Readings: 1 John 5:1-5; Ps 36; Matthew 10:22-25a
The Gospel reading reflects the life experience of Athanasius. It comes from the 10th chapter of Matthew and is part of the second of the five discourses which Jesus gives in this gospel. In this discourse, Jesus gives his disciples instructions as he sends them out on their mission to do the same work that he himself is doing.
In today’s reading we read that part of the discourse where Jesus warns his disciples about the kind of reception their message is likely to get. Although it is a message of love and compassion and solidarity, Jesus tells them: “You will be hated by all”. And why? “Because of my name.” But the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. At the same time, if they meet with opposition they are not to expose themselves unnecessarily to danger. “If they persecute you in one town, take refuge in the next; and if they persecute you in that, take refuge in another.” In this they are to do what Jesus himself did. The Gospel shows more than once that Jesus did not act recklessly in the face of danger. It was only “when his time had come”, that he faced the inevitable end. And, even then, we see him in the Garden begging his Father not to have to go through with it, until it was clear to him that this was his Father’s will.
In the life of Athanasius we see the same. Again and again, he faced hatred and hostility in maintaining the integrity of the Gospel message. Again and again, he was driven into exile only to return once again to his diocese. He took refuge with the monks in the desert or in Rome. But, what is clear, he never compromised in his fidelity to his Lord and the Gospel. He would totally identify with the words of Jesus today: “The disciple is not superior to his teacher, nor the slave to his master. It is enough for the disciple that he should grow to be like his teacher.” And so Athanasius the disciple only lived to be like his Teacher.
It is in the First Reading from the 1 Letter of John that we see what made Athanasius so committed and so loyal. He believed that “Jesus is the Christ and has been begotten by God” for “whoever loves the Father that begot him loves also the one begotten by him”. It was this belief, of course, that Jesus is truly the Son of God, sharing the Divine Nature, that Athanasius so strongly defended against Arius and his followers and for which he suffered so much. And so the reading ends with the words: “Who can overcome the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.”
This belief would be laid out during the First Council of Nicaea (in modern Turkey) held in 325 and attended by Athanasius. It was the first ecumenical council of the whole Christian Church and, as mentioned, produced the Nicene Creed which we recite on Sundays and bigger feasts.