Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Saint Athanasius the Deacon

2 May, in the Western Church, is the day traditionally kept as the feast of Saint Athanasius, the great fourth century bishop of Alexandria and doctor of the Church.  Keeping a saint's feast means, first of all and most essentially, celebrating his life in Christ by means of the ultimate Christian feast, the Holy Supper of our Lord's Body and Blood, ie., the Holy Mass, wherein the Christian community is blessed with the joyous opportunity to feast upon the Saint in whom all true saints have their holiness, the Holy One of God, Jesus Christ our Emmanuel. 

Unfortunately, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, by and large, is not yet at the point in her development where it is normal for a Christian to expect to hear the Mass at his local LCMS church on a saint's day.  What is the reason for this? 

It is partly explained by the less than wholesome and catholic ways the saints are treated among us, where, for example, Lutheran Service Book refuses the title "saint" to the saints who came after the age of the Apostles, both when it comes to the listing of holy days and in the author citations for the hymns. 

It is partly explained by the tendency in our church too often to prefer pedagogy over liturgy, catechesis over mystery.  Not that teaching and catechesis ought not have a healthy place in the Church, but that place ultimately is to lead people into the holy mysteries of God.  The pedagogical tendency to which I refer is manifest, for example, in the telling fact that on saints' days it is far more common to see a plethora of summaries of a saint's life in the cyberworld than to see the people gather in actual flesh and blood liturgical assembly.  So a paragraph on a blog or on Facebook, whether it be cleverly composed or copied from some official church site, passes for commemorating a saint and keeping his feast. 

But mostly, I suggest, it is explained by the fact that ours is a church that is not evolved to the point where it could be said to be marked by a truly eucharistic culture and piety.  This observation is not made out of disrespect to the liturgical progress that God has brought about to this point in our history, but rather out of the fervent prayer and the hope that, for the sake of our young people, for the sake of their future children, and for the sake of our witness to the world, we will thus grow.  That, to be sure, is the "church growth" for which we should actively strive, not numerical but spiritual.  Call it the Sermon on the Mount's corrective to the Church Growth Movement (seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you). 

Let the Mass truly be once again the chief divine service for Lutherans. 

Having offered that little diatribe, let me now share a brief thought on our saint of the day, the holy bishop Athanasius.  It was in the early stages of the post-persecution era, the supposedly peaceful Constantinian age, in which the devil attacked the flock in the most effective and clever way, by sowing and cultivating the seeds of theological discord within.  And this discord not about what in a later millennium would be thought of as secondary or non-fundamental doctrine, but about the very heart of Christian doctrine and confession, the person and natures of Christ, and the Holy Trinity.  Athanasius labored long and hard in his episcopal career, in the decades following the Council of Nicea, in defense of the full divinity of Christ, the uncreated One, who for us men and for our salvation took on flesh and became man.  For against this confession stood Arius, a popular priest from Alexandria, Athanasius's own back yard.  The Arian problem was more than merely a man, it bloomed into a real movement, with followers across the spectrum of society.  Despite the cartoonishly inaccurate rhetoric we get from anti-Lutheran Catholic apologists about the unity of the Church before 1517, we cannot appreciate the disunity of the Church in the age of the christological controversies.  Whole dioceses could be in the hands of rival parties.  It was as hostile and uncertain a time to be a Christian as the fourteenth century epoch of the rival popes, or the midst of the Smalcald War.  As Adrian Fortescue puts it in his excellent 1908 book on the Greek Fathers,

During the very lifetime of the heroes who could show the glorious wounds they had received under Diocletian, the Christian Church was tossed by a raging storm that nearly wrecked her.  Bishops fell on every side, intruders and counter-intruders filled every see, Anathemas and counter-Anathemas thundered across the empire from Tyre to Milan, so that the wretched layman who wanted to serve God in peace may well have wondered whether the old cry of Christianos ad leones were not on the whole pleasanter than the shouts of Homousios and Homoiusios, of which he understood nothing except that, whichever he said, someone was sure to excommunicate him.

The towering figure in the early days of this warfare on the catholic side was St. Athanasius.  He suffered dearly for his confession of Christ, being sent into exile five times.  His was a very real sort of martyrdom, a costly witness, for which he received his crown in Christ. 

Now you will recall the curious fact that I titled this reflection Saint Athanasius the Deacon, and that not to disrespect his episcopal dignity, but to honor his churchly servanthood.  For a deacon never really ceases being a deacon, even when his circumstances change, whether to a seeming loss of diaconal ministry or a promotion in rank.  But I also highlight Athanasius as Deacon because of the remarkable role he played when he served under Bishop Alexander.  When the ecumenical council of bishops convened at Nicea, there was a deacon from Egypt present, the holy and learned Athanasius, who was made deacon six years earlier.  So strong was his theological leadership that his succession to the great see of Alexandria was a foregone conclusion. 

I am the least of all deacons, but I look to Christ, whose whole life was diaconal to the core, and I look to the great exemplar deacons of Christ's Church, among whom St. Athanasius stands as one of the great confessors of Christ our Lord.

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