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 ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’—Acts 17:28
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.—Isaiah 2:4
More thoughts for meditation
“But if it beseems Him to unite Himself with the universe, and to be made known in the whole, it must beseem Him also to appear in a human body, and that by Him it should be illumined and work.”
“Inasmuch as He holds in one all things at once, and is in fact not only in all but also in the part in question, and there invisibly manifests Himself.”
“Christ alone is worshipped as one and the same among all peoples; and what the weakness of the idols could not do — to persuade, namely, even those dwelling close at hand — this Christ has done, persuading not only those close at hand, but simply the entire world, to worship one and the same Lord, and through Him God, even His Father.”
“Who then is He that has done this, or who is He that has united in peace men that hated one another, save the beloved Son of the Father, the common Saviour of all, even Jesus Christ, Who by His own love underwent all things for our salvation?”
In the final two sections of the treatise, Athanasius confronts the refutation of the Gentiles, and offers an exhortation to look forward to the Second Advent and Judgment of God.
He begins his argument positing that Greek theology does not preclude the possibility of the Word, the Logos, becoming flesh. That because God is in the universe at all, God can also be within the bounds of a human being. Being in the universe is as much of a condescension for an infinite God as it is to be in the flesh. He even uses Plato, “who is in such repute among the Greeks,” saying he allows for the incarnation. The finality and completeness of worshipping Christ elevates him above pagan idols and Gods.
Athanasius then turns to make a moral argument, suggesting that the moral impact of Christianity, including “lulling wars,” is evidence of the reality of the incarnation. What other God can make this claim? This is a charge for Christians today to ensure that we also lull wars, and do not provoke them, that we are known as people of peace and not conflict. For Athanasius, that witness encourages and breeds faith, even among the Gentiles.
Suggestions for action
“And you will also learn about His second glorious and truly divine appearing to us, when no longer in lowliness, but in His own glory — no longer in humble guise, but in His own magnificence — He is to come, no more to suffer, but thenceforth to render to all the fruit of His own Cross, that is, the resurrection and incorruption; and no longer to be judged, but to judge all.”
Athanasius ends his influential treatise with a warning of the coming judgment, but also the Second Advent, where Christ will return, this time in glory instead of humiliation. We are still in the in-between time as we await Christ to return again. May we await the return of Christ and the good things that are being prepared for those who “live a virtuous life, and love the God and Father, in Christ Jesus our Lord: through Whom and with Whom be to the Father Himself, with the Son Himself, in the Holy Spirit, honour and might and glory for ever and ever. Amen.”