Wednesday, 2 May 2018 : 5th Week of Easter, Memorial of St. Athanasius, Bishop and Doctor of the Church (Homily and Scripture Reflections)

Liturgical Colour : White

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, on this day we listened to the words of the Scripture speaking to us about the dispute that arose within the Church during its earliest days, when things came to head between the more conservative Jewish Christians, especially those who used to belong to the Pharisee group, and the more open-minded Christians led by the Apostle St. Paul, who wanted to reach out more vigorously to the Gentiles or the non-Jewish people.

The more conservative faction demanded that all the laws and observances in the Jewish custom and tradition must be fulfilled and obeyed by all Christians, even for the Gentiles and all the non-Jewish people such as the Greeks and the Romans who did not practice many of the traditional customs of the Jews, such as circumcision and the rituals for washing and cleansing as mentioned in the Gospels and in the Old Testament.

In order to be able to appreciate better why was such a matter very important and crucial for the early Church, and why there was such a controversy and division among the faithful, we have to understand the history and the context of the cultures present at that time, which happened during the height of the Roman Empire. If we read the history prior to the time of Jesus, there had been similar controversy during the time of the Maccabeans, when the Jewish people revolted against the tyranny of the Greek rulers of the Seleucid Empire.

At that time, the Greek King Antiochus IV Epiphanes tried to enforce a common culture and practice throughout his empire, and forcing the entire Jewish population to follow the customs and practices of the Greeks, such as their worship of the Greek pagan gods and idols, establishing their temples on the cities of the Jews, the sacrilege committed on the sacred places of God, including the Temple in Jerusalem, and the outlawing of circumcision, which the Greeks saw as an aberration.

Similarly, the Jews saw the customs of the Greeks as abominations, their naked actions and competitions in the gymnasiums, their clothings and their culture, their drunken revelry and many more, on top of their pagan beliefs and worship. This is compounded by the fact that the Jewish people held strongly to the belief that they were God’s chosen people, and therefore, they were superior to the pagans.

At the time of Jesus, the aftereffects of the Maccabean rebellion was still fresh in the minds of the people, when those who rejected the Greek culture and customs managed to free themselves from the shackles of tyranny of the Greeks. They became more careful and very protective of their cultures and traditions, which some identified with their independence and sovereignty as the Jewish nation.

That was why such a great trouble and conflict arose over the issues of these traditions and customs, especially because many of the Jews refused to admit that there could be a better way than following and obeying fanatically those customs and traditions, to a fault. That was when the Lord Jesus came in their midst, and reminded them of their excesses and unreasonable attachment to the laws and customs.

Why so? That is because many of those traditions and customs have been made over hundreds of years of history, in order to satisfy men’s needs and desires, rather than truly following and obeying God’s Law. As a result, enforcing those customs on the non-Jewish people became in fact, a great obstacle for those people to accept the Christian faith. I have just mentioned how the Greeks and also the Romans, whose culture was very similar to the former, abhorred certain practices of the Jews such as circumcision.

Should the Church fathers insisted that the Gentiles must follow those practices and customs, it would have made it very difficult for the people of the non-Jewish origin to follow the Christian faith, as it would have subjected them to lots of cultural stigma and difficulties, from among their own people. Instead, the Apostles, beginning with St. Paul, eventually decided that most importantly, all Christians, regardless of their origins, must believe in the basic tenets of the faith, that Jesus Christ is Lord and Saviour, and there is no other God save Him alone, and all other teachings preserved by the Church and passed on to us.

In today’s Gospel, we heard of the Lord speaking to His disciples about the importance of all of His faithful ones to remain united with Him, and to cling to Him, as the only source of truth. For indeed, He is the True Vine as He mentioned in the Gospel passage today. And all of us ought to be linked to Him, as one big family, as one Church, members of the same Vine, all linked to the Lord through the branches of the Vine, that is the Church.

We spoke of this unity present in the Church, because all of us are part of this unity with God. We all believe in the same faith, which our priests and bishops have received from their predecessors, and ultimately originating from the Church fathers themselves, the Apostles and disciples of Our Lord. The Apostles and the disciples of the Lord have decided what it means for us to be true Christians, by the regulations and rules they have agreed together, to be observed by all the members of the Church, no longer bound by the old laws of the Jews, but by the new Law of Christ.

However, throughout time, this unity was to be tested in various occasions, and many had failed to preserve this unity and many have faltered in trying to remain true to their faith in God. There were those who denied the truth found in the Church, or worse still, perverted those truth to attain their own selfish desires and agenda. They were the heretics who tried to snatch the souls of the faithful, down the wrong path, because they refused to listen to God’s truth or obey His words.

But there were equally many of those who wanted to protect the truth and to preserve the truth in the Church, and they strove against the heretics preaching their heresies and false ways, standing up for their true, orthodox faith in God. St. Athanasius the Great was one of them, a great defender of the faith and a faithful servant of God. St. Athanasius was the Patriarch of Alexandria who stood up for his faith against those who adhered to the heresy of Arianism.

The heresy of Arianism at that time was so serious that many among the faithful, and especially among the priests and bishops subscribed to that heresy. Having been made popular by the preacher Arius, it stated that the Lord Jesus was not co-equal or co-eternal with the Father, but merely a created being. This was a great heresy, as the Church and the Scriptures had firmly established that God exists in the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Who existed since before the beginning of time and equal with one another, indivisibly bound by perfect love.

St. Athanasius firmly stood his ground against the heresiarch Arius, opposing his views and openly went against his teachings, and encouraged the faithful to stand up against his false teachings and preachings. However, there were many of those who had been swayed by the charismatic Arius, and many bishops and priests who supported his heresy. St. Athanasius had to endure challenges and difficulties, even going up against Emperors and powerful fellow bishops, as he was exiled from his See of Alexandria due to such opposition.

Nonetheless, St. Athanasius did not give up or shrink away due to all of these opposition against him. He continued to campaign and work zealously against the false teachings of the heretics, and his firm views and orthodox faith can be seen this very day in the version of the Creed which the holy saint himself composed, the Athanasian Creed, a much more comprehensive version of the Nicene Creed, specifically crafted to condemn the false teachings of heretics.

Many souls have been saved because of the works of this holy saint, and because of all that he has done, he has preserved the unity of many of the faithful with the True Vine, that is Christ. The devil knows that if he is to be successful in getting the souls of the faithful, he must strike at those who work hard to preserve the unity of the Church. That was why he was so persistent on his attacks against St. Athanasius, as well as the many other devoted servants of God, working tirelessly to keep the faithful from the ravenous fangs of the devil.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, now, having heard of the developments of our faith and how we have come together as one Church, no longer divided by customs or racial identity, but as one people together before God, let us all realise of the obligations that we have, to serve the Lord with all of our hearts and with all of our strength. This is what we need to do, that is to walk in the footsteps of the Apostles and the saints, particularly remembering the hard work of St. Athanasius the Great, our holy predecessor.

Let us all therefore do our best, working together as part of one united Church, that we may be exemplary in all of our actions, words and deeds, carrying out our lives filled with God’s love and grace. Let us all do our best, in everything we do, so that we may inspire many more people, even those who are still living in sin and away from God, as the reflections of God’s light in this world, that they too, may turn towards the Lord because of us, and be saved. May the Lord be with us all, and may through the intercession of St. Athanasius, our good works in Him will bring greater glory to God and His Name. Amen.

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