13 January 2022

With the Saints through Christmas (19):
13 January 2022, Saint Hilary of Poitiers

Saint Hilary of Poitiers … the ‘Athanasius of the West’

Patrick Comerford

This is a busy week, with meetings in Askeaton, Limerick and Dublin, and columns to write for diocesan magazines. But, before this day gets busy, I am taking some time early this morning for prayer, reflection and reading.

I have been continuing my Prayer Diary on my blog each morning, reflecting in these ways:

1, Reflections on a saint remembered in the calendars of the Church during the Season of Christmas, which continues until Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation (2 February);

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Saint Hilary (Hilarius) of Poitiers (ca 300-ca 368) was Bishop of Poitiers and is a Doctor of the Church. He was sometimes referred to as the ‘Hammer of the Arians’ (Malleus Arianorum) and the ‘Athanasius of the West.’ His name comes from the Latin word for happy or cheerful.

Hilary was born at Poitiers at the end of the third or beginning of the fourth century. His education included some knowledge of Greek, and he later studied Old and New Testament writings, so that he abandoned his Neo-Platonism for Christianity, and with his wife and his daughter was baptised and received into the Church.

He was unanimously elected Bishop of Poitiers ca 350/353. At that time, Arianism was a major threat to the Western Church. Hilary secured the excommunication of Saturninus, the Arian Bishop of Arles, and of Ursacius and Valens, two of his prominent supporters.

He wrote to Emperor Constantius II, describing the persecutions the Arians used to try to crush their opponents (Ad Constantium Augustum liber primus, ca 355). But he was banished, along with Rhodanus of Toulouse, to Phrygia, where he spent four years in exile, traditionally for refusing to subscribe to the condemnation of Athanasius and the Nicene faith.

From Phrygia, he continued to govern his diocese, and wrote two of his most important contributions to dogmatic and polemical theology. His De synodis or De fide Orientalium (358), addressed to the Semi-Arian bishops in Gaul, Germany and Britain, supported the teachings of the Eastern bishops on the Nicene controversy. His De trinitate libri XII (359/360) is the first successful expression in Latin of the decisions in Greek by the Council of Nicaea.

Hilary also attended several synods while he was in exile, and attacked the Emperor Constantius as Antichrist and persecutor of orthodox Christians. Eventually, he returned to Poitiers in 361, shortly after the accession of Emperor Julian.

Back in his diocese in 361, Hilary spent most of the first two or three years trying to persuade the local clergy to abandon Arian subordinationism.

According to Saint Jerome, Saint Hilary died in Poitiers in 367.

His work shows many traces of vigorous independent thought. He wrote the first Latin commentary on Saint Matthew’s Gospel to survive in its entirety. This was strongly influenced by Tertullian and Cyprian, and made use of several classical writers. He also wrote an early commentary on the Psalms.

His major theological work was his 12 books now known as De Trinitate, written largely during his exile and completed after his return to Gaul.

Some consider Saint Hilary as the first Latin Christian hymn writer, because Saint Jerome says he produced a liber hymnorum, and three hymns are attributed to him. He is the pre-eminent Latin writer of the fourth century (before Ambrose). Saint Augustine calls him ‘the illustrious doctor of the churches.’

Saint Hilary is commemorated in the Church Calendar on 13 January. For English and Irish educational and legal institutions, Saint Hilary’s festival lies at the start of the Hilary Term which begins in January.

Mark 1: 40-45 (NRSVA):

40 A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ 41 Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ 42 Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 43 After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44 saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ 45 But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

The prayer in the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) invites us to pray this morning (13 January 2022):

We pray for the Diocese of Tanga as they launch their End Mother to Child Transmission of HIV programme.

Yesterday: Saint Aelred of Rievaulx

Tomorrow: George Fox

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

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