopolis, where they issued an anathema against Athanasius and his supporters. The persecution against the orthodox party broke out with renewed vigour, and Constantius was induced to prepare drastic measures against Athanasius and the priests who were devoted to him. Orders were given that if the Saint attempted to re-enter his see, he should be put to death. Athanasius, accordingly, withdrew from Sardica to Naissus in Mysia, where he celebrated the Easter festival of the year 344. After that he set out for Aquileia in obedience to a friendly summons from Constans, to whom Italy had fallen in the division of the empire that followed on the death of Constantine. Meanwhile an unexpected event had taken place which made the return of Athanasius to his see less difficult than it had seemed for many months. Gregory of Cappadocia had died (probably of violence) in June, 345. The embassy which had been sent by the bishops of Sardica to the Emperor Constantius, and which had at first met with the most insulting treatment, now received a favourable hearing. Constantius was induced to reconsider his decision, owing to a threatening letter from his brother Constans and the uncertain condition of affairs of the Persian border, and he accordingly made up his mind to yield. But three separate letters were needed to overcome the natural hesitation of Athanasius. He passed rapidly from Aquileia to Treves, from Treves to Rome, and from Rome by the northern route to Adrianople and Antioch, where he met Constantius. He was accorded a gracious interview by the vacillating Emperor, and sent back to his see in triumph, where he began his memorable ten years' reign, which lasted down to the third exile, that of 356. These were full years in the life of the Bishop; but the intrigues of the Eusebian, or Court, party were soon renewed. Pope Julius had died in the month of April, 352, and Liberius had succeeded him as Sovereign Pontiff. For two years Liberius had been favourable to the cause of Athanasius; but driven at last into exile, he was induced to sign an ambiguous formula, from which the great Nicene test, the homoöusion, had been studiously omitted. In 355 a council was held at Milan, where in spite of the vigorous opposition of a handful of loyal prelates among the Western bishops, a fourth condemnation of Athanasius was announced to the world. With his friends scattered, the saintly Hosius in exile, the Pope Liberius denounced as acquiescing in Arian formularies, Athanasius could hardly hope to escape. On the night of 8 February, 356, while engaged in services in the Church of St. Thomas, a band of armed men burst in to secure his arrest (Apol. de Fuga, 24). It was the beginning of his third exile.
Through the influence of the Eusebian faction at Constantinople, an Arian bishop, George of Cappadocia, was now appointed to rule the see of Alexandria. Athanasius, after remaining some days in the neighbourhood of the city, finally withdrew into the deserts of upper Egypt, where he remained for a period of six years, living the life of the monks and devoting himself in his enforced leisure to the composition of that group of writings of which we have the rest in the "Apology to Constantius", the "Apology for his Flight", the "Letter to the Monks", and the "History of the Arians". Legend has naturally been busy with this period of the Saint's career; and we may find in the "Life of Pachomius" a collection of tales brimful of incidents, and enlivened by the recital of "deathless 'scapes in the breach." But by the close of the year 360 a change was apparent in the complexion of the anti-Nicene party. The Arians no longer presented an unbroken front to their orthodox opponents. The Emperor Constantius, who had been the cause of so much trouble, died 4 November, 361, and was succeeded by Julian. The proclamation of the new prince's accession was the signal for a pagan outbreak against the still dominant Arian faction in Alexandria. George, the usurping Bishop, was flung into prison and murdered amid circumstances of great cruelty, 24 December (Hist. Aceph., VI). An obscure presbyter of the name of Pistus was immediately chosen by the Arians to succeed him, when fresh news arrived that filled the orthodox party with hope. An edict had been put forth by Julian (Hist. Aceph., VIII) permitting the exiled bishops of the "Galileans" to return to their "towns and provinces". Athanasius received a summons from his own flock, and he accordingly re-entered his episcopal capital 22 February, 362. With characteristic energy he set to work to re-establish the somewhat shattered fortunes of the orthodox party and to purge the theological atmosphere of uncertainty. To clear up the misunderstandings that had arisen in the course of the previous years, an attempt was made to determine still further the significance of the Nicene formularies. In the meanwhile, Julian, who seems to have become suddenly jealous of the influence that Athanasius was exercising at Alexandria, addressed an order to Ecdicius, the Prefect of Egypt, peremptorily commanding the expulsion of the restored primate, on the ground that he had never been included in the imperial act of clemency. The edict was communicated to the bishop by Pythicodorus Trico, who, though described in the "Chronicon Athanasianum" (xxxv) as a "philosopher", seems to have behaved with brutal insolence. On 23 October the people gathered about the proscribed bishop to protest against the emperor's decree; but the saint urged them to submit, consoling them with the promise that his absence would be of short duration. The prophecy was curiously fulfilled. Julian terminated his brief career 26 June, 363; and Athanasius returned in secret to Alexandria, where he soon received a document from the new emperor, Jovian, reinstating him once more in his episcopal functions. His first act was to convene a council which reaffirmed the terms of the Nicene Creed. Early in September he set out for Antioch, bearing a synodal letter, in which the pronouncements of this council had been embodied. At Antioch he had an interview with the new emperor, who received him graciously and even asked him to prepare an exposition of the orthodox faith. But in the following February Jovian died; and in October, 364, Athanasius was once more an exile.
With the turn of circumstances that handed over to Valens the control of the East this article has nothing to do; but the accession of the emperor gave a fresh lease of life to the Arian party. He issued a decree banishing the bishops who has been deposed by Constantius, but who had been permitted by Jovian to return to their sees. The news created the greatest consternation in the city of Alexandria itself, and the prefect, in order to prevent a serious outbreak, gave public assurance that the very special case of Athanasius would be laid before the emperor. But the saint seems to have divined what was preparing in secret against him. He quietly withdrew from Alexandria, 5 October, and took up his abode in a country house outside the city. It was during this period that he is said to have spent four months in hiding in his father's tomb (Soz., "Hist. Eccl.", VI, xii; Doc., "Hist. Eccl.", IV, xii). Valens, who seems to have sincerely dreaded the possible consequences of a popular outbreak, gave order within a very few weeks for the return of Athanasius to his see. And now began that last period of comparative repose which unexpectedly terminated his strenuous and extraordinary career. He spent his remaining days, characteristically enough, in re-emphasizing the view of the Incarnation which had been defined at Nicaea and which has been substantially the faith of the Christian Church from its earliest pronouncement in Scripture down to its last utterance through the lips of Pius X in our own times. "Let what was confessed by the Fathers of Nicaea prevail", he wrote to a philosopher-friend and correspondent in the closing years of his life (Epist. lxxi, ad Max.). That that confession did at last prevail in the various Trinitarian formularies that followed upon that of Nicaea was due, humanly speaking, more to his laborious witness than to that of any other champion in the long teachers' roll of Catholicism. By one of those inexplicable ironies that meet us everywhere in human history, this man, who had endured exile so often, and risked life itself in defence of what he believed to be the first and most essential truth of the Catholic creed, died not by violence or in hiding, but peacefully in his own bed, surrounded by his clergy and mourned by the faithful of the see he had served so well. His feast in the Roman Calendar is kept on the anniversary of his death.
All the essential materials for the Saint's biography are to be found in his writings, especially in those written after the year 350, when the Apologia contra Arianos was composed. Supplementary information will be found in ST. EPIPHANIUS, Hoer., loc. cit.; in ST. GREGORY OF NAZIANZUS, Orat., xxi; also RUFINUS, SOCRATES, SOZMEN, and THEODORET. The Historia Acephala, or Maffeian Fragment (discovered by Maffei in 1738, and inserted by GALLANDI in Bibliotheca Patrum, 1769), and the Chronicon Athanasianum, or Index to the Festal Letters, give us data for the chronological problem. All the foregoing sources are included in MIGNE, P. G. and P. L. The great PAPEBROCH'S Life is in the Acta SS., May, I. The most important authorities in English are: NEWMAN, Arians of the Fourth Century, and Saint Athanasius; BRIGHT, Dictionary of Christian Biography; ROBERTSON, Life, in the Prolegomena to the Select Writings and Letters of Saint Athanasius (re-edited in Library of the Nicene and post-Nicene Fathers, New York, 1903); GWATKIN, Studies of Arianism (2d ed., Cambridge, 1900); MOHLER, Athanasius der Grosse; HERGENROTHER and HEFELE.
The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume II
Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York
Although it is unfamiliar to
most Catholics today, the Athanasian Creed is one of the approved creeds of the Catholic Church (the others being the Nicene Creed, Apostles' Creed
& Tridentine Creed (Creed of Pope Pius IV). It dates from the fourth century, the time of Saint Athanasias (c. 297-373), bishop of Alexandria and vigorous opponent of the
Arian heresy, which denied the two natures of Christ. These errors,
promoted by Arius, a priest of Alexandria, plagued the Church for centuries,
though Arianism was condemned by the Council of Nicea I in 325. The Athanasian Creed is a
succinct summary of the doctrine of the Trinity and the Incarnation, making
very clear by repeating statements in various ways the trinity of Persons in
God, and the twofold nature in the one Divine Person of Jesus Christ.
St. Athanasius, the great Doctor of
the Church, and intrepid defender of the Catholic faith, was born. at
Alexandria, the Capital of Egypt, in the year of our Lord 294. His parents,
who belonged to the nobility, were also God-fearing people, and Athanasius was
gifted by the Almighty with such great talents, that when still very young in
years, he had already made unusual progress in sacred as well as profane
science. He was, however, not less assiduous in the practice of virtue and
piety than he was in his studies. Desirous of leading a holy life he went to
the hermit Anthony, and remained two years under him. He would probably never
have left him, had not Alexander, the Patriarch of Alexandria, recalled him to
the city, that he might aid him against the heretics, which he faithfully did.
The Patriarch made St. Athanasius his companion to the celebrated Council of
Nice, where, although he was at that time only deacon, he refuted the Arian
heresy so thoroughly, that all present admired his skill and erudition. This,
however, drew upon him the hatred of the Arians to such a degree, that until
his death they regarded him as their worst enemy, and persecuted him in all
possible ways. Shortly before the death of St. Alexander he left the city
secretly, fearing that he might be chosen as his successor. The Patriarch,
informed of this, said with prophetic inspiration: "Athanasius, Athanasius,
you think to save yourself by flight; but it will not release you from the
Patriarchal Chair." After the death of St. Alexander, neither the clergy nor
the people would have any other patriarch than Athanasius. For six months they
searched everywhere for him, and at length, when he was found, he yielded with
many tears to the general wish. Experience showed that his election as
Patriarch was really ordained by God for the welfare of the faithful. He
proved himself a watchful shepherd over his flock, as well as a kind father to
the poor. There was hardly a place in his large diocese which he did not visit
yearly, and everywhere he frequently preached. In his own life he was very
austere and kept a rigorous fast.
The Arians endeavored, at first, to prevent him from being raised to the dignity of Patriarch, and, not succeeding in this, they tried to make him hateful to the people, as well as to the Emperor, by the most horrible calumnies. The Emperor ordered Athanasius to defend himself against these accusations in a Council which was held at Tyre. The greater part of the Bishops who were present at this Council were followers of Arius, and hence, bitter enemies of the Saint, nevertheless he appeared before them. The first witness against him was a disreputable woman, whose evidence had been bought with money. She, without even knowing the Saint by sight, said that he had taken lodgings in her house, and had done violence to her. Timotheus, a priest, who was on the side of Athanasius, pretended to be the Patriarch, and addressing the wicked woman, said, "What! have I taken lodgings at your house? Have I forced you to so gross a sin?" "Yes;" answered she; "you have done this," and confirmed her words with an oath. The whole assemblage, although mostly against the Saint, were obliged to acknowledge the falsity of the accusations and the innocence of Athanasius.
The Arians, finding that this conspiracy did not succeed, soon found something else wherewith to charge him. They had some time previously spread abroad the rumor that Athanasius had killed a certain bishop, named Arsenius, and that he used the right hand of the dead man to practice witchcraft. They even showed a hand in a box, maintaining that it was the hand of Arsenius. The bishop himself, who was still alive, they kept hidden that the falsity of their accusation might not be discovered. But God brought it to pass that Arsenius, escaped from imprisonment and arrived at the house of St. Athanasius just as the latter was summoned before the Council. At the moment when he was accused of the murder of the bishop, he had Arsenius brought before the assemblage, and pointing to the two hands of the bishop, again overwhelmed his enemies with shame and confusion. The latter, becoming more and more enraged, prevailed at length upon the otherwise pious Emperor Constantine to banish the Saint to Trieste. After the Emperor's death, Constantine, his successor, recalled Athanasius, and sent him with a letter of safe conduct to his See. The Catholics received their holy Patriarch with great joy, which, however, did not last long, as the Arians had chosen a bishop of their own sect, who drove Athanasius, with arms in hand, out of the city.
Proceeding to Rome he sought and found assistance from the Pope, who, after having tried the Saint in a special Council and found him innocent of the accusations against him, requested the Emperor to restore him again in his See. The request was granted, but the Arian heretics became so infuriated, that they once more drove St. Athanasius away. He then lived for five years concealed in a cistern, where his food was brought to him,by an intimate friend. At the commencement of the reign of the Emperor Julian, he returned to his flock for the third time. Hearing, however, that the Emperor, at the instigation of the heretics, had issued an order to take his life, he scarcely escaped, with some friends, on a vessel; but soon retracing his steps, he returned to the city, where he remained concealed until the Emperor's death. During the reign of the pious Emperor, Jovian, he appeared again in public and ruled his church with great zeal. After the death of Jovian, Valens, a protector of the Arians, came to the throne, when the latter, as a first favor, requested the Emperor to banish Athanasius from his See. He willingly acceded to their wish, but before the order could be executed, Athanasius had concealed himself in the tomb of his father. The Christians at Alexandria were at length unwilling to suffer any longer the absence of their shepherd, and began publicly to make complaints. The Emperor, fearing an insurrection, gave orders to search for Athanasius, and in future to leave him unmolested in his Church. The orders were carried out, and the holy patriarch, who had suffered so many persecutions, administered the affairs of his Episcopate peacefully until his death.
St. Athanasius was in all his dangers and persecutions magnanimous and of undisturbed mind. When he saved himself by flight, or concealed himself from his enemies, it was in order to be able longer to assist the Catholics and to protect them against the heretics. Those who pitied him in his exile or other adversities he comforted with the words: "This storm will soon pass over." But when they represented to him the displeasures of the Arian Emperors, which he drew upon himself by his zeal for the true faith, he always undauntedly replied: "I fear God only, not men."
The Roman Martyrology says of him as follows: "At Alexandria, the feast of St. Athanasius, bishop of the same city, who was great in learning and holiness, but whom the whole world seems to have conspired to persecute. He nevertheless bravely defended the Catholic faith from the reign of Constantine to that of Valens, against the Emperors, governors, and numberless Arian bishops, from all of whom he suffered many persecutions, and was driven about from place to place. At last he was permitted to return to his Church, from which he was called to God in the reign of the Emperors Valentinian and Valens, after having been priest during 46 years, and after having valiantly fought many battles and earned many crowns of patience."
There exists at this day a creed which bears the name of St. Athanasius. It commences thus: "Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he believe the Catholic faith. Whosoever keep it not wholly and inviolably, without doubt, shall be eternally lost."
Many, however, say that this creed was not written by Athanasius, but that others composed it out of the Saint's works. Nevertheless, it has been received by many non-Catholics, even by Luther himself, as a true creed. The word "Catholic," Luther changed into " Christian," which, however, is a wicked forgery. But it is easy to perceive why this was done. It was too clear in the above words that the Catholic faith is necessary for salvation and that those who have died out of its pale are lost. This sentence of Athanasius, or of some other ancient teacher, did not suit Luther and he therefore substituted the word " Christian" for "Catholic;" as if anybody could be really a Christian without being a Catholic. He had before made a similar interpolation in the ninth article of the Apostles' creed; indeed the whole heresy is a tissue of corruption and falsehood.
storm will soon pass over." With these words St. Athanasius comforted himself
as well as others. The persecutions he compared to a storm which, although
sometimes violent and fierce, does not last long. It is generally followed by
cheerful weather and bright sunshine which last longer than the storm. The
Saint had often had personal experience .of this. At last, however, the
persecutions ceased, and he possessed his See in peace. But even had adversity
followed him to the end of his days, still his words above mentioned would
remain true. The trials would have passed, would soon have ended, because St.
Jerome rightly says: "What ends with time is of short duration," in comparison
with Eternity. May you also comfort yourself with the recollection of these
words when a storm assails you. It will soon pass away; it will cease; it
lasts not for ever. But still, during the storm, do not neglect to follow the
example of the Apostles, who, while a tempest lashed the waves of the ! sea,
cried :" Lord save us, we perish." Your God has still the power to calm wind
and sea. "The winds and the sea obey him" (Math. viii.).
II. St. Athanasius is wrongfully accused of the most horrible vice. He defends himself, exposes the falsity of his calumniators, brings his innocence to light, but demands no vengeance of God, neither does he curse or hate his enemies. God permits you to defend yourself, if you are calumniated or falsely accused of wickedness, but he does not permit you to hate or curse your enemies, nor to demand or take vengeance on them. "Vengeance belongeth to me ; "says He, " and I will repay." "The Lord is a Lord of vengeance," says David, not man. If you desire to take vengeance on your enemy, you anticipate the Lord to your own great damage, as he says: "He that seeketh to revenge himself shall find vengeance from the Lord" (Eccles. xxviii.). Such a man harms himself much more than he can harm his neighbor with all his vengeance. St. Lawrence Justinian says: "Those who desire to take vengeance on others manifest clearly that they are children of hell, where the fire is never quenched."
I. My most loving Saint, behold me kneeling at thy feet, beseeching thee with all the affection of my heart to grant me thy special protection, particularly when in danger of offending God. O my dear and holy advocate, remember me before the throne of the most holy Trinity, and obtain for me from the infinite goodness of God, the virtues of humility, purity, obedience, and the grace to fulfill exactly the duties of my state.
II. O my dear Saint Athanasius, I renew to the Lord, through thee, thy the holy resolutions which I have frequently made of intending to love and serve Him faithfully. I am resolved to detach myself from every earthly thing, and I desire ardently to unite myself to Him, as my first beginning, last end, and sovereign good. My dear St.Athanasius, I beseech thee to offer to the most holy Trinity the sacrifice of my whole being, particularly of my judgment and will, in order to conform fully to God most holy, because I desire nothing else besides His grace and His holy love.
III. My sweet and holy Protector St. Athanasius, behold me again full of love for thee and full of confidence, beseeching thee to cast thyself on thy knees before the throne of the most holy Trinity, and entreat most ardently that God, through His infinite goodness, may grant me the grace to fly sin, and the gift of final perseverance. Thou knowest, O my dear Saint , how great are the temptations to which man is subject, and bow continual are the perils I run of being lost; do thou assist me with thy efficacious payers.
Most holy, most august, most amiable and divine Trinity, I fall prostrate before the throne of Thy immense majesty, and full of the sweetest confidence, I present to Thee the merits of .this, Thy servant, and those, moreover, of holy Mary, whom Thou hast given me as a most loving Mother, Queen, and Advocate. Therefore, I beseech Thee, in view of their merits, be pleased to grant me the graces which I particularly desire.... O Lord, I hope in Thee, let me not be confounded. Grant my prayer, O Lord, and have pity on me.
In the law
there was a precept that cities of refuge should be established, so that those
who in any way soever were sought for to be put to death, might have means of
saving themselves. And in the consummation of the ages, when that same Word of
the Father was come among us, who before had spoken to Moses, he gave this
commandment again, saying: When they shall persecute you in this city, flee
into another. And a little later he added: When you shall see that abomination
of desolation, which was spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy
place (he that readeth, let him understand), then they that are in Judea, let
them flee to the mountains; and he that is on the house-top, let him not come
down to take anything out of his house; and he that is in the field, let him
not go back to take his coat.
Knowing these things, the Saints ordered their own conduct accordingly. For what the Lord now commanded, was the same also as he had spoken through his Saints before his coming in the flesh; and this rule leads men to perfection. For what God has commanded is most certainly to be done. And so the Word Himself, made man for us, did not disdain to hide himself even as we do, when he was sought after; and when he suffeed persecution, to flee and avoid the snares. But when He Himself had arrived at the time He had appointed, wherein He willed to suffer in the body for all, He gave Himself up of His own accord to the snares.
Holy men, then, having learnt this example of the Savior (for they were all taught by him, whether of old or in these latter days), acted lawfully in their struggles against their persecutors, by fleeing and by hiding themselves when sought after. For since they did not know the end of time appointed for them by divine providence, they would not rashly give themselves up to those who lay in wait for them; but on the other hand, knowing that it is written, that in the hands of God are the lots of men, and that the Lord kills and makes live; they rather persevered unto the end, going about, as the Apostle says, in sheepskins and goatskins, being in want, distressed, wandering in deserts, and lying hid in dens and caves of the earth, until either the time appointed for their death should come, or God, Who had appointed that same time, should speak with them, and restrain their snares, or else give them over to their persecutors, according as seemed good to Him.
of our divine King, during this grandest of Seasons, is brilliant beyond
measure: and, today, it is gladdened by the arrival of one of the most
glorious champions that ever fought for his holy cause. Among the guardians of
the Word of Truth, confided by Jesus to the earth, is there one more faithful
than Athanasius? Does not his very name remind us of dauntless courage in the
defence of the sacred deposit, of heroic firmness and patience in suffering,
of learning, of talent, of eloquence, in a word, of everything that goes to
form a Saint, a Bishop, and a Doctor of the Church? Athanasius lived for the
Son of God; the cause of the Son of God was that of Athanasius: he who blessed
Athanasius, blessed the eternal Word; and he insulted the eternal Word, who
Never did our holy Faith go through a greater ordeal, than in the sad times immediately following the peace of the Church, when the Bark of Peter had to pass through the most furious storm that hell has, so far, let loose against her. Satan had vainly sought to drown the Christian race in a sea of blood; the sword of persecution had grown blunt in the hands of Dioclesian and Galerius; and the Cross appeared in the heavens, proclaiming the triumph of Christianity. Scarcely had the Church become aware of her victory, when she felt herself shaken to her very foundation. Hell sent upon the earth a heresy which threatened to blight the fruit of three hundred years of Martyrdom. Arius began his impious doctrine, that He, who had hitherto been adored as the Son of God, was only a creature, though the most perfect of all creatures. Immense was the number, even of the clergy, that fell into this new error; the Emperors became its abettors; and had not God Himself interposed, men would soon have set up the cry throughout the world, that the only result of the victory gained by the Christian Religion, was to change the object of idolatry, and put a new idol, called Jesus, in place of the old ones.
But He Who had promised, that the gates of hell should never prevail against His Church, faithfully fulfilled His promise. The primitive faith triumphed; the Council of Nicaea proclaimed the Son to be consubstantial to the Father; but the Church stood in need of a man in whom the cause of the Consubstantial Word should be, so to speak, incarnated, a man, with learning enough to foil the artifices of heresy, and with courage enough to bear every persecution without flinching. This man was Athanasius: and every one that adores and loves the Son of God, should love and honour Athanasius. Five times banished from his See of Alexandria by the Arians, who even sought to put him to death, he fled for protection to the West, which justly appreciated the glorious Confessor of Jesus' Divinity. In return for the hospitality accorded him by Rome, Athanasius gave her of his treasures. Being the admirer and friend of the great St. Antony, he was a fervent admirer of the Monastic Life, which, by the grace of the Holy Ghost, had flourished so wonderfully in the deserts of his vast Patriarchate. He brought the precious seed to Rome, and the first Monks seen there were the ones introduced by Athanasius. The heavenly plant became naturalized in its new soil; and though its growth was slow at first, it afterwards produced fruit more abundantly than it had ever done in the East.
Athanasius, who has written so admirably upon that fundamental dogma of our Faith, the Divinity of Christ, has also left us most eloquent treatises on the mystery of the Pasch: they are to be found in the Festal Letters, which he addressed, each year, to the Churches of his Patriarchate of Alexandria. The collection of these Letters, which were once thought to have been irretrievably lost, was found, a few years back, in the Monastery of St. Mary of Scete, in Egypt. The first, for the year 329, begins with these words, which beautifully express the sentiments we should feel at the approach of Easter: " Come, my beloved Brethren, celebrate the Feast; the season of the year invites you to do so. The Sun of Justice, by pouring out his divine rays upon you, tells you that the time of the Solemnity is come. At such tidings, let us keep a glad feast; let not the joy slip from us, with the fleeting days, without our having tasted of its sweetness." During almost every year of his banishment, Athanasius continued to address a Paschal Letter to his people. The one in which he announces the Easter of 338, and which he wrote at Treves, begins thus: " Though separated from you, my Brethren, I cannot break through the custom which I have always observed, and which I received from the tradition of the Fathers. I will not be silent; I will not omit announcing to you the time of the holy annual Feast, and the day on which you must keep the Solemnity. I am, as you have doubtless been told, a prey to many tribulations; I am weighed down by heavy trials; I am watched by the enemies of truth, who scrutinise everything I write, in order to rake up accusations against me and, thereby, add to my sufferings; yet notwithstanding, I feel that the Lord strengthens and consoles me in my afflictions. Therefore do I venture to address to you the annual celebration; and from the midst of my troubles, and despite the snares that beset me, I send you, from the further most part of the earth, the tidings of the Pasch, which is our salvation. Commending my fate into God's hands, I will celebrate this Feast with you; distance of place separates us, but I am not absent from you. The Lord Who gives us these Feasts, Who is Himself our Feast, Who bestows upon us the gift of His Spirit, He unites us spiritually to one another, by the bond of concord and peace."
How grand is this Pasch, celebrated by Athanasius an exile on the Rhine, in union with his people who keep their Easter on the banks of the Nile! It shows us the power of the Liturgy, to unite men together, and make them, at one and the same time, and despite the distance of countries, enjoy the same holy emotions, and feel the same aspirations to virtue. Greeks or Barbarians, we have all the same mother-country, the Church; but what, after Faith, unites us all into one family, is the Church's Liturgy. Now there is nothing, in the whole Liturgy, so expressive of unity, as the celebration of Easter.
The unhappy Churches of Russia and the East, by keeping Easter on a different day from that on which it is celebrated by the rest of the Christian World, show that they are not a portion of the One Fold of which our Risen Jesus is the One Shepherd.
Easter letter by Saint Athanasius
Brethren, how fine a thing it is to move from festival to festival, from prayer to prayer, from holy day to holy day. The time is now at hand when we enter on a new beginning: the proclamation of the blessed Passover, in which the Lord was sacrificed. We feed as on the food of life, we constantly refresh our souls with his precious blood, as from a fountain. Yet we are always thirsting, burning to be satisfied. But he himself is present for those who thirst and in his goodness invites them to the feast day. Our Savior repeats his words: If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.
He quenched the thirst not only of those who came to him then. Whenever anyone seeks him he is freely admitted to the presence of the Savior. The grace of the feast is not restricted to one occasion. Its rays of glory never set. It is always at hand to enlighten the mind of those who desire it. Its power is always there for those whose minds have been enlightened and who meditate day and night on the holy Scriptures, like the one who is called blessed in the holy psalm: Blessed is the man who has not followed the counsel of the wicked, or stood where sinners stand, or sat in the seat of the scornful, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night.
Moreover, my friends, the God who first established this feast for us allows us to celebrate it each year. He who gave up his Son to death for our salvation, from the same motive gives us this feast, which is commemorated every year. This feast guides us through the trials that meet us in this world. God now gives us the joy of salvation that shines out from this feast, as he brings us together to form one assembly, uniting us all in spirit in every place, allowing us to pray together and to offer common thanksgiving, as is our duty on the feast. Such is the wonder of his love: he gathers to this feast those who are far apart, and brings together in unity of faith those who may be physically separated from each other.
Some text courtesy of http://catholicharboroffaithandmorals.com/