St. Athanasius did not take the easy way

A homily by Fr. Jay Kythe, OSB

One day the world awoke to find itself half-Arian, said St. Jerome. Certainly it made sense. In the Gospel we heard Jesus say that He is in the Father and the Father is in Him. To know Jesus is to know the Father. And elsewhere we have heard Him say outright, “I and the Father are one.” But living in the Greek world, this didn’t fit. For why would God even want to mess with lowly, fallen flesh? The doctrine of the Trinity and the Incarnation simply was inconvenient. Either one must change the culture or one must change the inconvenient teaching. And of course the world takes the easy way out, the convenient way. This is what Christians of convenience do; rather than change the culture or even—gasp—themselves, it is easier to change the teaching.

So St. Athanasius finds himself on the wrong side of things. He could not even shake the dust off his feet and walk away, for his brother bishops were walking the way of the world. St. Athanasius realized that there is no such thing as a little apostasy. Small deviations because of convenience take the ship way off course. To give up the Trinity is to give up Christ, which is simply fatal to the Christian.

But why all this controversy? “Battles over a diphthong,” it was said about the Arian controversy. It is hard for us today to understand going to fist-a-cuffs over matters of theology. We forget about all the blood, sweat, and tears shed over the Nicene Creed. St. Athanasius himself was exiled 5 times, a total of 17 years, over this battle about the right ways of looking at reality. But times today aren’t really all that different. For back then, they had to pretend that Jesus wasn’t God. Today, we pretend that what grows inside a mother’s womb couldn’t possibly be a human person. Or we pretend that marriage is something other than the union of one man and one woman. Let’s face it, it is easier to change inconvenient teachings than to change the culture or ourselves. 

St. Athanasius did not take the easy way. He allowed the Gospel to change him. And then he confronted the heresy of his time. We too must be steadfast in our faith like St. Athanasius. We must let the truth of the Gospel change us. And then we can start changing the world.