January 17, 2024

Homily on our Venerable Father Anthony the Great

By Archimandrite Photios Ioakeim

Anthony our great Father, the first inhabitant of the desert, the founder of monasticism, the pride of the Orthodox, the boast of the ecumene, the glory of the faithful, the seal of the Gospel, the heir of eternal good things, the support of the ecumene - as we sing in his beautiful apolytikion. The patron of the village of Spilia, has summoned us again this year, my beloved brethren in the Lord, to this blessed temple of his, in the celebration of his brilliant memory, so that we can joyfully honor him with hymns and psalms and spiritual odes and become partakers of his grace and blessing, glorifying the only true Triune God, "who is glorified in His saints."

This venerable heavenly citizen and earthly angel, who was found worthy, like few others in history, of the lofty title of "Great" for his truly great divine works, was found worthy by divine Providence and for the benefit of posterity, to be biographed by another "Great" man of the Church, Athanasios the Great, whom he had as his disciple for a while. This wonderful Life of Anthony the Great was written by Athanasios the Great as the archbishop of the renowned metropolis of Alexandria, and he initially sent it to monks in Egypt, so that they could study it and have it as a model of life. The later Synaxaria of Anthony the Great also draw from this wonderful life, and from him we will also glean the most important things from the equal to the angels life of our celebrated saint.

Saint Anthony's homeland on earth was Egypt, where he was born around 251 in the village of Koma in Upper Egypt, near ancient Memphis. His parents, pious and wealthy Christians, raised him with faith and fear of God. Since he was young, he was frugal and introverted, and he did not want to learn letters at school, nor to socialize with other children, so as not to feel confused and in need of care. However, he often went to church, where he carefully followed the reading of the sacred texts and the recounting of the lives of the saints. When he was about twenty years old, his parents reposed and he remained the heir to their large fortune and the guardian of his younger sister. One day, reflecting on the carefree life of the apostles and the first Christians, he heard in the church the Lord's exhortation to the rich young man, who was seeking moral perfection: "If you want to be perfect, sell what you have and give it to the poor, and come and follow Me." Moved and convinced that Christ Himself sent him this command personally, he sold his existing possessions (he had 300 or so fertile properties), distributed the money to the poor and, after entrusting his sister to a house of virgins, decided to definitively withdraw from the world and to take up the ascetic life.

Because at that time there were still no monasteries, nor an organized monastic life, imitating an Elder ascetic who lived near his village, he himself built a cell in an isolated place outside his village, where he set up his ascetic palace. With his mind freed from worldly cares, he worked manually for his livelihood, giving his income to the poor, and trying to keep undisturbed prayer in his heart. Also, like a wise bee, whenever he heard that there were virtuous ascetics, he ran with longing to them and collected the spiritual nectar of the virtue of each one of them. However, it did not take long for the devil to envy his virtuous life, and began to trouble him with various temptations and schemes, both carnal and psychic, subjecting him to despondency, lack of faith, cowardice and other passions, with the aim of making him abandon his equal to the angels conduct. And the Lord allowed his athlete to be tested, to show his faith and patience, to become an expert in spiritual warfare and to be able in the future to help others who would be tempted by the common enemy of the human race. And the brave young Anthony, with the Grace of the Lord, overcame those initial demonic attacks, hardening himself with fasting, vigilance and prayer and constantly humbling himself. Therefore, progressing in the ascetic life, he went and lived in an ancient underground tomb. Not enduring his bravery, Satan went one night with an entire legion of demons, who - always with God's concession - beat him so much that they left him wounded all over. His friend, who took care of him and occasionally brought him a little food, when he found him half dead, took him to the village temple. But, as soon as the fearless Anthony came to his senses, he asked and his acquaintance took him back to the tomb, in order to shame the demons, who did not stop attacking him. After another battle with the demons, our Lord Jesus Christ appeared in light and, after strengthening him in his struggle, promised him that he would make his name glorious in the whole earth, which, as we know, happened! At the age of thirty-five, the Saint decided to retire all alone to the desert, and shut himself up in an old fortress on a mountain on the east bank of the Nile, where he remained fighting superhumanly for twenty years. Then, having received a message from God, he no longer expelled those who came to him to consult him and imitate him, and he began to accept disciples, who were constantly increasing. He subsequently founded two monasteries and, with the illumination of the Holy Spirit, taught his subordinates "the art of arts and the science of sciences", the spiritual life. Thanks to the Saint, the desert was transformed into a city, where numerous communities of monks praised God unceasingly.

During the time of the great persecution of Maximinus Daia (308), Anthony the Great went to Alexandria, where he strengthened the martyrs and confessors of Christ and desired that he too suffer martyrdom. However, the Grace of God preserved him then for the benefit of many. So the Saint returned to his monastic community, continuing to practice the bloodless martyrdom of conscience. Because of his miracles and fame, his visitors increased, so he moved to the innermost desert, to the mountain, which is still called "Mountain of Saint Anthony", to live the spiritual theoria undisturbed. He became so famous that high-ranking officials visited him to benefit from his advice. Even Constantine the Great and his sons wrote letters to this humble but glorious monk, as if to their father, asking for his holy blessings. After visiting his monks for the last time, he returned to the deepest desert with two of his disciples, where, on January 17, 356, at the age of 105 years, he surrendered his soul in peace to the hands of God, whom he loved so much from his youth and he went through so many struggles for this divine love of his. That is why he used to say at a ripe old age: "I no longer fear God, but I love him."

Although his holy relic, according to his command, was buried in an unknown place by his two above disciples, in the year 561 it was revealed after a divine apparition and was transferred to Alexandria, while in 635, in view of the Arab conquest of the city, it was moved to Constantinople. According to tradition, in 1070 it was brought by a French nobleman to the city of Dauphiné in France, where it is still an object of great veneration.

And one last spiritual...dessert! There once was an Elder in the desert, shortly after the Saint reposed, who fervently begged the Lord to show him the glory of the saints in the heavens. God, listening to his God-loving desire, sent a holy angel, who took him to the place where the various orders of the saints were glorifying God. But, surprisingly, Saint Anthony was missing from that heavenly choir! And to the reasonable question of the ascetic, the angel answered that Saint Anthony was absent, because he was (and is!) next to the throne of the Holy Trinity, interceding for the whole world! Indeed, "time does not allow us" to recount the wonderful state of Anthony the Great. We recommend you to read his entire life, which is published in various synaxaria, as well as the great book Gerontikon, an ancient and wonderful collection of sayings from holy elders of the desert, mainly of Egypt, where many mention Anthony the Great.

Let us always beseech Anthony the Great, my beloved brethren, with all the saints, that God give us repentance, desire and fear of Him, love for Him and our neighbor, that He give us the strength to imitate something from the lives of our saints, each according to his strength. Because this is the only way that the mercy of God will again come richly to this place, and the Lord will bless even this temporal life of ours, and will make us worthy of eternal life, where choirs of saints and angels praise the Holy Trinity incessantly. Amen!

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.

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