EVERY student of Church History in the fourth century knows that it was St. Athanasius who, in 'the forty years of the Arian reaction that followed the Council of Nicaea, stood for and saved the Catholic faith in the Godhead of our Lord. From that long and lone confessorship Athanasius contra mundum has passed into a proverb; and every generation of Christians, from his own onwards, has done him honour. But before he came into prominence in the Church, and even before the Arian heresy was heard of, Athanasius had written a pair of little books ; and had he done nothing else, the second of these would have entitled him to lasting fame. It is that book, the treatise Of the Incarnation of the Word of God, which is reproduced here. We shall best understand it if we consider the circumstances of its author's early life; and the book itself, in its turn, will illuminate his later years.
Athanasius was an Egyptian by birth and a Greek by education. His ancestors may have seen Israel go out of Egypt and the Holy Family come in; but, apart from a reference to two prophecies about that country, he shows no sign of national consciousness, nor does he, as do many of the Egyptian saints, display the Coptic temperament. His home was in Alexandria, the brilliant cosmopolitan name-city of the Macedonian conqueror who, six centuries before, had laid the foundations of Athanasius' world; and most of his life was spent in the same place. The exact date of his birth is not recorded, but it can be inferred. He was too young to remember the events of 303; and his election to the episcopate in June 328 was impugned by some on the ground that he had not reached the canonical age. It is unlikely that this was true; probably he was just thirty, and that would put his birth in the first half of z98. His parents were wealthy and of good standing; and their little son, for little he always was in stature, received a liberal as well as a Christian education at the famous Catechetical School. From the circumstances of the time he received a further training, more precious than anything the fondest parent could have planned. February 303 saw the beginning of the last and greatest persecution, after forty years of peace; and this, both in its inception under Diocletian and in its recrudescence under Maximin, was particularly severe in Egypt. The Church of Alexandria, already so rich in martyrs, became richer yet ; and among them were many whom Athanasius knew, men and women from whom he had learned the Catholic faith and a loving intimacy with Holy Scripture, children with whom, probably, he had worked and played. This much, and the profound impression that it made on his young soul, we know from himself in the De Incarnatione. The persecution ended in Egypt in 311; Athanasius from his fifth year to his fourteenth had lived in the midst of it. All through the most impressionable years of his childhood he had not only learnt the Christian faith, he had seen it in action. He had faced the possibility of martyrdom for himself; and he had made his own the faith for and by which the martyrs died-the faith of the CreatorWord Incarnate, the crucified and risen, the living and triumphant Christ.
It seems that another great influence in the life of Athanasius dates from the period of the persecution, and may have been actually a result of it. The persecutions of the third century had driven many Alexandrian Christians to take refuge in the Egyptian desert; and some had found there a life so congenial to Christian piety that, when the danger was over, they did not return. Thus was born monasticism which was destined, when persecutions were past, to take their place as the leaven of the Church's life. The impetus to asceticism continued in the interval of peace; and thirteen years before Athanasius was born a young Copt of the name of Antony had taken up his abode as a solitary in a ruined fort at Pispir, on the right bank of the Nile. He emerged after twenty years a monument of Christian sanity; and in the Diocletian persecution, which was then beginning, he became the head and centre of monasticism in the Egyptian desert. Athanasius, who subsequently wrote Antony's life, says that he himself "was his attendant for a long time." (Robertson op cit p 195) Athanasius was so early and so completely engulfed in public affairs that there seems no place for this companionship except in his boyhood; but his parents may well have sent him to the safety of the desert during the persecution, and he may have visited Antony again later. Be this as it may, it is certain that Athanasius held Antony in utmost reverence, and that there was between them, for all their difference, one of the closest and most fruitful of Christian friendships.
The persecution terminated finally with the Edict of Milan in 313; and it was about six years later that the Alexandrian presbyter Arius began to teach concerning the Word of God that "once He was not." At some time before that, probably in 318, Athanasius wrote the two little books already referred to. He wrote them, so he tells us, for the instruction of one Macarius, a recent convert whom, from the affectionate friendliness of Athanasius' address, we should judge to have been a young man of 'about his own age. The first is entitled Contra Gentes or Against the Heathen. In this he refutes contemporary paganism and demonstrates the possibility of the knowledge of God by the human soul. In the De Incarnatione he sets forth the positive content of the Christian faith, as he has himself received it. Therein lies its value. It is not speculative, it is not original; as far as Christians are concerned it is not even controversial, for the need for defending the central truth of the Godhead of the Word within the Church itself had not yet arisen. It is a statement of the traditional faith of the Catholic Church; and there is, in a sense, nothing of Athanasius in it, for the wonder of the mystery fills all the picture and leaves no room for the author to obtrude himself. Yet by a true Christian paradox his whole self is in it, and it is through his personality that the dynamic truth is mediated to us.
Athanasius had been a member of the Patriarch's household for some years before he wrote these books. Thereafter his rise to prominence was rapid. Though he was present at the Council of Nicaea in 325 only as a voteless deacon, he succeeded his patron in the Patriarchate of Alexandria three years later ; and it was as Patriarch of Alexandria that he died, beloved and triumphant, on May 2, 373.
The story of the intervening years has been often told, and from the external standpoint it is one of the ugliest chapters in Church History. But in Athanasius the authentic principle of redemption was at work, and he turned every circumstance to gold. Slandered, persecuted, exiled, the small figure moves from scene to scene, unmoved in confidence and calm. If we have read the De Incarnatirnte we know his secret. That "active, arduous peace of poise and balance in a disordered world," that steadfast, single-minded loyalty, that persevering charity, that saving humour, are the fruit of his inner absorption in the mystery of Christ. He knew that the very existence of the Church was at stake; but he was utterly certain of the truth and he knew that it must in time prevail. At the same time he was deeply conscious that the truth transcended his grasp. Forty years after the De Incarnatione, he wrote to his friends the monks about another book that he had tried to write, "the more I desired to write and endeavoured to force myself to understand the Divinity of the Word, so much the more did the knowledge thereof withdraw itself from me ; and in proportion as I thought that I had apprehended it, in so much I perceived myself to fail of doing so. Moreover also, I was unable to express in writing even what I seemed to myself to understand, and that which I wrote was unequal to the imperfect shadow of the truth which existed in my conception."' Athanasius was not Augustine, and it needed no vision of the child by the seashore to teach him intellectual humility. The book in question has not survived, because Athanasius would not allow it to be copied. "It is not safe," he said, "that the writings of us babblers and private persons should fall into the hands of those that shall come after." (Robertson, op. cit. pp. 563 f)
His relations with the monks, the spiritual sons of Antony, run through the troubled years like a peaceful current beneath a stormy sea. The monks were unswerving in their loyalty to him; and he was consistent in his support of them. It was as "one of the ascetics" that he himself had been acclaimed for election to the episcopate; and it may be that he longed for the monastic vocation, even as Antony longed for martyrdom, and was not granted it. Even the De Incarnatione, written in his youth, shows the utter devotion of the monk at heart, and the same characteristic appears all through his life. When he came back to Alexandria in 338, after his first exile, old Antony left his solitude for, a two days' visit to the city in order to give public estimony for the Catholic cause; and Athanasius himself escorted him on his return. Two years later, when Athanasius was again driven into exile, he took two of Antony's monks with him to Rome, where asceticism had hitherto met with small appreciation; and, by telling the Roman Christians from his own experience of Antony and "the purpose of monks," the exiled bishop planted in the Latin Church those seeds of the monastic life which were to flower in St. Benedict and St. Bernard and the whole Religious system of the West. In 346, on his second return, he was met by greetings from Antony ; and shortly afterwards he gave the seal of his approval to Pachomius' coenobitic monastery at Tabennisi by ordaining its founder as priest. The monks were Copts, and given at times to Coptic extravagance ; they were for the most part uneducated, and the great Antony himself was quite illiterate. Athanasius, as we have seen, though a Copt by birth, was in all else completely Greek. But there is a wisdom of the Spirit which is independent of letters, and the monks had it. Athanasius always knew the real thing when he saw it.
Antony of the Desert, warrior and saint of God, died in 356 at the age of a hundred and five; and in the same year Athanasius was exiled for the third time. His return in 361 was short; in the following year he was exiled again until 364, and again, for the fifth time, in 365. This time, however, the end of his troubles was in sight. On February 1, 366 an order was issued for his reinstatement. The battle was won, and he had seven years of life still before him, seven years of authentic Sabbath rest, peaceful yet busy, seven years of correspondence with Basil, who was founding monasticism in Cappadocia on the Egyptian model, seven years of stabilising and consolidating his dear Egyptian Church. His passing in 373 on the second of May has somewhat obscured his fame in the Church's calendar, for, where the Divine Office is said, he loses his first Vespers to St. Philip and St. James, and his second to the Finding of the Cross. We may regret this, but Athanasius himself doubtless finds the lowest place wholly to his taste.
We will conclude with the testimony of his own contemporary, Gregory of Nazianzus, the intimate friend of Basil. Writing a few years after Athanasius' death, he begins thus:- (Greg. Naz. Or. xxi., trans. Browne and Swallow, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. vii)
" In praising Athanasius I shall be praising virtue ... because he had, or, to speak more truly, he has embraced virtue in its entirety. For .all who have lived according to God's will still live unto God, though they have departed hence. . . . Again, in praising virtue I shall be praising God, Who gives virtue to men, and lifts them up ... to Himself by the enlightenment which is akin to Himself."
To that Non nobis, Domine, Athanasius would be the first to say Amen. Gregory then goes on to amplify what he has said about his Christian completeness. From the study of Scripture, he says : r
"He grew rich in contemplation, rich in splendour of life, combining them in wondrous sort by that golden bond which few can weave, using life as the guide of contemplation, contemplation as the seal of life."
He tells how Athanasius was raised up for the Church's need, and then describes how he fulfilled his office.
" He was sublime in action, lowly in mind ; inaccessible in virtue, most accessible in intercourse; gentle, free from anger, sympathetic, sweet in words, ?sweeter in disposition; angelic in appearance, more angelic in mind; calm in rebuke, persuasive in praise, without spoiling the good effect of either by excess, but rebuking with the tenderness of a father, praising with the dignity of a ruler, his tenderness was not dissipated nor his severity sour, for the one was reasonable, the other prudent, and both truly wise; his disposition sufficed for the training of his spiritual children, with very little need of words ; his words with very little need of the rod, and his moderate use of the rod with still less for the knife.... He was the patron of the wedded and of the virgin state alike, both peaceable and a peacemaker, and attendant upon those who are passing from hence. . . . In a good old age he closed his life, and was gathered to his fathers, the patriarchs and prophets and apostles and martyrs, who contended for the truth."
Finally, Gregory invokes Athanasius himself, the living Athanasius beyond the veil.
" 0 thou dear and holy one ... mayest thou cast upon us from above a propitious glance, and conduct this people in its perfect worship of the perfect Trinity, whom as Father, Son, Holy Ghost, we contemplate and adore. And mayest thou ... possess and aid me in my pastoral charge, uphold me, take me to thee, and set me with thyself and those like thee ... in Christ Himself our Lord, to Whom be aft glory, honour and power, for evermore. Amen."
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