Today we honor Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria. Athanasius is a major figure in Church history and in the theological world. Rarely in the history of the Church has the course of its development been more significantly determined by one person than by Athanasius in the forth century. Called “the pillar of the Church” and “the God-given physician of her wounds,” Athanasius was a key voice at the Council of Nicea in 325 as they debated the divinity of Christ. Athanasius was the one who crafted the words from our Nicene Creed, “of one Being with the Father.” When he became bishop in 328, he fearlessly defended Nicene Christology – five times he was exiled for his efforts. We are indebted to Athanasius for his theological work – some of the most accessible I have read – and yet all of that work came at great personal cost.
I wonder if Athanasius ever prayed the Psalm we prayed today, “in you, O LORD, have I taken refuge; let me never be ashamed. In your righteousness, deliver me and set me free; incline your ear to me and save me. Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe…” Surely once or twice in exile Athanasius cried out those words to God.
Of course, few of us know the desperation of being exiled from our country for defending a theological truth. But we do know what it feels like to call out to God – to call out to God when we know we are doing the right thing, but we are paying for it. When friends cut us off or family members shut us out, we too may have asked God to incline God’s ear to us. We know what it feels like to only feel assurance through the God that is our strong rock.
What I like about Athanasius’ story is that during this last exile, the Emperor had to bring him back because the citizens threatened insurrection unless Athanasius was returned. When Athanasius stood his ground, staked his claim on Truth, God, even in exile, was a castle to keep him safe. What Athanasius’ experience reminds us of is that even in times that seem hopeless (like a fifth exile), God is with us, keeping us safe and making things better all the while. Our invitation today is to remember that God is our strong rock and to let our mouths be “full of God’s praise and God’s glory all the day long”…even in exile! Amen.