Athanasius of Alexandria is an early Church Father, considered one of the great “Doctors of the Church.” He is the first person to identify the 27 books we now consider the New Testament. He contributed to the theological integrity of the church by struggling against Arians, who maintained that Jesus of Nazareth was of a “distinct substance” to the father (which would violate the doctrine of the Trinity), as well several Emperors. This penchant for conflict for the truth earned him the title Athanasius Contra Mundum (or Athanasius Against the World). This week, we are going to pray through one of his works, On the Incarnation of the Word (or De Incarnatione Verbi Dei). The text itself is a companion to another one of his works, Against the Heathen (or Contra Gentes). In his first work, he is offering written arguments against pagan beliefs and practices. But in the work we’ll focus on this week, On the Incarnation, Athanasius beautifully writes of the basis of Christian faith and salvation: the incarnation of Jesus. I will offer an excerpt of the text (you can find the whole thing here), and try to bring to our immediate relevance to us today.
Today’s Bible reading
Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.—Romans 5:14
For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died.—2 Corinthians 5:14
For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being.—Hebrews 11:14
More thoughts for meditation
“Our creation and God’s Incarnation most intimately connected.”
“But men, having rejected things eternal, and, by counsel of the devil, turned to the things of corruption, became the cause of their own corruption in death.”
“The human race then was wasting, God’s image was being effaced, and His work ruined.”
“We have incurred corruption and need to be restored to the Grace of God’s Image. None could renew but He Who had created.”
“He takes a body of our Nature… He makes it His own, wherein to reveal Himself, conquer death, and restore life.”
“By being above all, He made His Flesh an offering for our souls; by being one with us all, he clothed us with immortality.”
In sections four to ten of On the Incarnation, Athanasius presents the first reason for the incarnation. Above, I’ve outlined the basics of his argument using his words, but now I want to unpack it more. For Athanasius, the incarnation and the creation are inextricably linked. God “gave us freely,” through the Word, through the incarnation, “a life in correspondence with God.” But human kind severed that relationship, “having despised and rejected the contemplation of God, and devised and contrived evil for themselves.” That is the problem that the Incarnation solves, that is the first reason for the Incarnation—to solve this dilemma: the gift God freely gave ruined rejecting “things eternal” turning to “things of corruption.”
Athanasius presents us with a conundrum that God is facing: “For it were not worthy of God’s goodness that the things He had made should waste away, because of the deceit practised on men by the devil. Especially it was unseemly to the last degree that God’s handicraft among men should be done away, either because of their own carelessness, or because of the deceitfulness of evil spirits.”
God is moved to save us, despite our “carelessness” or us being deceived because what God has made as good should not be away with. God is moved to love us because of who God is and who God created us to be. In order for us to return to who we were created to be, we need more than repentance. “None could renew but He Who had created.” The Word made Flesh, Jesus, was in a unique position to both suffer and recreate. So Jesus “comes in condescension to show loving-kindness upon us, and to visit us.” Jesus took the same pity on us that God did when God created us, Jesus extended the mercy, and “condescended to our corruption” and couldn’t bear to let death have the final word. He did this to keep us from perishing, while also preserving God’s good work. “He takes unto Himself a body, and that of no different sort from ours.”
Jesus takes on flesh, which removes death’s “holding-ground” among humans because the Word’s body came to dwell with them. Athanasius compares this to a king who comes back to his city, and no enemy or bandit can descend upon it any longer and subject it. The first reason for the incarnation is that “Word of God being made man has come about the destruction of death and the resurrection of life.”
Suggestions for action
Athanasius’s first reason for the incarnation is salvation. The Word became us to save us, to cancel our debt. Jesus clothed himself with a body that could be killed so that he might be killed on our behalf, and recreate us in his resurrection. The “logic” of this argument may be salient, but the romance of it is even more important. Forgiveness and reconciliation requires us to relate to the person we are forgiving and reconciling with. It requires us to become like them. Moreover, it costs us something, like it costed God something. And so while we are now free to forgive and reconcile, to repent and start over, without condemnation because of the work of Jesus on the cross, it still costs us something. It may cost us comfort but it could be something greater—our power, our privilege, maybe even our financial well-being. I hope that naming the cost itself will make it easier to forgive and to love one another, as God did us.
Pray that God may help you clothe yourself with the experiences of others, so that we can reconcile with one another, and truly develop a New Humanity in Christ, a recreated humanity, a new creation!
Yesterday was Flannery O’Connor Day. Appreciate her off-kilter look at Southern Christianity at Celebrating Our Transhistorical Body.