Athanasius of Alexandria – 18th January

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In 313 the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which changed Christianity from a persecuted to an officially favoured religion. About six years later, Arius of Alexandria began to teach concerning the Word of God (John 1:1) that

“God begat him, and before he was begotten, he did not exist.”

Athanasius was at that time a newly ordained deacon, secretary to Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, and a member of his household. His reply to Arius was that the begetting, or uttering, of the Word by the Father is an eternal relation between Them, and not a temporal event. Arius was condemned by the bishops of Egypt (with the exceptions of Secundus of Ptolemais and Theonas of Marmorica), and went to Nicomedia, from which he wrote letters to bishops throughout the world, stating his position.

The Emperor Constantine undertook to resolve the dispute by calling a council of bishops from all over the Christian world. This council met in Nicea, just across the straits from what is now Istanbul, in the year 325, and consisted of 317 bishops. Athanasius accompanied his bishop to the council, and became recognized as a chief spokesman for the view that the Son was fully God, co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.

The party of Athanasius was overwhelmingly in the majority. (The western, or Latin, half of the Empire was very sparsely represented, but it was solidly Athanasian, so that if its bishops had attended in force, the vote would have been still more lopsided.) It remained to formulate a creedal statement to express the consensus. The initial effort was to find a formula from Holy Scripture that would express the full deity of the Son, equally with the Father. However, the Arians cheerfully agreed to all such formulations, having interpreted them already to fit their own views. Finally, the Greek word “homo-ousios” (meaning “of the same substance, or nature, or essence”) was introduced, chiefly because it was one word that could not be understood to mean what the Arians meant. Some of the bishops present, although in complete disagreement with Arius, were reluctant to use a term not found in the Scriptures, but eventually saw that the alternative was a creed that both sides would sign, each understanding it in its own way, and that the Church could not afford to leave the question of whether the Son is truly God (the Arians said “a god”) undecided. So the result was that the Council adopted a creed which is a shorter version of what we now call the Nicene Creed, declaring the Son to be “of one substance with the Father.” At the end, there were only two holdouts, the aforesaid Secundus and Theonas.

No sooner was the council over than its consensus began to fall apart. Constantine had expected that the result would be unity, but found that the Arians would not accept the decision, and that many of the orthodox bishops were prepared to look for a wording a little softer than that of Nicea, something that sounded orthodox, but that the Arians would accept. All sorts of compromise formulas were worked out, with all shades of variation from the formula of Nicea.

In 328, Alexander died, and Athanasius succeeded him as bishop of Alexandria. He refused to participate in these negotiations, suspecting that once the orthodox party showed a willingness to make reaching an agreement their highest priority, they would end up giving away the store. He defended the full deity of Christ against emperors, magistrates, bishops, and theologians. For this, he was regarded as a trouble-maker by Constantine and his successors, and was banished from Alexandria a total of five times by various emperors. Eventually, Christians who believed in the Deity of Christ came to see that once they were prepared to abandon the Nicene formulation, they were on a slippery slope that led to regarding the Logos as simply a high-ranking angel. The more they experimented with other formulations, the clearer it became that only the Nicene formulation would preserve the Christian faith in any meaningful sense, and so they re-affirmed the Nicene Creed at the Council of Constantinople in 381, a final triumph that Athanasius did not live to see.

It was a final triumph as far as councils of bishops were concerned, but the situation was complicated by the fact that after Constantine there were several Arian emperors (not counting the Emperor Julian, who was a pagan, but correctly saw that the most effective way to fight Christianity was to throw all his weight on the side of the Arians). Under one of them Arian missionaries were sent to convert the Goths, who became the backbone of the Roman Army (then composed chiefly of foreign mercenaries) with the result that for many years Arianism was considered the mark of a good Army man. The conversion of Clovis, King of the Franks, in 496, to orthodox Christianity either gave the Athanasian party the military power to crush Arianism or denied the Arian Goths the military supremacy that would have enabled them to crush Athanasian Christianity, depending on your point of view.

 

Quotations from the writings of Athanasius:

We were made “in the likeness of God.” But in course of time
That image has become obscured, like a face on a very old
portrait, dimmed with dust and dirt.

When a portrait is spoiled, the only way to renew it is for the Subject to come back to the studio and sit for the artist all over again. That is why Christ came–to make it possible for the divine image in man to be recreated. We were made in God’s likeness; we are remade in the likeness of his Son.

INTERCEDING

On this day lift before God:

  • Those who recognise the likeness of God in others.
  • Those willing to take a stand to defend what they believe to be right.
  • All who are careful and diligent in their work.
  • All who are careful about their use of language.
  • Those torn between the desire to get along and a the desire to be clear.
  • Deacons.

Masochism and the saints…

Yesterday Sue Owen made a helpful and thought-provoking comment on Geneviève of Paris, which I would like to respond to here.

Thank you for these daily readings on the lives of different saints. I have always found it very difficult to read about some saints’ lives. Especially those that self-inflict mortification or punishment. It seems very unhealthy in mind and spirit. There seems to be enough suffering in the world without inflicting it on oneself! The Holy Spirit can be found in beauty and simplicity – so I really don’t understand why masochism is so revered in the saints. I’d appreciate your views on this. Thank you!

I think there are a number of things going on that lead to an apparent reverence for masochism in the life of the saints. It certainly isn’t something I’m trying to promote by sharing their stories.

A misleading biblical interpretation…

The early church blossomed in a Greek-speaking culture. All the ideas we can have are shaped by the language or means we have to articulate them. In Hebrew culture body and soul are inseparable. We are ensouled bodies. In Greek thinking bodies are vessels in which souls are carried for a time, before escaping to their true bodiless state. St Paul (A Hebrew living in this Greek-speaking world) used the language of body and flesh (soma and sarx) throughout his letters, contrasting them with life in the Spirit. In Paul’s letters neither body nor flesh is inherently negative in itself these are simply characteristics of being human; we are embodied, made of flesh.

When thinking about being saved however, Paul uses body and flesh as shorthand for describing how we are choosing to live. Flesh is usually contrasted with Spirit to describe whether we choose to live as if the world were created and ruled by human beings (in the realm of flesh) or in a world created and ruled by God (in the realm of the Spirit). Body is usually contrasted with psyche, asking whether we orient our being towards the outward, physical pleasures, desires and needs (definitely base considerations in Greek thought) or to the interior intellectual and spiritual concerns of prayer and learning. In strictly Christian terms these are contrasts between life lived in an earthly way or life lived according to the ways of the Kingdom of God; life lived with a heart aligned to humanity’s values or life lived with hearts aligned to the will of God.

People of a largely Greek mindset, who believed Jesus would come again soon, appear to have heard this teaching as the message that forsaking physical needs in favour of spiritual and intellectual ones is the surest path to heaven. There was a rejection of earthly society by the mothers and fathers of the desert and a desire to live on prayer alone, following the example of Elijah, John the Baptist and Jesus in the Desert. These were the early monastics whose patterns others followed.

It seems to me that this developed into a kind of spiritual athleticism, which misses the main point of what Paul was talking about. I have no doubt that those who were alone for long periods of time and without food, were more likely to see visions or even have near death experiences. I don’t think this is why we revere them though.

Entering into the suffering of others…

I think fasting and self-mortification, at their most prayerful, are bodily ways of entering into the suffering of others. We fast alongside those without food, alongside those in poverty, alongside those in need of healing or too deep in mourning to eat. I believe the self-mortification was supposed to help a monastic enter into the suffering of Christ during the passion, but it is a tradition much abused. Again, I don’t think these are the reasons why people are revered, even though they were taken to be signs of someone trying to live a holy life. I entreat any readers to avoid all practice of self-harm as this is not the way we treat a beloved child of God.

My personal understanding, which has no scholarly ground to stand on…

I have included saints, within this neurodiverse community’s calendar, who amongst other things have used fasting, self-mortification and isolation in their spiritual journeys. This is not because I revere these practices, but because I see them as symptomatic of how vulnerable and broken even those we revere as holy were.

I hope you have noticed through the emphasis of the intercession pointers, where I see people disappearing into isolation through grief, I wonder at how God made them founders of communities.

I know myself, that I have a daily struggle with anxiety to go about my daily living and regularly fantasise about being able to move to an isolated island. Some days I function quite well and at other times, even the ringing of the telephone is terrifying. I often wonder why I wasn’t called to a monastic life, but that was not where God wanted me. So those entrusted to my care struggle with me as I manage my hermit-like tendencies against the public-demands of a priest’s role. (Not an uncommon story.)

When I see people starving themselves, I wonder how someone who has such a difficult relationship with food can achieve such remarkable things. I don’t mean to glorify the extreme fasting, but to say: ‘here is a person who despite feeling that they did not deserve to eat for whatever reason, was used to show the glory of God in the world’.

Self-harming is one of the most widespread problems faced by teenagers in Britain at this time. Here are people who felt just as desperate, doing much the same thing and yet they are revered as holy – not because of the self-harm (it is always an incidental to the story) but because of some amazing act of courage, love, kindness or imagination that led others to God.

I don’t know how to make this more explicit without being triggering for people. Doubtless this post is very clumsy. Any ideas readers may have are very welcome.

Anne Catherine Emmerich

🙁 Oh, unfortunately nobody has helped us to tell Anne Catherine’s story yet.
Could that be you?

In the meantime, here’s a piece I wrote that explains some of what inspires the astonishing community, drawing as ever on great people already living the life we dream of.

Through the noise and the pain, hope…

Last year, this word from Jean Vanier dropped into my inbox and a number of ideas began to coalesce.

Belonging Together

Living with men and women with intellectual disabilities has helped me to discover what it means to live in communion with someone. To be in communion means to be with someone and to discover that we actually belong together. Communion means accepting people just as they are, with all their limits and inner pain, but also with their gifts and their beauty and their capacity to grow: to see the beauty inside of all the pain.

Jean Vanier, From Brokenness to Community, p.16

I had been reading a lot. Reading peoples hopes, fears and responses to the primates meeting of the Anglican Communion. Reading Neurotribes and learning more about the history of the neurodiverse community in which I live, horrified at the brutality with which so many autistes have been treated over time. I’ve been reading other people’s blogs about the life of the church in the holy land and this piece sent to me by a friend, knowing that I’m the mother of a non-verbal child: Why you should talk with non-verbal people.

This is the part which I want everyone to hear:

You do it for them–to show them they’re worth talking to.

Think about it. What do you communicate to someone by talking to them, or by refusing to talk to them? Imagine *that* boss everyone’s had who thinks talking to lowly little you is a waste of time.

But what if it wasn’t just your boss who wouldn’t look at you and talk to you because you’re not worth it? What if it was…(oh my gosh) everyone?…

And that’s the moment that I realized how much of the conversation I conduct is selfish, selfish, selfish.

Not that we shouldn’t enjoy those friends whose conversation is balm to the soul. Let’s be thankful for those people. But when I decide who I sit next to, when I let a conversation fall off so I can excuse myself and chat with someone else, those decisions are driven by what I can get out of it.

When I look at it closely, I realize the horrifying truth.

I seek to be encouraged, entertained, provoked, challenged, and flattered. And it’s not that I wouldn’t do that for someone else, but perhaps it’s at least slightly conditional upon whether or not they can repay the favor.

By making a simple, though complicated shift in my goals, it changes everything…

If my goal is to communicate to him that I love him, what I’m willing to do changes completely.

To communicate love, sure, I’ll work for it. I expect to. Anyone would.

I’ll take an hour and a half instead of an hour to make dinner, and expect a much bigger mess. It’s cool, because I’ve shown him I like him to be a part of what I’m doing.
Posted by MAURAOPRISKO on JANUARY 18, 2016

So much of what I had been reading, especially of the conversations taking place within the churches speak out of the pain that they are experiencing and out of a longing to be loved and accepted. People writing and speaking are so aware of the pain they are experiencing that they listen selfishly and respond to point out the plank in the other person’s eye.

I hear conversations where the meaning is lost as the rallying cries of differing tribes are raised and objected to: sexism; heteronormative; surely poverty is more important; traditional values; climate change; ageing spirituality; hearing friendly churches, accessible churches, Generation Y, and I find it hard not to join in, shouting for the inclusion of Autistes and their recognition as human beings, worthy of love and acceptance regardless of gender, sexual orientation, intellectual ability, theology, politics…

I’m trying not to do that. I’m trying to step back, to see the bigger picture. Each of these causes is worthy, has its place. Each person’s pain is real. Each person is loved and created by God. Each voice is telling us something about the bigger humanity God created.

I always come back to the passage that presiding bishop Michael Curry quoted following the primates meeting that sanctioned The Episcopal Church:

for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. Galatians 3.26–29

If this is a vision of life in the kingdom of God, then the ever increasing complexity of non-binary genders, multiple neurological constructions, a spectrum of sexualities, differently abled individuals… leads me to believe that we are drawing closer to the inauguration of the kingdom of God.

It feels chaotic, its bound to really. Complexity theory tells us that new life springs into being on the margins of an organism. So perhaps the church really is beginning to live where it should live again, on the margins.

It is in these chaotic margins that The Astonishing Community seeks to stand.

Interceding

On this day, lift before God:

  • those who do not feel valued by our society.
  • all who casually exclude others by failing to spend to time with them.
  • all who are desperate for their voices to be heard.
  • all whose lives are dedicated to listening (with ears or in other ways).