St Anthony, Abbot

Hebrews 5.1-10; Psalm 109.1-4 (LXX); Mark 2.18-22

Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.                                   (Hebrews 5.8-10)

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Theologically, I find the passage from Hebrews puzzling and paradoxical. It is difficult to think about the Incarnate Word learning obedience or ‘being made perfect’. In the unity of Father and Son there is a complete unity of will: what then does obedience mean without any opposition between the two wills? And how is the Incarnate Word, who is God, ‘made perfect’? Obedience and perfection must mean something different when applied to the unique person who is fully divine and fully human. 

But perfection and obedience are at the heart of a life like St Anthony’s. St Athanasius writes: 

Now it was not six months after the death of his parents, and going according tocustom into the Lord’s House, he communed with himself and reflected as he walked how the Apostles left all and followed the Saviour; and how they in the Acts sold their possessions and brought and laid them at the Apostles’ feet for distribution to the needy, and what and how great a hope was laid up for them in heaven. Pondering over these things he entered the church, and it happened the Gospel was being read, and he heard the Lord saying to the rich man, ‘If you would be perfect, go and sell that you have and give to the poor; and come follow Me and you shall have treasure in heaven.’ Antony, as though God had put him in mind of the Saints, and the passage had been read on his account, went out immediately from thechurch, and gave the possessions of his forefathers to the villagers— they were three hundred acres , productive and very fair— that they should be no more a clog upon himself and his sister. And all the rest that was movable he sold, and having got together much money he gave it to the poor, reserving a little however for his sister’s sake.*

St Anthony’s obedience to the Gospel and his desire for perfection led him out into the desert. He battled demons and wild animals, and refuted heretics and atheist philosophers. All this, St Athanasius tells us, Anthony does by the Holy Spirit: his spiritual strength and intellectual abilities come from God, and are not human achievements. Early Christian ascetics, many of whom followed in the footsteps of St Anthony, saw self-denial and humility as aids to the perfection of the soul. Following the Lord’s example, St Anthony embraced suffering in order to be made perfect by grace. 

In describing St Anthony’s life, Athanasius writes: 

the fact that his fame has been blazoned everywhere; that all regard him with wonder, and that those who have never seen him long for him, is clear proof of his virtue and God’s love of his soul. For not from writings, nor from worldly wisdom, nor through any art, was Antony renowned, but solely from his piety towards God. That this was the gift of God no one will deny. For from whence into Spain and into Gaul, how into Rome and Africa, was the man heard of who abode hidden in a mountain, unless it was Godwho makes His own known everywhere, who also promised this to Antony at the beginning? For even if they work secretly, even if they wish to remain in obscurity, yet the Lord shows them as lamps to lighten all, that those who hear may thus know that theprecepts of God are able to make men prosper and thus be zealous in the path of virtue.**

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