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
I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.—Ephesians 3:18-19
More thoughts for meditation
“God made humans in the Image of the Word, that thus they might know the Word, and through Him the Father.”
“God, foreseeing humans’ forgetfulness, provided also the works of creation to remind humans of him. Yet further, He ordained a Law and Prophets, whose ministry was meant for all the world. Yet humans heeded only their own lusts.”
“A king whose subjects had revolted would, after sending letters and messages, go to them in person.”
“A portrait once effaced must be restored from the original. Thus the Son of the Father came to seek, save, and regenerate. No other way was possible.”
“All man’s superstitions He met halfway; whether humans were inclined to worship Nature, Man, Demons, or the dead, He showed Himself Lord of all these.”
Athanasius offers a second reason for the incarnation. The first reason is so that God might save us: “putting away death from us and renewing us again.” And the second reason is so that God might make Godself known and seen to humans. The Word became Flesh so that we might know God.
Athanasius insists that from the moment of Creation, God sought to be known by those he created. First, God creates us in the image of the Word, so by knowing ourselves, we might know God. Athanasius wonders what the point of creation would be at all if God didn’t seek to known by what God created. But humans “wholly rejected God,” and more than that, made replacements for God in grave idols. In response to this, again to be known by humankind, God sent the Law and Prophets, but humankind was nevertheless “overcome by the pleasures of the moment and by the illusions and deceits sent by demons.”
But God persisted on being seen and known. Athanasius draws an analogy to a king who returns to his land in order to free it from being colonized. God has to come in person to save God’s blind people from their colonized land. God came to restore the image of God in humans. That “he might be able to create afresh the humans after the image.” The only way for God to do that was to come in person, to restore the image that was ruined. And Jesus did so by seeing what God was replaced with and demonstrating, indeed, that he was Lord over the false idols that humans worships. He appeared as a human so that humans might relate to him and know him and see him. The beauty of this is that we saw God through Jesus because he clothed himself in humanity to reveal to humanity the true image in which they were created. And though he accomplished salvation through his death and resurrection, it was through his life, “by what He did, abiding in it, and doing such works, and showing such signs, as made Him known no longer as Man, but as God the Word.”
Suggestions for action
As you read over Athanasius’s second reason for the incarnation, I hope that you can see God’s persistence in being known by God’s creation. That from the start, God wanted us to see God and God went to great pains to show us this truth. That persistence not only makes God a loving God, but it makes us worth loving too. God fought for us because of God’s own goodness, and also because of the goodness that God saw in us. Pray today that you can hold on to this truth today: God sees you as worth fighting for.