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
For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.—1 Cor. 15:53-56
More thoughts for meditation
“The Word, since it was not possible for Him to die, as He was immortal, took to Himself a body such as could die, that He might offer it as His own in the stead of all, and as suffering, through His union with it, on behalf of all.”
“He was not subject to natural death, but had to die at the hands of others.”
“How could the end of death, and the victory over it be proved, unless challenging it before the eyes of all He had shown it to be dead.”
“So also the Life of all, our Lord and Saviour, even Christ, did not devise a death for His own body, so as not to appear to be fearing some other death; but He accepted on the Cross, and endured, a death inflicted by others, and above all by His enemies, which they thought dreadful and ignominious and not to be faced.”
“For it is only on the cross that a human dies with their hands spread out… For only he that is perfected on the cross dies in the air.”
Athanasius moves to his argument to the death of Jesus in the next section of the treatise. First, he argues that Jesus needed to die—that the incorruptible Word needed to become mortal flesh, so as to incur the punishment that satisfied the debt owed to God. But this death couldn’t be just any death. It couldn’t be a natural death, because the Lord demonstrates power over sickness. His life needed to be taken from him by others. And it needed to happen in public so that it might not be challenged and the resurrection would be glorified too. Furthermore, it needed to be a public, humiliating (“ignominious”) death, by his enemies. He needed to die the worst death and suffer the worse humiliation in order to showcase that he was not interested in selecting a “better” option. And not only that, but the worst death could offer magnifies the power of the resurrection—because it defeated even the darkest forms of death. This is why the death of Jesus today remains meaningful even for victims of modern-day lynchings. It matches that humiliation, which not only allows for a shared experience, but a shared triumph over it. Finally, Athanasius points out that the image of the cross—arms spread out, and high on a hill—shows both the embrace of God, uniting people with Christ’s widespread arms, and the height of God’s conquest, as our Lord dies in the air.
Suggestions for action
It can be tempting to overlook the shame of the cross in order to fast-forward to the triumph of the resurrection, but the specifics about Christ’s death both matter to us as individuals and also as a whole community. Christ died for us, in our stead and on our behalf, and the public shame of his death allows us to reject any shame that we may be experience for what he has wiped away. Additionally, the image of this death, in high, arms spread out, both elevates the conquest of the death that occurs on the cross, but includes all of us in it. The public humiliation that the Lord went through bonds God to the people that go through the same public deaths: we see this most evidently in the police killings of black and brown people. Try to hold all of that together right now: that Christ died for you, for all of us, and with the least of us at heart. Contemplate that as you observe this icon.