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Chapter XIII.—Extract from the Letter of Athanasius on the Death of Arius375375 The letter was written to Serapion, Bishop of Thmuis, not Tmi el Emdid, in Egypt. St. Anthony left one of his sheepskin to Serapion, the other to Athanasius. Cf. Jer. de Vir. illust. 99..
After Arius had remained a long time in Alexandria, he endeavoured riotously to obtrude himself again into the assemblies of the Church, professing to renounce his impiety, and promising to receive the confession of faith drawn up by the fathers. But not succeeding in obtaining the confidence of the divine Alexander, nor of Athanasius, who followed376376 Athanasius, chosen alike by the designation of the dying Alexander, by popular acclamation, and by the election of the Bishop of the Province, was, in spite of his reluctance and retirement, consecrated, a.d. 326. Alexander alike in the patriarchate and in piety, he, helped and encouraged by Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia, betook himself to Constantinople. The intrigues upon which he then entered, and their punishment by the righteous Judge are all best narrated by the excellent Athanasius, in his letter to Apion377377 The name does not vary in the mss. of Theodoretus, but Schulze would alter it to Serapion on the authority of the mss. of Athanasius.. I shall therefore now insert this passage in my work. He writes:—
“I was not at Constantinople when he died; but Macarius, the presbyter, was there, and from him I learnt all the circumstances. The emperor Constantine was induced by Eusebius and his party to send for Arius. Upon his arrival, the emperor asked him whether he held the faith of the Catholic church. Arius then swore that his faith was orthodox, and presented a written summary of his belief; concealing, however, the reasons of his ejection from the Church by the bishop Alexander, and making a dishonest use of the language of Holy Scripture. When, therefore, he had declared upon oath that he did not hold the errors for which he had been expelled from the Church by Alexander, Constantine dismissed him, saying, ‘If thy faith is orthodox, thou hast well sworn; but if thy faith is impious and yet thou hast sworn, let God from heaven judge thee.’ When he quitted the emperor, the partizans of Eusebius, with their usual violence, desired to conduct him into the church; but Alexander, of blessed memory, bishop of Constantinople, refused his permission, alleging that the inventor of the heresy ought not to be admitted into communion. Then at last the partizans of Eusebius pronounced the threat: ‘As, against your will, we succeeded in prevailing on the emperor to send for Arius, so now, even if you forbid it, shall Arius join in communion378378 συναχθήσεται. The word σύναξις, originally equivalent to συναγωγή, and little used before the Christian era, means sometimes the gathering of the congregation, sometimes the Holy Communion. Vide Suicer s.v. Here the meaning is determined by parallel authority. (Cf. Soc. I. 38.) with us in this church to-morrow.’ It was on Saturday that they said this. The bishop Alexander, deeply grieved at what he had heard, went into the church and poured forth his lamentations, raising his hands in supplication to God, and throwing himself on his face on the pavement in the sanctuary379379 ἱερατεῖον. The sacrarium or chancel, also τὸ ἅγιον. Cf. Book V. cap. 17, where Ambrosius rebukes Theodosius for entering within the rails., prayed. Macarius went in with him, prayed with him, and heard his prayers. He asked one of two things. ‘If Arius,’ said he, ‘is to be joined to the Church to-morrow, let me Thy servant depart, and do not destroy the pious with the impious. If Thou wilt spare Thy Church, and I know that Thou dost spare her, look upon the words of the followers of Eusebius, and give not over Thy heritage to destruction and to shame. Remove Arius, lest if he come into the Church, heresy seem to come in with him, and impiety be hereafter deemed piety.’ Having thus prayed, the bishop left the church deeply anxious, and then a horrible and extraordinary catastrophe ensued. The followers of Eusebius had launched out into threats, while the bishop had recourse to prayer. Arius, emboldened by the protection of his party, delivered many trifling and foolish speeches, when he was suddenly compelled by a call of nature to retire, and immediately, as it is written, ‘falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst380380 Acts i. 18,’ and gave up the ghost, being deprived at once both of communion and of life. This, then, was the end of Arius381381 We are not necessarily impaled on Gibbon’s dilemma of poison or miracle. There are curious instances of sudden death under similar circumstances, e.g. that of George Valla of Piacenza, at Venice circa 1500. Vide Bayle’s Dict. s.v.. The followers of Eusebius were covered with shame, and buried him whose belief they shared. The blessed Alexander completed the celebration, rejoicing with the Church in piety and orthodoxy, praying with all the brethren and greatly glorifying God. This was not because he rejoiced at the death of Arius—God forbid; for ‘it is appointed unto all men once to die382382 Heb. ix. 27;’ but because the event plainly transcended any human condemnation. For the Lord Himself passing judgment upon the menaces of the followers of Eusebius, and the prayer of Alexander, condemned the Arian heresy, and shewed that it was unworthy of being received into the communion of the Church; thus manifesting to all that, even if it received the countenance and support of the emperor, and of all men, yet by truth itself it stood condemned.”
These were the first fruits, reaped by Arius, of those pernicious seeds which he had himself sown, and formed the prelude to the punishments that awaited him hereafter. His impiety was condemned by his punishment.
I shall now turn my narrative to the piety of the emperor. He addressed a letter to all the subjects of the Roman empire, exhorting them to renounce their former errors, and to embrace the doctrines of our Saviour, and trying to guide them to this truth. He stirred up the bishops in every city to build churches, and encouraged them not only by his letter, but also by presenting them with large sums of money, and defraying all the expenses of building. This his own letter sets forth, which was after this manner:—
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