As always, feel free to comment away with how you experience it, and share it with others, that they can remember the true significance of Christmas this year.
That’s all for me.
The man to whom I’m going to introduce you was not a scrooge, he was a kind decent, mostly good man. Generous to his family, upright in his dealings with other men. But he just didn’t believe all that incarnation stuff which the churches proclaim at Christmas Time. It just didn’t make sense and he was too honest to pretend otherwise. He just couldn’t swallow the Jesus Story, about God coming to Earth as a man.
“I’m truly sorry to distress you,” he told his wife, “but I’m not going with you to church this Christmas Eve.” He said he’d feel like a hypocrite. That he’d much rather just stay at home, but that he would wait up for them. And so he stayed, and they went to the midnight service.
Shortly after the family drove away in the car, snow began to fall. He went to the window to watch the flurries getting heavier and heavier and then went back to his fireside chair and began to read his newspaper. Minutes later he was startled by a thudding sound…then another, and then another. Sort of a thump or a thud. At first he thought someone must be throwing snowballs against his living room window. But when he went to the front door to investigate he found a flock of birds huddled miserably in the snow. They’d been caught in the storm and, in a desperate search for shelter, had tried to fly through his large landscape window.
Well, he couldn’t let the poor creatures lie there and freeze, so he remembered the barn where his children stabled their pony. That would provide a warm shelter, if he could direct the birds to it. Quickly he put on a coat, galoshes, tramped through the deepening snow to the barn. He opened the doors wide and turned on a light, but the birds did not come in. He figured food would entice them in.
So he hurried back to the house, fetched bread crumbs, sprinkled them on the snow, making a trail to the yellow-lighted wide open doorway of the stable. But to his dismay, the birds ignored the bread crumbs, and continued to flap around helplessly in the snow. He tried catching them…He tried shooing them into the barn by walking around them waving his arms…Instead, they scattered in every direction, except into the warm, lighted barn.
And then, he realized that they were afraid of him. To them, he reasoned, I am a strange and terrifying creature. If only I could think of some way to let them know that they can trust me…That I am not trying to hurt them, but to help them. But how? Because any move he made tended to frighten them, confuse them. They just would not follow. They would not be led or shooed because they feared him.
“If only I could be a bird,” he thought to himself, “and mingle with them and speak their language. Then I could tell them not to be afraid. Then I could show them the way to the safe warm barn. But I would have to be one of them so they could see and hear and understand.” At that moment the church bells began to ring. The sound reached his ears above the sounds of the wind. And he stood there listening to the bells listening to the bells pealing the glad tidings of Christmas. And he sank to his knees in the snow.
According to the Fathers…
It’s not uncommon in our Orthodox circles to start out a conversation with that line. But what do we really mean when we invoke “the Fathers?” It sometimes sounds as if we are relying on a sacred club of automatons who all thought, spoke, and acted in the same way. As if when we say, “the Fathers,” complete and singular authority rests in whatever follows that line.
In one sense, of course, this is true. The Fathers of the Church “are above all those human beings in whose texts we find the witness to orthodoxy and whose authority could secure the orthodox faith in all its aspects.”1 There is a harmony amongst their writings that emerges as one becomes familiar with their writings, their lives, and the contexts in which they wrote. And in this harmony, the authority of the Fathers is expressed.
But harmony is not the same as monotony. Each Church Father (and Mother) is as unique as you and I are, and their surrounding cultures, personal experiences, lifestyles, talents, and even preferences influenced what they said and did and how they said and did it. As children and inheritors of these great minds, it is good for us to take the time to get to know our ancestors as individuals so that when we invoke their authority, we do so having established an intimacy with them, respecting the individual notes they play in the beautiful harmony of the Orthodox Church.
For the next few weeks, we’ll try to do just that: get to know a few of the Fathers whose lives and words have shaped our Orthodox faith. Of course, a few hundred words will never do any of our great Fathers justice, but my hope is that the little of their stories that I share with you will inspire you to get to know them more deeply by asking for their prayers, reading their lives, and exploring their works.
Today, let me introduce St. Athanasios the Great.
St. Athanasios (commemorated May 2) was born around 298 in Alexandria, Egypt. A Copt by birth, he received a classical Greek education in addition to a Christian education. He was influenced by the ascetic life of St. Antony the Great and visited him and other desert monks throughout his life. As a teenager, he wrote two of his most famous books: Against the Heathen and On the Incarnation. In the first, he refutes the arguments of the pagans and in the second and more famous work, he lays out the Christian story simply, describing man’s creation and fall and God’s response in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ.
Later, as an archdeacon, St. Athanasios became the foremost name at the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea among the defenders of the christological position that Jesus Christ was homoousios or “of one essence” with God the Father. He held this claim in opposition to the Alexandrian presbyter Arius who emphasized the divinity of the Father over the Son, claiming that there was a time before the Son was begotten, thus, the Son must have been created and was of a different essence than his Father and Creator. The Council of Nicaea, to affirm the divinity of Christ, produced the Nicene Creed, the first official version of the creed we recite today in every Liturgy.
After the Council, the controversy of Arianism did not die quickly, and during his time as Bishop of Alexandria, St. Athanasios was exiled from his see five times for his theological position. During these times, St. Athanasios continued to defend the Orthodox understanding of Christ, and finally, in the last few years of his life, he was allowed to peacefully oversee the Alexandrian flock until his death in 373.
A few of St. Athanasios’ other contributions:
If you’d like to read more, but would prefer a version of English that is from this century, check out On the Incarnation from SVS and The Life of St. Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus from Paulist Press.
Let me leave you with some of this Church Father’s own words on Christ’s trampling down death by death:
The body of the Word, then, being a real human body, in spite of its having been uniquely formed from a virgin, was of itself mortal and, like other bodies, liable to death. But the indwelling of the Word loosed it from this natural liability, so that corruption could not touch it. Thus it happened that two opposite marvels took place at once: the death of all was consummated in the Lord’s body; yet, because the Word was in it, death and corruption were in the same act utterly abolished.2
St. Athanasios, intercede for us.
1. Chrestou, Panagiotes K., Greek Orthodox Patrology: An Introduction to the Study of the Church Fathers (Rollinsford: Orthodox Research Institute, 2005), 14.
2. St. Athanasios, On the Incarnation (Crestwood: SVS Press, 1993), 49.