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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : Chapter 9 A SHORT-LIVED PEACE

Saint Athanasius by Frances Alice Forbes

Chapter 9 A SHORT-LIVED PEACE

ATHANASIUS was quick to take advantage of the decree which allowed the banished Bishops to return to their sees. On the way to Alexandria he stopped to talk over matters with other noble exiles who, like himself, had suffered for the Truth. Many of the faithful had been compelled by force or induced by threats or persuasion to accept the creed of the Arians; what was to be done in order that these weak ones might be brought back to the Faith?

Athanasius and those who with him had been ready to give their lives for the Truth being, like all brave and noble men, gentle and compassionate, they resolved to make it as easy as possible. They announced that absolution would be given freely to all who accepted the Creed of Nicea. Those who had fallen away were mostly good men and true believers who had yielded in a moment of weakness or of fear, or who had been deceived by the protestations of the Arians. They had been thoroughly miserable, but now the proclamation of Athanasius set them free from what had seemed like a bad dream. The Pope himself expressed his approval of Athanasius' forbearance, and the Bishops of the West hastened to follow his example.

In other places, Antioch and Constantinople especially, Arianism had taken deeper root. These were the strongholds of heresy, where the spirit of Eusebius of Nicomedia still prevailed. Men of his stamp were not likely to be ready to enter into communion with that Athanasius whom they had looked upon for years as their mortal enemy, nor was it to be expected that they would allow the true Faith to prevail without a struggle. It was thanks to Athanasius and his untiring efforts that Egypt and Alexandria were still, in the main, true to the Catholic Church.

We can imagine the joy with which the Alexandrians received their exiled Patriarch after his six years' absence. They had been worthy of their Bishop, for they too had made a brave fight for the Faith. Blood had been shed for Christ, and much had been suffered by the Catholics; they could face their Patriarch without shame. Many pagans who had watched the behavior of the Christians under persecution now came forward and asked to join the Church, among them some Greek ladies of noble family whom Athanasius himself instructed and baptized.

News of this reached the ears of the Emperor Julian, who was already furious at the influence that this Christian Bishop of Alexandria was exercising throughout the whole empire. He had hoped that Athanasius' return from exile would have been a cause for division among the people, instead of which it had been the signal for everyone to make peace with his neighbor. Never, he foresaw, as long as the voice of this undaunted champion of the Catholic Church was ringing in the ears of his subjects, would paganism triumph.

There were others who saw the matter in the same light. These were the magicians, diviners, fortune-tellers, all the servants of idolatry who had risen up at Julian's bidding and were swarming in Alexandria as everywhere else. The presence of Athanasius in their midst, they complained to the Emperor, was the ruin of their trade. Even their charms would not work as long as he was near them. There would soon not be a pagan left in the city if he were allowed to remain.

The Patriarch had been barely eight months in Alexandria when the Governor of Egypt received a message from his royal master. |Nothing that I could hear of would give me greater pleasure,| he wrote, |than the news that you have driven that miscreant out of the country.|

Soon after, the Alexandrians themselves were addressed. |We have allowed the Galileans,| wrote Julian, |to return to their country, but not to their churches. Nevertheless, we hear that Athanasius, with his accustomed boldness, has replaced himself on what they call his 'episcopal throne.' We therefore order him to leave the town at once or take the consequences.|

The Governor of Egypt, who knew the affection of the Alexandrians for their Patriarch, dared not take any steps against him; the citizens in the meantime had addressed a letter to the Emperor, begging him to reconsider the matter and to leave Athanasius in his see. This only served to anger Julian the more.

|I am painfully surprised that you Alexandrians,| he wrote, |who have the great god Serapis and Isis his Queen for your patrons, should ask permission to keep such a man in your midst. I can only hope that those of the citizens who are wiser have not been consulted and that this is the action of a few. I blush to think that any of you could call himself a Galilean. I order Athanasius to leave not only Alexandria, but Egypt.|

The Governor also received a curt message.

|If the enemy of the gods, Athanasius, remains in Egypt after the kalends of December,| it ran, |you and your troops shall pay a hundred pounds in gold. The gods are despised and I am insulted.|

Julian, however, had not much confidence in the Governor, or in the Alexandrians either. In order to make things doubly sure, messengers of his own were sent to Alexandria with orders to put the Patriarch to death.

The people were inconsolable, but Athanasius comforted them. |This time it is only a passing cloud,| he said; |it will soon be over.| Then, recommending his flock to the most trusted of his clergy, he left the city, an exile once more. It was not a moment too soon. Scarcely had he vanished when the messengers of Julian arrived.

|Where is Athanasius?| they asked; but a grim silence was the only answer.

The Patriarch, in the meantime, had reached the Nile; on the banks of the river a boat was waiting; he entered it, and they rowed swiftly upstream toward the Thebaid.

It was a dangerous moment, but the faithful were watching. A message was brought to the fugitives that soldiers of the Emperor who had orders to seize and kill the Saint had learned his whereabouts and had sworn to overtake him. They implored him to land and take refuge in the desert.

|No,| said Athanasius; |turn the boat's head and row toward Alexandria.| They thought he was mad, but dared not disobey his orders.

|He who is for us is greater than he who is against us,| he said, smiling at their terrified faces. Presently the Imperial boat came in sight, rowing hard in pursuit of the fugitive.

|Have you seen Athanasius? Is he far off?| they shouted, as the little boat drew near.

|He is quite close,| answered the Patriarch calmly; |press on.|

The crew bent to their oars, the skiff was soon out of sight, but needless to say they did not find their prey. As for Athanasius, he continued his journey to Alexandria, where he landed once more, remaining there for a few days in hiding before he set out for the deserts of the Thebaid.

|The enemy of the gods| had been gotten rid of -- for a time, at least, but Julian had still to wait for the triumph of paganism. The gods themselves seemed to be against him. Never had a year been so unlucky as that which followed the banishment of Athanasius. There were earthquakes everywhere; Nicea and Nicomedia were reduced to ruins and Constantinople severely damaged. An extraordinary tidal wave swept over the lower part of the city of Alexandria, leaving shells and seaweed on the roofs of the houses. Famine and plague followed, and it was remarked that the famine seemed to dog the steps of the Emperor wherever he went. People dreaded his arrival in their city; at Antioch, where he stayed for a considerable time, the sufferings were terrible. Julian ordered sacrifices to the gods. So many white oxen were slain that it was said that soon there would be none left in the empire; but still things did not improve.

Julian had begun by being tolerant, but disappointment was making him savage. It was all the fault of the Galileans, he declared. He ordered the Christian soldiers in his army to tear the Cross from Constantine's sacred standard, and he put them to death when they refused. Many Christian churches were closed, and the sacred vessels of the altar seized and profaned. Those who dared resist were imprisoned or slain. Wine that had been offered to the gods was thrown into the public wells and fountains, and all the food that was sold in the markets was defiled in the same way. Two of his officers who complained of this profanation were put to death -- not for their religion, Julian hastened to explain, but for their insolence.

The Emperor posed as a philosopher. His long, dirty nails and ragged, uncombed hair and beard were intended to impress his subjects with the wisdom of a man so absorbed in learning that he was above such things as cleanliness. Unfortunately, they had just the opposite effect, and the people made fun of him. They laughed at his sacrifices, where he was often to be seen tearing open with his own hands the bleeding victim to see if he could read inside the signs of success or failure. They laughed at his writings in praise of the gods, where he represented himself as receiving compliments from them all. They laughed at his short stature, at his narrow shoulders and at the huge steps he took in walking, as if, they said, he had been the near relation of one of Homer's giants.

Julian revenged himself upon them in his writings satires in which Constantine, the first Christian Emperor, was especially held up to ridicule. The Galileans were at the bottom of this as of all other contradictions, he declared, and continued to vent his spleen upon the Christians. It was the last stand of ancient paganism before it died out forever.

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