Persecution was something very common in the early Church. We see the beginnings of the persecution of St. Paul in our first reading. Some Jews were starting to make trouble for Paul because he was challenging their way of worship and their way of life. Living the Gospel is intensely challenging, and most people aren’t really looking for any kind of challenge.
St. Athanasius, whose feast we celebrate today, was himself the victim of persecution. As the bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, he was vocal in his opposition to the heresy of Arianism. Arianism taught that Christ was not fully devine, in his human nature, and that he was not one with the Father. It was difficult for Athanasius to combat this belief because Arius was himself from Alexandria and had some vocal and powerful friends. Athanasius was exiled five times for his defense of the Divinity of Christ and his opposition to Arianism.
St. Paul and St. Athanasius embody what Jesus was getting at in the Gospel today. “Amen, amen, I say to you, you will weep and mourn, while the world rejoices…” Jesus says. And both Paul and Athanasius lived that. But they both knew that their mourning would be much worse if they turned their back on the truth, if they turned their back on Christ. They are the patrons of all who have to suffer – whether it be a little discomfort or social position, or whether it be at the cost of their lives – for the sake of the Gospel. All of those glorious martyrs will know the joy that Jesus promises today: “But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.”