May 29, 2019

Saint Alexander, Patriarch of Alexandria (+ 326)

St. Alexander of Alexandria (Feast Day - May 29)


I reverence the august end of Alexander,
I know as august Alexander the Pope.

Little is known of Alexander’s early life. He is thought to have been born about the year 250, probably in Alexandria. As a priest he experienced the persecutions of Christians under the emperors Galerius and Maximinus. Upon the repose of Archbishop Achillas of Alexandria in 313, he came to lead the Church of Alexandria as the thirteenth Pope in succession since the Apostle Mark.

Alexander was faced with three significant issues upon his elevation. These were the dating of Pascha, the efforts of Meletius of Lycopolis to undermine him, and Arianism.

A schismatic sect, led by Erescentius, disputed the timing of the date for Pascha. While the controversy was not fully settled until the decision of the First Ecumenical Synod in 325, Alexander prepared a special treatise that defused the issue until the Synodal decision in which he cited the earlier statements of Dionysius on the matter.

Alexander inherited the challenge to the ruling bishop of Alexandria by his subordinate Meletius, Bishop of Lycopolis, who had also challenged Achillas before him. Being among those who required strict repentance, Meletius and his sect questioned the reception of lapsed Christians on return to the Church during the persecutions. In addition to formally complaining to the court of Emperor Constantine I, to no effect, Meletius had begun to consecrate bishops of his own without Alexander’s agreement. Meletius appeared also to have established an alliance with Arius. The controversy and alliance with Arius ended at the Synod at Nicea at which Alexander allowed Meletius to return to the Church of Alexandria without authority to consecrate bishops.

Alexander’s greatest challenge was Arius himself. Alexander’s position had been compromised by the actions of his predecessor, Achillas, who had not only allowed Arius to return to the Church after he was excommunicated by his predecessor Peter, but had also assigned him the oldest church in Alexandria. In this position Achillas gave Arius the ability to exert great influence on the Christian community in Alexandria. Arius drew increasing support in Alexandria, to the point that Alexander called two local meetings of his priests and deacons to limit Arius’ actions. In neither meeting were firm conclusions reached that could stem the spread of Arius’ beliefs. In 320, Alexander called a synod of the Church in Alexandria that agreed on a condemnation of Arius.

Not withstanding this condemnation, Arius continued to spread his belief into Mareotis and Libya. In 321, Alexander convened a synod in Alexandria that included over one hundred participants. At the synod Arius argued his position that the Son was not co-eternal with the Father and that the Son was not similar to the Father in substance. The last statement was received in horror and the assembled synod went on to place Arius under anathema until he recanted his positions.

Arius forthwith left for Palestine where he settled with friends and continued to spread his heresy. Alexander then wrote a confession of faith that he sent to all the bishops in Christendom asking them to endorse his position. The dispute over Arianism continued as a serious problem and soon brought the Emperor Constantine I into the fray. Constantine wrote to Alexander and Arius requesting they end their dispute. Alexander remained adamant about his position and at another general synod of his diocese the excommunication of Arius was reaffirmed. Arius then formally complained to Constantine about his treatment by Alexander. Constantine directed Arius to plead his case before an Ecumenical Synod of the Church, to be convened at Nicaea in Asia Minor on June 14, 325.

Alexander came to the Synod with a party which included Potamon of Heraclea, Paphnutius of Thebes, and Alexander's deacon, Athanasius, who acted as his spokesman. Alexander was himself supposed to preside over the meeting, but felt that he could not serve as both presiding official and chief accuser. On that basis, he turned over the presidency to Hosius of Cordova. After lengthy discussion the Synod in Nicaea confirmed the anathema against Arius. The Synod also authorized Alexander, with his urging, to allow Meletius to retain his episcopal title but without authority to exercise any episcopal powers. It also gave Alexander the right to calculate the timing of Pascha with the duty of communicating his decision to all of Christendom. The Synod also allowed the Church of Alexandria to retain its traditions concerning celibacy of the clergy.

Alexander reposed five months after his return to Alexandria from Nicaea, on April 17, 326. He is said to have named his deacon, Athanasius the Great, his successor as he was dying.