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
See, the Lord is riding on a swift cloud
and comes to Egypt;
the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence,
and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them.—Isaiah 19:1
But I was like a gentle lamb
led to the slaughter.
And I did not know it was against me
that they devised schemes, saying,
“Let us destroy the tree with its fruit,
let us cut him off from the land of the living,
so that his name will no longer be remembered!”—Jeremiah 11:19
Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”—Matthew 11:4-5
More thoughts for meditation
“He it is that was crucified before the sun and all creation as witnesses, and before those who put Him to death: and by His death has salvation come to all, and all creation been ransomed. He is the Life of all, and He it is that as a sheep yielded His body to death as a substitute, for the salvation of all.”
“When, then, have they taken place, save when the Word of God Himself came in the body? Or when did He come, if not when lame people walked, and stammerers were made to speak plain, and deaf people heard, and people blind from birth regained their sight?”
In the last two sections of the treatise, Athanasius confronts the refutation of the incarnation by Jews and Gentiles. He calls it the “unbelief of Jews and the scoffing of Gentiles.” The Jewish people are awaiting a messiah, but disbelieve it is the one named Jesus. Athanasius’ main proofs lie in the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies specifically surrounding the passion, the cross, Jesus’ sovereignty, his death and birth, as well as unprecedented miracles. For a Jewish audience or for those with a high view of scripture, a second fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies may be convincing. Although, it should be noted that Athanasius offers a “polemical” argument here, that’s mainly intended on proving his point and encouraging believers, more than it is to convince skeptical Jews. His goal is to make ludicrous the opponents of the incarnation.
Despite that, the miracles of Christ are perhaps the most noteworthy evidence of Jesus as God’s incarnate may be the best evidence to convince someone who doubts. When John’s disciples ask Jesus’ disciples if the Messiah had arrived, Jesus responded with his works as evidence of his arrival.
Suggestions for action
What kind of miracles can we perform through the power of Jesus and in the name of God to showcase that the Word has become flesh? I think that’s the project for the church today; our works can demonstrate that God is alive and can encourage faith. Maybe it is just the possibility of maintain community during a disparate time, such as this? Maybe it’s organizing people to love their neighbor in a time of scarcity? Imagining that your good works in the name of God can build someone’s faith may be the best thing we can learn today from Athanasius.