What a week of feasts! And what a feast today - the great Athanasius - the Doctor of Doctors, the defender of Christ's divinity in an age when even many in the Church were tempted over to Arianism. Talking to a friend last night, Athanasius came up in the conversation: "Ah yes," my friend said, "the Saint for our times." And indeed he is. Struggling as we do in this most secular, anti-life age, Great Athanasius is a model of fortitude and a welcome intercessor as we too try to proclaim the truth and suffer for our fidelity.
Athanasius, as you know, endured savage opposition, oppression from the secular rulers of his day and was deprived of his diocese and his home for his preaching. As with St John Chrysostom after him, the emperor and his allies tried to break Athanasius down, yet they could not for the power of God sustained this humble servant of Christ. Despite all their efforts Athanasius just kept coming back.
There is good news for us in this. If we abandon ourselves to the power of Christ, if we stay faithful to him and with open hearts be prepared to "endure whatever comes" for love of Christ, then we will ultimately triumph. That triumph may take some time to come, we may not see it ourselves on this earth, but it will come. Like Athanasius we must be witnesses to hope and see, even in our suffering and exile, a joy and peace that can fill our hearts and souls. In the end, God is in charge, we are mere servants.
A few thoughts to share with you. Exile was part of Athanasius' suffering - exile from his dear people. Exile is an experience many of us may have to face in these difficult times - perhaps not a physical exile, but a psychological one. What do I mean by that? I mean that we who seek to be faithful to Christ, to be true to the Gospel of life, may find that we are gradually becoming strangers in our own native land.
Ultimately we must remember that we have no abiding city on this earth. As the ancient writer Diogenes reminds us even our motherland is a foreign country - we will never fit in - at least we should never fit in. We are pilgrims here, and though we must do what we can to make this "vale of tears" a better place, and it is the crucible in which we work out our salvation, we are still only passing through.
That said we have a responsibility for our brothers and sister who are here - we must help them on their pilgrim journey, and so our concern for this world is ultimately a concern for our brothers and sisters, their welfare, their salvation. For them and for God we must preach the Gospel and be servants of the truth. So, as Christians, while we do not make our home here, we are engaged here for the sake of salvation.
St Athanasius reminds us of this too - he was at home in the desert with St Antony and his monks as he was in his native Alexandria. He was concerned about souls, and so should we, even the souls of our enemies. This helped him to be generous in forgiveness while strident in his preaching and writing. As we face the present difficulties, we should learn from him. We do not resign our responsibilities, we do not turn our backs on the world because our brothers and sisters live in the world, and the world was created by God for us: we may be pilgrims, but the road we walk was laid out by God - it is his footpath, and we need not yield it to God's enemies human or otherwise.
And with Athanasius we must pray for those who persecute us. In my conversation with my friend we reflected on the members of our government - one day they will have to stand before God and answer for what they are doing. Indeed if they do not repent, they will have a difficult end. Reading the lives of tyrants is always insightful: many of them had dreadful ends and many of them seemed to have died without repenting of the evil they did. While we can say to ourselves that they deserved it, if we truly care for the salvation of souls the loss of one soul is a tragedy and we must do what we can to prevent it. There is no greater sorrow for God than the loss of a soul.
We may not like our legislators very much at the moment, but we must pray for them, and do so generously so they will repent and not be lost. I remember one day in prayer I was offering the whole pro-life struggle to God and I sensed in my heart that the ones I had to pray for were those who promoted and facilitated abortion - they were the ones at most risk, not the little ones who were killed. The triumph we seek is salvation.
|The body of St Athanasius in the Church of St Zaccaria in Venice|