Saint Athanasius

athanasius.jpgHere are some “jottings in the margin of the Missal” as Dom Marmion would call them: just a few random thoughts on the Propers of today’s Mass. I don’t treat of the Gregorian melodies that clothe the Introit, Offertory, and Communion with a particularly penetrating grace; one has to sing them or hear them sung in order to experience them in all their richness.

Looking at today’s Mass

In the midst of the Church
the Lord opened his mouth,
and He filled him with the spirit of wisdom and understanding;
He clothed him with a robe of glory, alleluia (cf. Sir 15:5).

Wisdom and Understanding

In the midst of His Church, Our Lord Jesus Christ raised up Saint Athanasius, and opened his mouth. He filled Athanasius with the Spirit, that is the Divine Breath of wisdom and understanding. Wisdom is the gift of the Holy Ghost by which a soul tastes God and the things that are God’s; understanding is the gift of the Holy Ghost by which one enters into the plan of God, rejoicing in His providence, in His mercy, and in the truth of all that He has revealed and promised. The robe of grace, given in Baptism, becomes for all the saints a robe of glory.

Almighty and ever-living God,
Who didst raise up the blessed bishop Athanasius
as the wonderful champion of the divinity of Thy Son,
mercifully grant that we,
rejoicing in his doctrine and protection,
may grow ceaselessly in the knowledge and love of Thee.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son,
who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost,
God, forever and ever.

Saint Athanasius holds the title, “Father of Orthodoxy.” The Collect calls him “the wonderful champion of the divinity of your Son.” A champion he was: unafraid of engaging in battle, intransigent and stalwart when it came to the defense of catholic truth.

The Strength of the Saints

Offertory Antiphon
I have found David my servant,
with my holy oil I have anointed him;
my hand shall help him,
and my arm shall make him strong, alleluia (Ps 88:21-22).|

The Offertory Antiphon applies to Saint Athanasius the prophecy concerning David: “My hand shall help him, and my arms shall make him strong” (Ps 88:22). Athanasius needed the hand of God and the might of his arms; he suffered no less than five periods of exile, almost sixteen years in all, for his uncompromising support of the Nicene Orthodox doctrine of the Trinity.

The Splendour of the Faith

Prayer Over the Oblations
Look, O Lord,
upon the offerings that we set before Thee
in commemoration of Saint Athanasius,
that his witness to the truth
may be for the salvation of those
who profess untainted the faith he taught.
Through Christ our Lord.

In the Prayer Over the Oblations we will ask that Saint Athanasius’ witness to the truth may be “for the salvation of those who profess untainted the faith he taught.” The untainted faith of the saints is not old, dusty, and boring; it is a splendid thing, a living reality. “Its flashes are flashes of fire, a most vehement flame” (Ct 8:6).

The liturgy offers two Communion Antiphons for today’s Mass. The first, given in the reformed Roman Missal, has to be heard in the mouth of Athanasius:

Communion Antiphon in the Roman Missal

No other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid,
which is Jesus Christ, alleluia. (1 Cor 3:11)

The Church wants us to hear this at the very moment we approach the mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood. The foundation of the Church, the foundation of the doctrine that nourishes life is given whole, entire, unchanging and ever new in the mystery of the Eucharist: “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb 13:8).

Listening in the Night

Communion Antiphon in the 1974 Graduale Romanum
That which I tell you in the dark, speak in the light, says the Lord;
and that which you hear in the ear,
preach upon the housetops, alleluia (Mt 10:27).

The Communion Antiphon given in the Roman Gradual has the Lord Jesus Himself speak to us, saying, “That which I tell you in the dark, speak in the light, and that which you hear in the ear, preach upon the housetops, alleluia” (Mt 10:27). The darkness here is the obscurity of faith, the prayer in the night by which God comes closer to us than He does in what we take for light. The secrets whispered in the ear are those of the Holy Ghost, secrets that only the listening heart can hear. It is of this that Jesus speaks in today’s Gospel: “When the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, Who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness to me” (Jn 15:26). Saint Athanasius, receiving the witness of the Holy Ghost concerning Christ, was compelled to preach it from the housetops and, even today, his voice resounds in the Church.

Quickened and Protected

Grant, we beseech Thee, almighty God,
that we who, together with Saint Athanasius,
steadfastly confess the divinity of Thine Only-Begotten Son,
may ever be enlivened and protected by this sacrament.
Through Christ our Lord.

In the Postcommunion Prayer we ask that, “we who steadfastly confess the divinity of Thine only-begotten Son, may ever be enlivened and protected by this sacrament.” Note the two parts to the petition: we ask both to be enlivened (or quickened) and to be protected. This is why we go to the altar today: for an infusion of divine vitality, and for the divine protection without which the life we bear in ourselves, as in earthen vessels, is fragile and at every moment threatened.

Saint Anthony of Egypt

Saint Athanasius gave us, we must not forget, the Life of the Father of Monks in East and West, Saint Anthony of Egypt. Nothing better illustrates the principle of the Postcommunion Prayer at work. Anthony was a man fully alive in Christ. He was, at the same time, thrust into fierce spiritual combat where his only recourse was the protection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Anthony’s triumph was the triumph of Christ in him. Saint Athanasius wants us to understand this above all else. That same triumph of Christ over sin, the flesh, and the devil, the glorious triumph of Christ over death, is given us in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.