Summary: Just because we are chosen by God, baptized into Christ, does not mean that we are infallibly going to attain God’s promises. We are always tempted, as Christ was, to follow the allurements of the world, flesh and devil.
Saint Anthony of the Desert 2019
Saint Anthony–the less famous one we call “Anthony of the Desert”–died 1653 years ago today. Since he is also called “Anthony the Great” and “Anthony of Egypt” and several other honorifics, we might want to know more about him, and what he can teach us today. But to get a fuller understanding, let’s connect his life with today’s Scripture.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews reminds us today of the sojourn of the Hebrew peoples in the desert. In doing so, he is calling to mind an ancient teaching from God. The Lord molded His people in the desert of Sinai, that barren region between Palestine proper and the land of Egypt. It was a difficult time for them, because there is little water, little pasture for their sheep, pretty much little of anything good. But there God fed them with manna and gave water for them and their cattle right out of a rock. They were being cared for by their God and all He asked of them was obedience and right worship. But they rebelled, and so that first generation of liberated slaves did not receive the gift God wanted to give them–the land of Palestine.
This is the understanding that every generation of Christians is challenged to attain. Just because we are chosen by God, baptized into Christ, does not mean that we are infallibly going to attain God’s promises. We are always tempted, as Christ was, to follow the allurements of the world, flesh and the devil. So we must hold fast to our confidence in Our Lord and follow His commandments. If we fall into the error of sin, if we fail to love God and neighbor, we must not, as so many in our culture do, let sin rewire our minds so that we believe good is evil and evil is good. We must repent, confess our sins and let God’s Word live in our hearts and minds and souls, and develop virtuous habits. We need to be like the leper, cleansed by Christ, and remain clean. Moreover, since Christ has commissioned us in our day to spread His Gospel, we must be witnesses to His power to forgive and heal and enliven. Christ is the only path for our world to be saved, for modern humans to unite in His kingdom and make a better world.
What we know about the Egyptian Christian, Anthony, comes to us from St. Athanasius, the bishop who fought against Arianism all his life. Anthony was not the first monk, but it appears he was the first who, like Christ, went out into the desert. There he contended with Satan, as Jesus had done before him, and there Jesus Christ was again victorious in his servant Anthony.
Anthony was born into a wealthy family in the middle of the third century. At age eighteen, after the death of his parents, he was left with a young unmarried sister. Today he would be called a “Jesus freak” or something like that, because he took literally Christ’s words written in St. Matthew, advising another wealthy young man to sell what he owned, give it to the poor and so trade his earthly wealth for heavenly rewards. He “gave away some of his family's lands to his neighbors, sold the remaining property, and donated the funds thus raised to the poor.” His sister was placed in a community of Christian virgins.
“For the next fifteen years, Anthony remained in the area, spending the first years as the disciple of another local hermit. There are various legends associating Anthony with pigs: one is that he worked as a swineherd during this period.” For this reason, Anthony is sometimes drawn with pigs. He retreated west of Alexandria to a desert place not far from the now-famous town of El Alamein. “According to Athanasius, the devil fought Anthony by afflicting him with boredom, laziness, and the phantoms of women, which he overcame by the power of prayer, providing a theme for Christian art. After that, he moved to a tomb, where he resided and closed the door on himself, depending on some local villagers who brought him food. When the devil perceived his ascetic life and his intense worship, he was envious and beat him mercilessly, leaving him unconscious. When his friends from the local village came to visit him and found him in this condition, they carried him to a church.” Upon recovery, he went back into the desert and lived in an abandoned Roman fort, where the devil persecuted him even more intensely.
This time, when villagers came out to see him, they found him healthy and vigorous. Other men joined him. They formed a community of worshiping ascetic monks. After his death, they continued to live that life in imitation of Christ and Anthony.