St. Athanasius | 7. The Day of Rejoicing


7. The Day of Rejoicing

IT was an evil day for Alexandria:

Most of the Egyptian Bishops refused to acknowledge Gregory and were instantly arrested. Some were banished, some tortured, some imprisoned.

St. Potamon, who had narrowly missed martyrdom during the persecution of Diocletian, was scourged with rods until he died.

The many cruelties of the usurper made him so hateful to the Alexandrians that, after four years of tyranny, he was killed by the mob in a sudden outbreak of fury.

Athanasius, in the meantime, had made his way to Rome, where he was received by St. Julius I as a champion of the Faith:

The case should be tried in his own presence, the Pope declared; but it was impossible to get the Arians to Rome. Excuse followed excuse, pretext followed pretext.

Eusebius, the head of the Arian party, died at last in his usurped see, but his spirit survived in his followers. They drew up a creed of their own and sent it to the Pope, who rejected it at the Council of Milan.

The Nicene Creed was the confession of Faith of the Catholic Church, he said. But the Nicene Creed, which proved so fully the divinity of Christ, was just what the Arians would not accept.

A fresh Council was called at Sardica, at which they were at last induced to be present.

But when Athanasius was proved innocent, and the Bishops whom the Arians had banished appeared to bear witness to the violence and cruelty with which they had been treated, the Arians abruptly left the Council and returned to Philippopolis:

Here they formed a council of their own, in which they not only excommunicated Athanasius, but had the impudence to “excommunicate” Pope Julius himself.

The Council of Sardica, at which were present the orthodox Bishops of Italy, Spain, Gaul, Africa, Greece, Palestine and Egypt, was very well able to get on without them:

The innocence of Athanasius was finally established, the Arians and their creed condemned.

A circular letter was then written to all the Churches, informing them of what had passed, and legates were dispatched to the two Emperors, Constans and Constantius.

Constantius dared not resist:

Urged by his brother, who did his best to show the conduct of the Arians in its true light and threatened him with civil war if he persisted in upholding them, he sent letters to Alexandria ordering that Athanasius should be honourably received.

Gregory had met his death a short time before, so there was no obstacle to Athanasius' return.

The Alexandrians, in the meantime, had received a letter from Pope Julius in praise of their Patriarch:

“If precious metals,” he wrote, “such as gold and silver, are tried in the fire, what can we say of so great a man, who has been through so many perils and afflictions, and who returns to you having been declared innocent by the judgment of the whole Synod?

Receive, therefore, beloved, with all joy and glory to God, your Bishop Athanasius.”

Never had Alexandria seen such rejoicings:

The people thronged forth from the city to meet their exiled Patriarch, singing hymns of rejoicing, waving branches of trees and throwing rich carpets upon the road along which he was to pass.

Every little hill was crowded with people thirsting for a sight of that beloved face and figure. It was six years since they had seen him, and what had they not suffered during his absence?

As for Athanasius, his one thought, as usual, was to establish his people in the Faith:

Those who had been led astray by the Arians were pardoned and received with the greatest charity. The weak ones who had given in through fear were strengthened with tender forbearance. Those who had been Athanasius' enemies were greeted as friends on their first sign of repentance.

For the time, the Arians were defeated; they could do nothing.
Constans was too strong for them.

The present moment was the Patriarch's, and he determined to use it to the full:

The Bishops of Egypt gathered around him; widows and orphans were provided for, the poor housed and fed and the faithful warned against false doctrines.

The churches were not large enough to hold the crowds that flocked to them. It was a time of peace which God vouchsafed to His people to strengthen them for the coming storm.

New Bishops were consecrated, men of holy life who could be trusted.

Even the monks in their distant monasteries received inspiring letters from their Patriarch, stirring them up to realize the ideals of the spiritual life and to pray for the peace of the Church.

For in the midst of all his labours Athanasius still found time to write – letters against the Arians, treatises in defence of the Faith and on the religious life, brilliant, strong and convincing.

It was necessary to be vigilant, for the Arians were everywhere trying to seduce men by their false doctrines, teaching that Christ was not God. Letters from Athanasius were a powerful weapon in defence of the truth.

So the years passed in incessant prayer and labour, until the whole of Egypt was strong and steadfast in the Faith. “The Saints of the fourth century were giants,” says a modern writer, “but he of Alexandria was the greatest of them all.”

The time was coming in which his work was to be tried as gold in the fire: Constans was killed in battle, leaving Constantius master of the whole empire.

It was a moment for misgivings; but for some time the new Emperor seemed favourably disposed, even going so far as to assure Athanasius of his friendship. It was a friendship which might well be mistrusted.

Pope Julius had also died and had been succeeded by Liberius:

One of the first acts of Constantius was to write to the new Pope, offering him handsome presents and urging him to condemn Athanasius.

Letters from the Arians containing all the old charges followed, but in vain. Liberius refused with indignation both presents and requests.

A fresh persecution broke out. Athanasius, it is true, was not molested, but his enemies were only waiting for a pretext to attack him. This pretext they soon found.

At Easter of the year 354, the churches of Alexandria were so crowded with worshippers that there was scarcely room to breathe.

It was proposed to Athanasius that he should hold the Easter services in a large church that had been lately built but was not yet dedicated.

Athanasius hesitated to do this without leave, as it was built on the Emperor's property, but he was at last persuaded by the people to yield:

The Patriarch Alexander had done the very same thing, they urged, in the Church of St. Theonas on just such an occasion; in a case of necessity it was certainly lawful.

But they had counted without the Arians, who instantly accused Athanasius of having usurped the royal authority.

The Patriarch, in his famous “Apology to Constantius,” stated the reasons for his act, but it was useless; other false charges were scraped up against him, and his doom was sealed.

In the spring of the next year, Constantius, who was now master of both the East and the West, succeeded by force of persecution in inducing the members of a large council, which he had had summoned at Arles in France, to condemn Athanasius as guilty:

The Emperor himself was present with his troops and threatened with drawn sword those who resisted his will. The Bishops who refused to sign were scourged, tortured or exiled; the Pope was banished to Berea, where he was treated with harshness and cruelty.

In the winter of the next year, a General called Syrianus came to Alexandria with a large army. He was an Arian, and the people suspected a plot.

Athanasius asked him if he brought any message from the Emperor; Syrianus replied that he had none. He was then reminded that Constantius had promised to leave Alexandria in peace. To this he agreed, but gave no reason for his presence. Things went on as usual for three weeks, when the blow that all had been expecting fell.

It was midnight, and the Bishop was holding a vigil service in the Church of St. Theonas, when suddenly shouts and cries broke the silence of the night. Syrianus with five thousand men had surrounded the building, determined to take the Patriarch, alive or dead.

In the dim light of the sanctuary Athanasius sat on the Bishop's throne, calm and unmoved in the midst of the tumult: “Read the 135th Psalm,” he said to one of the deacons, “and when it is finished, all will leave the church.”

The words rang out through the building with their message of hope and confidence and were answered by the people:

“Praise the Lord, for He is good: for His mercy endures forever.
“Praise ye the God of gods: for His mercy endures forever.”

Those who were nearest the Bishop pressed him to escape:
“The shepherd's place is with his flock,” he answered firmly.

Hardly was the Psalm ended when the soldiers rushed in with drawn swords. Many of the people fled; others were trampled underfoot or slain.

Athanasius sat still, his hands folded in prayer. Again they urged him to flee. “Not until all have left the church,” he replied.

In desperation, the clergy and monks ended by taking the matter into their own hands:

Seizing Athanasius in their arms, they bore him out of the church, passing right through the midst of the soldiers, who were searching everywhere for the Patriarch.

It seemed, indeed, as Athanasius himself said later, as if God had covered their eyes.

Into the darkness of the winter's night he fled, an exile and a fugitive once more.