Memorial of Saint Athanasius, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

Because there arose no little dissension and debate by Paul and Barnabas with them, it was decided that Paul, Barnabas, and some of the others should go up to Jerusalem to the Apostles and presbyters
about this question.


It is good that our first reading should recall the wrenching controversy that divided the Church in the first century on this memorial of Saint Athanasius. This fearless bishop opposed the Arian heresy of the fourth century and suffered exile for his trouble.
At that time  social, political and philosophical forces had so co-opted Catholic doctrine that the gospel was threatened with extinction. The doctrine of one god who had "created" the universe not out of nothing but out of preexisting material made sense to most people. Even the great theologian Origen could not accept creatio ex nihilo, which is why he was never canonized. 
The eternal god, they believed, had shaped the eternal muck into beautiful creatures; and then created a "son" to save humankind by forgiving sins and healing bodies. The Arian "Jesus" was a creature, superior to other creatures but not the perfect reflection of the Father. (A perfect reflection could only be precisely like, even as divine as, the Father! Otherwise, he would not be a perfect reflection. God the Son is unlike the God the Father only in that he is the Son and the Father is the Father.)
The heresy persists today, even in the United States, especially with those Christian religions who say Jesus was obedient to the Father as a wife should be to her husband.
Athanasius and his colleagues found themselves living in a nominally Christian empire, whose religious beliefs were accepted and unchallenged by most Catholics. But they knew that the Lord's death and resurrection could not redeem humankind if Jesus was not True God. Our salvation could not be effected by a demigod. To enjoy communion with God we must be baptized into the death of God, not into God's proxy.
Even today, people suppose that the All-Powerful God who created the Universe and all its wonders should be able to save the human race with a simple gesture. Can't God do anything he wants by simply wishing it? Why should he have to sacrifice, suffer or pay anything? Muslims, for instance, teach that God is Good and Merciful, but they do not see God as surrendering any majesty or glory when he bestows blessings on humanity. He is above all that!
It's an easy religion to believe but it fails to answer the questions at the heart of human experience: What am I worth? Can I be saved or healed? Is there meaning beyond what I make of it? Do I belong to anyone? Can I trust myself to the God who might be there? 
The God who makes no sacrifice in forgiving our sins and healing our bodies may earn our thanks but is hardly worthy of our love. It cost him nothing! There is no communion with that remote, paternalistic God who knows nothing of human suffering. He cannot share his Spirit with us because he has no spirit to give.
Arianism worships power, which is why the Emperor Constantine supported it. As king, queen, emperor, dictator, czar, or president-for-life the ruler stands in for God and is loved and obeyed by everyone. That power might be shared in a hierarchical pyramid of delegations, but it can never be surrendered. Failing to realize our own worth, we have yet to shake off that obsequious attitude toward power.
In Jesus we see the complete Sacrifice of God. As the perfect expression of the Father, the Word made Flesh, he could be nothing less than the equal of the Father. And we know he has poured himself out in imitation of his Father. Like Abraham who offered a sacrifice more precious than his own life, our God gives more than himself in love for us.
Before Athanasius, Jewish Christians under the leadership of Peter and Paul, confronted this problem of power. They realized they had to surrender some of their old ways as they welcomed gentiles into communion. There could be in the Church neither minorities nor castes nor second-class citizens. Ancient Jewish traditions about food, worship, appropriate dress and language would be challenged and changed by the strangers who never knew those old customs and saw no reason to learn them. 
Membership in Christ comes by baptism, not by birth or circumcision. That seemed to Jewish converts to Christ too easy, too bloodless; only in time did they realize that circumcision of the heart is far more painful, desirable and beautiful.
The Christian Church is eternally challenged by our duty to announce the Gospel. When we're told to "make disciples of all nations" that doesn't mean we should make clones of ourselves. (The world already has too many energy-consuming, wasteful Americans.) Rather we invite other nations and people to worship with us and we delight to hear God's praises in languages we don't understand.

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I love to write. This blog helps me to meditate on the Word of God, and I hope to make some contribution to our contemplations of God's Mighty Works.

Ordinarily, I write these reflections two or three weeks in advance of their publication. I do not intend to comment on current events.

I understand many people prefer gender-neutral references to "God." I don't disagree with them but find that language impersonal, unappealing and tasteless. When I refer to "God" I think of the One whom Jesus called "Abba" and "Father", and I would not attempt to improve on Jesus' language.

You're welcome to add a thought or raise a question.