Matthew 5:14-19 & Hebrews 13:7-16
St Athanasius the Great was the Patriarch of Alexandria and a champion of the Orthodox faith against the Arian heresy. The Arians taught that Jesus Christ was not God, but rather that he was demigod created before all else and it was through his actions that the rest of the world came into existence. The city of Alexandria was the center of this heresy and St Athanasius, even as the bishop’s archdeacon, defended the truth against this false teaching. He played a key role in the first ecumenical council of Nicea which condemned the Arian heresy and returning to Alexandria, following the death of Archbishop Alexander, the saint was elevated into his place. Even though the heresy had been condemned by the council, there were many powerful individuals in the emperor’s court who followed the teachings of Arius. They were not about to give up their influence or their positions over this setback and so worked to “repatriate” Arius and preserve his beliefs. As a result there were years of political unrest and strife throughout the empire – nowhere more intense than Alexandria. St Athanasius was driven into hiding and exile time and time again. He hid from the mobs trying to kill him once in a dry well and another time in a tomb. Twice he fled the city to Rome to avoid capture. Every time he was driven from his patriarchal throne, God vindicated him and restored him to care for his flock. Even from exile, St Athansius wrote persuasively regarding the incarnation of the God/man Jesus Christ and defended His unique place as fully God and fully man, two natures united in one person but not confused with one another.
St Athansius was so relentless in his defense of the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ because he saw that only the incarnate Son of God could accomplish our salvation. He truly cared for his flock – not just their physical welfare, but more importantly for their spiritual welfare and so he would not tolerate the falsehood of Arius which would make our salvation impossible.
The saint explained the situation thus, “For God had made man (as an embodied spirit) and had willed that he should remain in incorruption. But men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death. Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in the process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion. … This then, was the light of men. God had not only made them out of nothing, but had also graciously bestowed on them His own life by the grace of the Word. Then, turning from eternal things to things corruptible, by the counsel of the devil, they had become the cause of their own corruption in death.” The cure for this situation, St Athansius argues, is not simple for although repentance is necessary to stop the trespass which plummeted man into corruption and death, still “once transgression had begun man came under the power of corruption … and were bereft (deprived) of the grace which belonged to them as creatures in the Image of God. No, repentance (alone) could not (suffice). What – or rather Who – was it that was needed for such grace and such recall as we required? Who, save the Word of God Himself, Who also in the beginning had made all things out of nothing? His part it was, and His alone, both to bring again the corruptible to incorruption … He alone, being the Word of the Father and above all, was in consequence both able to recreate all and worthy to suffer on behalf of all…” St Athanasius saw that only God could free mankind from the “law of death” which held us as slaves to corruption, therefore if Jesus Christ were not God, then there would be no redemption possible for man through Him. For this reason he labored so ardently and tirelessly, enduring all manner of persecution and suffering, so that his flock would not be led astray and deprived of the redemption and salvation provided for them by the God/man Jesus Christ.
In the Gospel today, we heard our Lord say, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law … I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.” We are born and live under the law of death and if God had destroyed the law, mankind would have been destroyed as well. The only way to end the power of the law of death was to fulfill it and that is what our Lord came to do. He came to fulfill the law of death so that we might be freed from subjection to it. Consider how this law works in our lives. It is easy to see that we do experience an ongoing decomposition, continually falling prey to injury, sickness and simple aging (fatigue) until finally we succumb to death. The only way that we can maintain our lives is by feeding on the death of others. The very food that we eat is the product of death. We take plants and destroy their lives so that we might consume them; we kill animals and eat their flesh, taking the remnants of their lives for ourselves. (It doesn’t matter if you are a vegetarian or even a vegan – still your sustenance is part of this cycle of death) But even this continual consumption of death does not prevent us from eventually falling prey to death ourselves. As long as we feed on death, then death will be our final destination.
But our Lord came to fulfill this law and so end its tyranny over us. He, who is Life, became man. He did not simply “put on” a body like a coat – but He united Himself to human flesh – taking as His own its very essence (without compromising His own divine essence and without ceasing to be God). By taking on a mortal body, He who could not die, experienced death and so fulfilled the law of death. But death could not hold Him and overcoming it, He rose from the dead. Now He offers to us the chance to live not under the law of death, but under a new law – the law of life. We draw our life not from the substance of dead creation, but rather we draw it the One Who is Life. Yes, it is still necessary to eat the food of this world for the time being, but our true food is in the life of Christ and the more we accustom ourselves to drawing upon the true source of Life, the less dependent we become on the food of this world (the lives of the saints attest clearly to this).
In the epistle to the Hebrews that we heard read today, this same idea is confirmed, “For it is a good thing that the heart be established with grace; not with meats which have not profited them that have been occupied therein.” The heart – which is the center of our new life in Christ – is not sustained by “meats” but is instead established with grace, that is, the energy of God which enlightens us and by which we are united with Him. This makes it obvious that we who are alive in Christ and who live according to His law of life should place greater attention and effort onto the gathering of spiritual food – or as St Seraphim puts it, on the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. This grace we acquire by various activities; by reading the Gospel and other spiritual books, by hearing and singing the divine hymns and spiritual songs, by attendance at (and more importantly by participation in) the divine services, by works of love for our neighbor (charity, hospitality, kindness, etc), and most especially by prayer. When we neglect these things we starve ourselves and deprive ourselves of the sustenance of the source of our life which is the grace of Jesus Christ.
Also, the Apostle warns us, “be not carried about with divers and strange doctrines.” Even today these ancient heresies return again and again. Therefore we must be careful about whom we listen to and to the things that we attend to. There are many people in the world who, like the heretic Arius, put forth strange and false teachings. These false beliefs are often attractive to our fallen nature because it appeases our desires and caters to our self-interest. Be careful about who you listen to, what you read, and the claims of those who say that they know the secrets of the future or of the spiritual life or even of happiness and peace in the world. The only true source of wisdom and grace is the Body of Christ, that is the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. If any teaching comes from any other source, no matter how appealing or “sensible” it might be, do not listen, but turn away from it and fill your ears, your thoughts your whole life with the streams of grace that proceed from the Church.
St Athanasius and his many brethren throughout the whole expanse of the Church from the beginning until now have struggled and endured much to preserve for us the clear and untainted truth. Listen to the saints, follow their direction, for they are following Christ and they have shown us the way to walk unerringly along the path of salvation.