But Advent’s Not About the Incarnation, Right?
It’s chic in mainline churches to point out (in finger-wagging fashion) that Advent is actually the liturgical season given over to longing for the return of Christ not anticipating his arrival at Christmas.
Advent then is about the second-coming not the first.
Advent is about the eschaton not the incarnation.
Maybe but in my experience Advent so understood is so counter-cultural as to be unhelpfully unintelligible.
What’s more, the official season of Christmas gives preachers precious few days (only 12) and 2 of the lowest attended Sundays of the year to devote their congregation’s attention to the incarnation, the central doctrine of the faith. By the time people return to church from the Christmas holiday, the lectionary cycle of scripture already has Jesus being baptized by John.
There’s been no time spent reflecting on the core mystery that preoccupied the first centuries’ worth of Christians; namely, that Jesus of Nazareth is the image of the invisible God, the Word, which called things into existence, made flesh.
Regardless of appropriate and sanctioned liturgical sensibilities, I think Advent- this time before the ‘Feast of the Incarnation’- when people in and out of the Church imbibe at least the passing intimation that the baby in the creche is God made flesh, is the perfect time to ponder the why of it all. Why does God take flesh in Jesus?
Who is Athanasius?
This is the question St. Athanasius addresses in his classic, little treatise On the Incarnation, which I invite you to read and reflect along with me over the coming weeks.
You can download it free here: Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word
It’s no understatement to say that, like St. Paul before him or St. Augustine after him, the Christianity you know and practice would be significantly different were it not for Athanasius. Even if this is the first you’ve heard of him, his fingerprints are all over your faith. His conviction has been on your tongue any time you’ve said or sung the Nicene Creed and, for that reason alone, On the Incarnation is a worthy devotional for the Advent season.
Whether his name was chosen or a harbinger of things to come, I’m not sure and I’m too lazy to look it up on Wikipedia.
‘Athanasius’ though means literally ‘man of immortality.’
Not only is this a suitable name given the legacy he bequeathed the Church, the name is like a little, 5-syllable Cliff Notes reminder of his governing theme, immortality.
Like Cliff Notes however that doesn’t tell you the whole story because ‘immortality’ for Athanasius didn’t connote what it does for Christians today.
Immortality didn’t mean eternal life, at least not in the Jesus Prayer way we so often hear it. Immortality wasn’t shorthand for going to heaven when we die, some place that is not God where God is.
Immortality meant union with the Triune God.
Immortality referred to the finite uniting with, becoming, joining the infinite.
So while his enemies called him ‘the black dwarf,’ his given name, Athanasius, gives you everything you need to know to read On the Incarnation rightly, for Athanasius believed that the eternal purpose of the incarnation and the very point of the Christian life is our union with the infinite we call Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
His incarnation is for our immortality.
Our union with God
It’s an Evangelical Essay
You can read online more about Athanasius’ historical context than I wish to regurgitate here. Suffice it to know that Athanasius wrote as a Bishop in the early part of the 4th century, a time for which 2 dates are key to understanding him.
In 313 AD, after 3 centuries of often brutal persecution, the Roman Empire- noticing the rapid growth of Christianity and reading the tea leaves- shifted to a posture of toleration towards the Church. Suddenly, Constantine, the Roman Emperor, had a stake in using the Church to unify his empire so in 325 he convened the first ecumenical council at Nicaea and “invited” its episcopal bishops to hammer out a consensus creed of the faith where a diversity of confession had previously been the norm.
Prior to 313 the experience of the Church was one of persecution. Post 325 the experience of the Church was one of theological infighting. Athanasius’ career and writings span the periods inaugurated by those two dates.
While most of his writings were occasioned by the intramural debates of the latter and are thus polemical in tone (he was frequently exiled when his views fell out of favor), Athanasius wrote On the Incarnation in the optimistic, take-a-deep-breath period following 313. Rather than being provoked by nasty in-fighting and controversy, it simply attempts a concise statement of the Christian faith, and rather than trying to settle an in-house theological question in dispute, On the Incarnation is an evangelical essay.
It’s 40-odd pages are meant to elicit a response in the reader, to compel the reader to make a decision for the Christian vision and life.
Athanasius’ imagined readers were neither the mass of the poor in Alexandria nor its philosophers but the ‘Nones’ of the 4th century, i.e., educated pagans. With them in mind he presents- as the Church must learn to do today for our Nones- Christianity as a rival to the world views which vie for humanity’s attention and loyalty.
They Had the Opposite Hang-Up as Us
As critical, if not more, as historical context, is locating Athanasius in his theological context.
Whereas modern believers (and skeptics) have little trouble countenancing the real, genuine humanity of Jesus yet struggle with conceiving how the fully human Jesus could ever also be God, Christians for the 4 centuries of the Church’s history took it as self-evident that Jesus was fully God.
They had the opposite hang-up we do.
We struggle to comprehend how the human Jesus could be God; they struggled to comprehend how God could be One, since the human Jesus was self-evidently divine.
How could God be the Father and the Son and still be the one Lord of Israel’s shema?
To answer the question, Athanasius and his peers turned to a philosophical term common in their day, homo-ousios, which meant ‘of the same being’ or ‘of the same essence.’
Jesus is God, but God remains One because the Son is of ‘one being with the Father’ as we recite in the creed- thanks to… Athanasius.
Unlike you and me, the human Jesus- though still fully human, has no being or essence apart from the Being of the Father.
Being and essence are tricky terms for us (more on them later) but the divinity of Jesus and the oneness of God are the building blocks for Athanasius’ central theme in On the Incarnation: the re-creation of the fallen world by the Word who made the world in the very beginning.
What Athanasius’ evangelical essay wants you to accept is the new life made possible by the life of Christ- which itself is made possible because that human life was lived by God!
As he puts it, and this is the whole essay in a nutshell:
Jesus’ divinity makes his human life powerful, and his humanity makes his divine life ours.
The Incarnation is the Most Natural Thing for God
Athanasius’ strong view of Jesus as the incarnate deity draws a sharp contrast to the two competing views of his day.
Plato believed the Supreme Being too remote and humanity too lowly on the scale of creatures for God ever to become incarnate. Meanwhile, Arius was a Christian thinker and eventual heretic who thought Athanasius’ doctrine of the incarnation threatened the unity and oneness of God. Alternatively Arius understood Jesus as an intermediary creature between the true God and humanity, a demigod who can connect us to God without being God himself in the flesh.
Both the Platonic and Arian views, it’s important to note, saw God as a being within the universe albeit an exalted one, and, as a being within the universe, they assumed God was limited by the differences between creatures.
In other words, for Plato and Arius God cannot become incarnate because ‘divinity’ is categorically different from ‘humanity.’
Athanasius, on the other hand, believed God was absolutely transcendent, not a creature within the universe but a God, Father, Son and Spirit, in whom is contained all difference; in fact, the Trinity, a union of peace and difference, is the Source of difference itself.
For Athanasius, then, to say the incarnation is the most natural thing for God renders it no less mysterious.
Things to Notice
In the next couple of days, I’ll post my thoughts on sections 1-10 of On the Incarnation. In the meantime here are some points that might help you make sense of what you read.
Death vs. Wrath:
Unlike many Christians today, Athanasius sees the consequence of the Fall not as God’s wrath but as death. Thus God comes in the flesh not to suffer God’s wrath towards sin but to undo death by dying our death.
Salvation is Restoration:
How you define the problem determines what you see as the solution. Because Athanasius sees death, not sin and wrath, as the problem ushered into creation by the Fall, he does not view salvation, as we so often do, in terms of forgiveness and redemption. Those are but motifs within his larger theme of salvation as restoration, the revivification of humanity in God’s image.
God’s Like an Artist or a King:
Taking restoration as the main theme of the incarnation, Athanasius uses metaphors of artwork or kingdom to unpack the reasons for God’s coming in the flesh. It would not be good or worthy of an Artist such as God, he argues, to allow his handiwork to go tarnished and without repair. Suppose a king’s kingdom was pillaged by vandals in his absence. A good king must return, dispatch the invaders and set his kingdom to rights.
Whereas we typically use the term ‘worthy’ to denote our lack of worthiness for God’s gift of salvation, Athanasius turns it around. As God’s artwork, we are worthy of salvation. Indeed God would not be worthy (to his own goodness) should he leave us in our state.