St Athanasius and faith in the divinity of Christ – Fr Cantalamessa’s first Year of Faith homily

In preparation for the Year of Faith Fr Cantalamessa chose St

St Athanasius

Athanasius as the first ‘giant of the Faith’ in his Lenten series of homilies ”Remember your leaders. Imitate their faith” (Hebrews13:7).

Preaching to the Pontifical Household Fr Cantalamessa explained the purpose of his series for the Year of Faith:

“In preparation for the Year of Faith proclaimed by the Holy Father Benedict XVI (Oct. 12, 2012-Nov. 24, 2013), the four homilies of Lent are intended to give impetus and give back freshness to our belief through a renewed contact with the “giants of the faith” of the past. Hence the title, taken from the Letter to the Hebrews, given to the whole series: “Remember your leaders. Imitate their faith” (Hebrews13:7).”

“We will put ourselves each time in the school of one of the four great Doctors of the Eastern Church — Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzen and Gregory of Nyssa — to see what each one of them says to us today, in regard to the dogma of which he was champion, that is, respectively, the divinity of Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Trinity, knowledge of God. At another time, God willing, we will do the same for the great Doctors of the Western Church: Augustine, Ambrose and Leo the Great.”

“What we wish to learn from the Fathers is not so much how to proclaim the faith to the world, namely, evangelization, or how to defend the faith against errors, namely, orthodoxy; but, rather, how to deepen our faith, to rediscover, behind them, the richness, beauty and happiness of believing, to pass, as Paul says, “through faith for faith” (Romans 1:17), from a believed faith to a lived faith. It will spell, in fact, growth in the “volume” of faith within the Church, which will then constitute the major strength of its proclamation to the world and the best defense of its orthodoxy.”

Here are further excerpts from his homily on St Athanasius and the divinity of Christ:

“However, it is time for us to return to see what we can learn today of the epic battle sustained in his time by Athanasius. The divinity of Christ is today the real “articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae,” the truth on which the Church stands or falls. If in other times, when the divinity of Christ was peacefully admitted by all Christians, one could think that this “article” was the “gratuitous justification by faith,” now it is no longer thus. Can we say that the vital problem for the man of today is to establish in what way the sinner is justified, when people no longer believe they need being justified or are convinced of finding justification in themselves? “I myself accuse myself today — Sartre has one of his personages cry out from the stage — and only I can also absolve myself, I the man. If God exists man is nothing.” (J. P. Sartre, The Devil and the Good God, X, 4, Gallimard, Paris
1951, p. 267 f.)

The divinity of Christ is the cornerstone that supports the two principal mysteries of the Christian faith; the Trinity and the Incarnation. They are like two doors that open and close together. If that stone is discarded, the whole edifice of the Christian faith collapses on itself: if the Son is not God, by whom is the Trinity formed? Saint Athanasius had already denounced this when writing against the Arians: “If the Word does not exist together with the Father from all eternity, then an eternal Trinity does not exist, but first there was unity and then, with the passing of time, by addition, the Trinity began to be.” (Athanasius, Contra Arianos I, 17-18).

(An idea — this of the Trinity that is formed “by addition” — that began to be proposed, not so many years ago, by some theologian who applied to the Trinity Hegel’s dialectic scheme of becoming!). Well before Athanasius, Saint John established this bond between the two mysteries: “He who denies the Son, does not possess the Father either; he who professes his faith in the Son also possesses the Father” (1 John 2:23). The two things are or fall together, but if they fall together, then we must say sadly with Paul that we Christians, “we are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19). We must allow ourselves to be confronted directly by that very respectful but very direct question of Jesus: “But you, who do you believe I am?” and by that even more personal one: “Do you believe?” Do you really believe? Do you believe with all your heart? Saint Paul says that “man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved”(Romans 10:10). In the past, the profession of the correct faith, namely the second moment of this process, has been so highlighted at times as to leave in the shadow that first moment which is the most important and which unfolds in the recondite profundity of the heart. “It is from the roots of the heart that faith arises,” exclaims Saint Augustine. (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 26, 2)

It is necessary perhaps to demolish in us, believers, and in us, men of the Church, the false persuasion of believing already, to be fine in regard to the faith. It is necessary to provoke doubt — not, of course, about Jesus but about ourselves — to then be able to go in search of a more authentic faith. Who knows if it might not be a good thing, for some time, not to wish to demonstrate anything to anyone, but to internalize our faith, to rediscover its roots in our heart! Jesus asked Peter three times: “Do you love me?” He knew that the first and second time the answer came out too hastily, to be the true one. Finally, on the third time, Peter understood. The question about the faith should also be asked of us three times, with insistence, until we also realize and enter into the truth: “Do you believe? Do you believe? Do you really believe?” Perhaps at the end we will answer: “No, Lord, I do not really believe with all my heart and with all my soul. Increase my faith!”

Athanasius reminds, however, of yet another important truth: that faith in the divinity of Christ is not possible, if one does not also have the experience of salvation wrought by Christ. Without this, the divinity of Christ becomes easily an idea, a thesis, and we know that an idea can always be opposed by another idea, and a thesis by another thesis. Only to a life — said the desert Fathers –is there nothing that can be opposed.
The experience of salvation is made by reading the word of God (and taking it for what it is, the word of God!), administering and receiving the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, the privileged place of the presence of the Risen One, exercising the charisms, keeping in contact with the life of the believing community, praying. In the 4th century, Evagrius formulated the famous equation: “If you are a theologian, you will truly pray and if you truly pray you will be a theologian.” (Evagrius, De oratione 61).

Athanasius prevented theological research from remaining a prisoner of the philosophical speculation of the different “schools” in order to have it become instead a deepening of the revealed truth  in the line of the Tradition. An eminent Protestant historian recognized in Athanasius a singular merit in this field: “Thanks to him — he wrote — faith in Christ has remained rigorous faith in God and, in keeping with its nature, clearly different from all the other forms — pagan, philosophical, idealistic — of faith … With him, the Church became again an institution of salvation, that is, in the rigorous sense of the term, ‘Church,’ whose own and determinant content is constituted by the preaching of Christ.”  (H. von Campenhausen, The Greek Fathers, Brescia 1967, pp. 103-104).

To conclude, let us turn to the divinity of Christ. It illumines,
clarifies the whole of Christian life.
Without faith in the divinity of Christ:
God is remote,
Christ remains in his time,
The Gospel is one of many religious books of humanity,
The Church is a simple institution,
Evangelization is propaganda,
The liturgy is evocation of a past that is no longer,
Christian morality is a burden that is anything but light
and a yoke that is anything but gentle.

However, with faith in the divinity of Christ:
God is Emmanuel, God with us,
Christ is the Risen One who lives in the Spirit,
The Gospel is definitive word of God to the whole of humanity,
The Church is the universal sacrament of salvation,
Evangelization is the sharing of a gift,
The liturgy is a joyful encounter with the Risen One,
Present life is the beginning of eternity.
Written, in fact, is that “He who believes in the Son has eternal
life” (John 3:36).

Faith in the divinity of Christ is indispensable above all in this moment to keep alive hope about the future of the Church and of the world. Against the Gnostics who denied the true humanity of Christ, Tertullian raised, in his time, the cry: “Parce unicae spei totius orbis,” do not take away from the world its only hope!”(Tertullian, De carne Christi, 5, 3). We must say it today to those who refuse to believe in the divinity of Christ.

To the Apostles, after having calmed the storm, Jesus addressed a word that he repeats today to their successors: “Take heart, it is I; have no fear” (Mark 6:50).

Catholic Year of Faith comment: It is well worth reading Fr Cantalamessa’s entire homily on St Athanasius.

This entry was posted in Holy See News. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.