It is the 17th of January 2023. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
Today’s episode is brought to you by the letter A. That’s right. Some listeners might remember that we have often remarked that there is something about the great theologians of the past whose names begin with the letter A. Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Ambrose, Aquinas, Albert the Great…. And, of course, the two great centers of theology in the early church were Antioch and Alexandria. But, before all those men was St. Anthony, and while there are several St. Anthonys- it is this St. Anthony- who is remembered with a feast day today who is known as St. Anthony the Great- the 3rd and 4th-century hermit who is considered the father of monasticism.
Before we get to his life and role as the father of “monasticism”- in keeping with the theme of the day, I’d like to mention that as the first monastic “father,” he would take the “A” name: Abbot. This (or the female “Abbess”) comes from the word for father in Aramaic: Abba. Also, later, some monks and nuns who would live solitary lives would go by the name of “anchorite” or “anchoress”- this comes from the name of the building attached to a church- this comes from the Greek words “back place”- a building in the back of a church where they would be walled-in to live solitary lives of prayer.
All right- back to Anthony. One of the reasons he is so influential, and the reason we know so much of his purported story, is because his life was written by the great church father Athanasius- the “Life of St. Anthony” is a classic in the monastic tradition. More on why Athanasius would write this in a minute.
Anthony was born, most likely, in 251. So, this is pre-Constantine, Christianity is not yet legal, but his parents were Christians and raised him in the faith. His parents were wealthy, and when they both died when he was 20, he had a crisis of faith. He heard a homily on the Rich Young Ruler (the “give away everything you have” story), and he took it to heart. He gave away his riches and moved out to the Egyptian desert to contemplate the love of God and take on the devil's wiles (this, of course, is an example of the imitation of Christ, whose early ministry took him into solitude to face the devil).
It is said that here in the desert, for 20 years, he was in prayer, attacked by the devil who took on the guise of various temptations- it is also written that he was attacked by possessed animals but was saved through angelic ministrations.
After this time in solitude, he emerged to give others a model for a similar life. While others had sought the imitation of Christ in similar solitude and prayer, there was no “order” or “rule.” Anthony is considered the father of monasticism in that he took the disparate practices and arranged them- some would live completely solitary lives, and others would live semi-solitary lives in silence and prayer together.
He gained such fame that during the Diocletian persecution of the church, he made his way to Alexandria to oppose the persecutions and offer himself up for persecution (the ultimate imitation of Christ)- he would not be put to death as the rulers knew that his death would embolden other believers.
Once Constantine legalized Christianity and called the great council of Nicaea in 325, he struggled with the problem of Arianism. In brief, that was the teaching that Jesus was a created being and thus not co-equal to the father. The co-equality of Jesus with the father would be central to the theology of Athanasius- but it was Anthony that Constantine called on to use his considerable clout to support the Nicene position. Anthony’s defense of the co-equality of Jesus made him a favorite of Athanasius, who would then write his story in such a way as to elevate his status in the church. And it worked because he is known as St. Anthony the Great, and he is said to have died on this the 17th of January in 356.
The last word for today comes from the daily lectionary from Hebrews 10:
The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. 2 Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. 3 But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. 4 It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 17th of January 2023, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man who considers his own beard his best attempt at the imitation of Christ- he is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man who reminds you that Desert has one S, and Dessert has two s’s because you always want more- thank you, Ramona Quimby. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.