St Athanasius and Gospel joy

St Athanasius and Gospel joy

St Athanasius was an impassioned theologian of the Incarnation of the divine Logos. How does his theology illumine Our Lord’s statement about joy in today’s Gospel?

Readings: Acts 15:7-21, John 15:9-11

The following homily was preached during compline. You watch here or read below:

The two readings at Mass today speak very appropriately to the life and work of the great saint we commemorate, St Athanasius. Our first reading, from Acts, recounts the so-called Council of Jerusalem, that critical moment in the life of the early church where the apostles gathered to determine the Church’s mission to the Gentiles. The Gospel comes from the farewell discourse in St John’s Gospel, a highpoint of the New Testament’s articulation of Jesus Christ as the Logos, the Word Incarnate. St Athanasius’ life was replete with Synods and Councils, and he was an impassioned theologian of the Incarnation of the divine Logos.

St Athanasius was undoubtedly one of the most important and revered early church fathers, known above all for his resolute defence of orthodoxy against the Arians, those who held that the Son of God was a creature rather than the Creator. Such was his importance in the life of the early church that St Gregory Nazianzus, just a few years after his death, already hailed the Bishop of Alexandria as “the pillar of the Church”.

He born around the year 300 in Alexandria in Egypt and received a good education, before being ordained a deacon and appointed secretary to the then Bishop of Alexandria, a certain Alexander. He accompanied his bishop to the Council of Nicaea in 325, the council which gave us much of the Nicene Creed we recite to this day, and made the important declaration against the Arians that the Son is consubstantial with the Father, of the same substance or being, thus Creator and not creature.

St Athanasius himself became Bishop of Alexandria in 328, but his time in office was anything but peaceful. On five separate occasions he was forced into exile. It was a fractious time in the church, and the first two of his exiles were seeminlgy caused by his heavy-handed approach to a Christian sect called the Melitians, a heretical group who had a similar theology to the Donatists. His relationship with the emperor was troubled too. Athanasius was intransigent in his defence of the Nicene Creed, much to the frustration of Constantine’s son Constantius, who promoted an anti-Nicene agenda. In 356 the emperor attacked the church where Athanasius was presiding at the liturgy, the bishop barely escaping with his life, and from there he fled into a third exile, which he spent hiding in the desert with the monks. Although he had difficulties too with subsequent emperors, Julian and Valens, resulting in further exiles, Athanasius spent his final few years in relative peace in Alexandria, and died on 2nd May 373.

It was a turbulent life, with opposition seemingly coming from every direction. Given his struggles against multiple heresies and a number of different emperors, it is no wonder that he was known as Athanasius Contra Mundum – ‘Athanasius Against the World’.

How might St Athanasius’ theology of the Incarnate Logos enlighten our reading of today’s Gospel? In the context of this farewell discourse, Jesus tells his disciples about joy: “I have said these things so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete”. Gospel statements promising joy are a sensitive thing because, to be blunt, we often don’t feel very joyful. Being told that you will be joyful, or being directed to rejoice, can sound hollow if life presents more obstacles than delights.

What kind of joy does Christ promise here? The basic point is, I think, a very simple one. “I have said these things so that my joy may be in you.” This joy is not determined by circumstance or state of mind. It is objective. It is the objective reality of God’s love in us. This love comes to dwell in us because of the Incarnation, because the divine Logos took on human flesh. We abide in this love, in the life of the Triune God, only because God first shared in our life. St Athanasius’ gave everything to defending this one claim, which he expressed in its most pithy and memorable form: “the Word of God was made man so that we might be made God.”

We can live our Christian lives in joy because we have a deep and profound conviction: God’s love abides in us, we are loved, we are loveable. It is good to be a Christian. It is good to live the life of Christ.

This was the basis of St Athanasius’ work. His life was marked by strife both ecclesially and politically, both within and without the Church, and he didn’t always get it right. But he was utterly convinced that in Christ God is with us. God’s love has been poured into our hearts, and in this our joy may be full.

Br John Bernard, raised a Catholic by an English father and Dutch mother, first encountered the Dominicans at Blackfriars while studying Classics at the University of Oxford, and entered the noviciate in 2018. An attraction to religious life initially grew out of time spent working with the Missionaries of Charity, which then crystallised into a Dominican vocation through a desire to integrate the contemplative life with preaching and study. Based on his recent reading, he looks forward to delving further into St John of the Cross and the Carmelite mystics, as well as combining his preaching vocation with a love of the outdoors.

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