Saint Athanasios the Great, Archbishop of Alexandria, was a great Father of the Church and a pillar of Orthodoxy. He was born around the year 297 in the city of Alexandria into a family of pious Christians. He received a fine secular education, but he acquired more knowledge by diligent study of the Holy Scripture. In his childhood, the future hierarch Athanasios became known to Saint Alexander the Patriarch of Alexandria (Commemorated May 29). A group of children, which included Athanasios, were playing at the seashore. The Christian children decided to baptize their pagan playmates.
The young Athanasios, whom the children designated as “bishop”, performed the Baptism, precisely repeating the words he heard in church during this sacrament. Patriarch Alexander observed all this from a window. He then commanded that the children and their parents be brought to him. He conversed with them for a long while, and determined that the Baptism performed by the children was done according to the Church order. He acknowledged the Baptism as real and sealed it with the sacrament of Chrismation. From this moment, the Patriarch looked after the spiritual upbringing of Athanasios and in time brought him into the clergy, at first as a reader, and then he ordained him as a deacon.
It was as a deacon that Saint Athanasios accompanied Patriarch Alexander to the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea in the year 325. At the Council, Saint Athanasios refuted the heresy of Arius. His speech met with the approval of the Orthodox Fathers of the Council, but the Arians, those openly and those secretly so, came to hate Athanasios and persecuted him for the rest of his life.
After the death of holy Patriarch Alexander, Saint Athanasios was unanimously chosen as his successor in the See of Alexandria. He refused, accounting himself unworthy, but at the insistence of all the Orthodox populace that it was in agreement, he was consecrated bishop when he was twenty-eight, and installed as the archpastor of the Alexandrian Church. Saint Athanasios guided the Church for forty-seven years, and during this time he endured persecution and grief from his antagonists. Several times he was expelled from Alexandria and hid himself from the Arians in desolate places, since they repeatedly tried to kill him. Saint Athanasios spent more than twenty years in exile, returned to his flock, and then was banished again.
There was a time when he remained as the only Orthodox bishop in the area, a moment when all the other bishops had fallen into heresy. At the false councils of Arian bishops he was deposed as bishop. Despite being persecuted for many years, the saint continued to defend the purity of the Orthodox Faith, and he wrote countless letters and tracts against the Arian heresy.
When Julian the Apostate (361-363) began a persecution against Christians, his wrath first fell upon Saint Athanasios, whom he considered a great pillar of Orthodoxy. Julian intended to kill the saint in order to strike Christianity a grievous blow, but he soon perished himself. Mortally wounded by an arrow during a battle, he cried out with despair: “You have conquered, O Galilean.” After Julian’s death, Saint Athanasios guided the Alexandrian Church for seven years and died in 373, at the age of seventy-six.
Numerous works of Saint Athanasios have been preserved; four Orations against the Arian heresy; also an Epistle to Epictetus, bishop of the Church of Corinth, on the divine and human natures in Jesus Christ; four Epistles to Serapion, Bishop of Thmuis, about the Holy Spirit and His equality with the Father and the Son, directed against the heresy of Macedonius.
Other apologetic works of the Saint in defense of Orthodoxy have been preserved, among which is the Letter to the Emperor Constantius. Saint Athanasios wrote commentaries on Holy Scripture, and books of a moral and didactic character, as well as a biography of Saint Anthony the Great (January 17), with whom Saint Athanasios was very close. Saint John Chrysostom advised every Orthodox Christian to read this Life.
The memory of Saint Athanasios is celebrated also on January 18 with Saint Cyril of Alexandria.
Adapted from St. Athanasios the Great, Patriarch of Alexandria
How can St. Athanasios intercede for us?
When reading the life and works of this holy Saint, it may seem somewhat difficult to find ways that through our prayers, he is able to intercede for us. Looking closer, however, reveals there is an application to us as college students. He received an education not just in the world, but outside of it as well. The resulting knowledge gained from the education and upbringing by the hands of St. Alexander led St. Athanasios to be an educated defender of the faith against Arianism and the persecutions of Julian the Apostate. When we are faced with adversity and persecution, we can pray to St. Athanasios to bring about understanding and correct those who speak falsely about the Faith.
- What surprised you about the life of St. Athanasios?
- How might you benefit from getting to know the intricacies of the lives of the saints?
Learn his Troparian
Thou wast Orthodoxy’s steadfast pillar, holding up the Church with godly dogmas, O great Hierarch, for thou didst preach unto all that God the Son is one essence in very truth with God the Father; thus thou didst shame Arius. Righteous Father Athanasios, do thou entreat Christ God that His great mercy be granted unto us.
O Saint of God, you were raised by the Lord of Glory to confront the greatest heresy of all time, the diabolical lie that the Son of God is a created being. When the impious Arius spread his poison of falsehood throughout Egypt and beyond, you led the defense of the one true Faith and to you, who defeated the devil and annulled the Arians, we cry:
Rejoice, true theologian of the Incarnation!
Rejoice, pious guardian of the Nicene Creed!
Rejoice, godly son of the Son of God!
Rejoice, bright beacon of the Light of Light!
Rejoice, destroyer of the devil’s delusion!
Rejoice, defender of the one true Faith!
Rejoice, O Father Athanasius, Holy confessor and champion of Orthodoxy!