Archives For On the Incarnation

15317970_10211005366952360_5805070194313765446_n    For this weekend’s sermon, I decided to preach an ‘old’ sermon to coincide with the launch of my new book. This was actually the last sermon I preached before cancer whisked me away from the pulpit for a year. Some of this makes its way into the first chapter of the book.

     In addition to the Isaiah lection for 2nd Advent, my text was 2 Corinthians 5.17-21

‘God was in Jesus reconciling the world to himself…’

     So I’ve got this mole, right here on my shoulder.

It’s not gross or anything. It’s just large and discolored and has a few hairs growing out of it. ‘Suspicious’ my former pre-med Mrs calls it, right before she points at it and quotes that line from Uncle Buck about finding a rat to gnaw it off.

My wife, Ali, had been after me for months to go to the doctor and get it checked out. But, because I’m an idiot, instead of going to the doctor I consulted WebMD, a website- I’m now convinced- that was designed by ISIS to frighten Western infidels. If you haven’t checked out WebMD already, don’t. (Right after Breitbart) it’s the most terrifying internet you’ll ever browse.

I consulted it for a suspicious mole, and 12 hours later I logged off in black despair, convinced that I suffer from IBS and TB, convinced that my kids have ADHD and maybe scolios too and that I might as well pre-order those little blue pills because ‘that’ is likely right around the corner for me as well.

To be honest, even though I spend 2-3 hours every day admiring myself in the mirror, I didn’t even notice the mole was there. I didn’t realize it was there until the summer when I took my shirt off at the pool and Ali threw up a little bit in her mouth.

Now as all you Waynewood Pool members already know, me taking my shirt off at the pool is normally an Event (with a capital E).  A moment that provokes jealousy among men, aspiration among boys and awakens 50 shades of Darwinian hunger in women.

Like Bernini unveiling his David, normally me taking my shirt off at the pool is a siren call, overpowering all reason and volition and luring the primal attention of every female to be dashed against this rock.

But I digress.

The point is when I took my shirt off at the pool that summer and saw Ali wipe the vomit from the corner of her mouth it got my attention.

Ali got after me to go to the doctor. My youngest, Gabriel, who tried to biopsy my mole for his new microscope, got after me. My mom, who is a nurse, got after me. And the voice in my head confirmed what WebMD and all the rest had told me.

But my personal philosophy has always been that if you wait long enough the worst will always happen so for months and months I didn’t do anything about it.

Then one behind-closed-doors-kind-of-night Ali whispered across the pillow that she was never going to touch me again until I scheduled an appointment.

I called the doctor the next morning.

Of course, because I have health insurance, I can’t just call the dermatologist to schedule an appointment. No, that would make us socialists.

No, first I had to blow a morning and a co-pay at the general practitioner in order to get a referral to the skin doctor.

The nurse at the general practitioner’s office weighed me and, with a toll booth worker’s affect- took my blood pressure. Even though I told her I was just there for my mole, she insisted on typing my age into her tablet and asking me the questions that my age automatically generated.

First question: Have you experienced depression or thoughts of suicide in the past month?

Her second question was ‘Have you noticed an increase in memory loss recently?’ ‘Not that I recall’ I said.

Stone-faced, she moved on to her third question, asking for the date of my last prostrate exam. ‘Uh, never’ I stammered and, not sensing my sudden anxiety, she asked me when I’d had my last colonoscopy.

‘Wait,’ I said, ‘I’m not old enough to need those things done, am I?’

‘Just about’ she replied.

‘In that case can we go back to the depression question?’

Ten days, a copay and 3 double-billing mistakes later I went to the dermatologist, clutching my referral like a winning lotto ticket.

When I last went to the dermatologist in 1994 as a puberty-stricken middle schooler, the dermatologist’s office was one step above the guy who showed up at gym class and told you to turn your head and cough.

Now, it’s like something from the Capital in the Hunger Games.

I walked into the steel and glass, Steve Jobs-like office where a receptionist with impossibly purple hair and a dress made of feathered, bedazzled boas handed me paperwork on a clipboard and told me to have a seat.

‘All I Need for Christmas’ was playing overheard on the stereo while a flatscreen on the adjacent wall advertised the dermatologists’ many services to do away with age, imperfection and just garden variety ugliness.

A slide advertising the office’s newest service, eyebrow implants, slid horizontally across the plasma screen.

Judging from the model’s face on the screen, eyebrow implants are a procedure designed to give septuagenerian realtors Alex Trebeck mustaches above their eyes.

The next slide was a photo of the office itself along with its staff, centered above a cursive catchphrase. Their mission statement.

“Feel as perfect on the outside as you do on the inside.”

And as I started to fill out the paperwork, I wondered what sort of psychotic person came up with a slogan like that.

I mean- if the goal is to appear on the outside how I normally feel about myself on the inside, then I’m already as ugly as I need to be.

Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ started to play as a door opened and a nurse, who looked a little like the supermodel Elizabeth Hurley, called for Mr. Michelle.

Liz led me through a maze of hallways to a room so antiseptically bright I half-expected to be greeted by the Giver.

Inside the exam room, Liz handed me a hospital gown and instructed me to take off all my clothes and promised that the doctor would be in in a few minutes.

All my clothes?’ I begged for clarification.

‘Yep, even your underpants’ she said.

For some reason Liz Hurley using the word ‘underpants’ on me made me feel like a 5 year old boy whose mother makes him follow her into the ladies’ room.

She closed the door gently behind her as I unfolded the baby blue gown.

Now, I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals, but up to that point I’d never been a patient before and most of the patients I had seen were underneath sheets and blankets.

Now that I held my own hospital gown in hand, I discovered that the correct way to wear it is not as self-evident as you might think.

Are you supposed to wear it open in the back, like a cowboy’s chaps? Or should you wear it open in the front, like a bathrobe? Or maybe, I pondered, you should take your particular ailment as a guide?

Since my mole- the cause for my visit- was on the front of my body, I reasoned, I decided upon the latter ‘style.’

So there I sat, like The Dude in The Big Lebowski except I didn’t have a White Russian in hand.

And, I was naked.

If I was unsure about the correct way to wear the gown, I got my answer when the doctor knocked, entered, and immediately snorted and said ‘Oh my.’

‘I wasn’t sure…’ I started to explain, but he waved me off and said ‘It’s okay, not a problem. You won’t have it on for long anyway.’ Words that proved to be more auspicious than temporal.

‘Are you cold?’ he asked, looking at me. ‘We can turn up the heat.’

‘No, I’m fine.’

The doctor sat down on a round stool in front of a black computer and I proceeded to give him my professional diagnosis based on my degree from WebMD.

He listened and rolled his eyes only once when I told him my suspicions of also having MS and when I finished said ‘Let’s have a look.’

So I showed him my mole, which- I’ll point out- was very easy to do since I was sporting the gown like a smoking jacket.

He looked at it for a few moments, looked at it through a magnifying glass for a few moments more and then, just as Rod Stewart started to sing ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,’ the doctor said ‘I don’t think there’s anything to worry about. The hairs growing out of it make it look worse than it is.’

Relieved, I started to get up to get ready to go, but the doctor said: ‘Not so fast. While you’re here, we should probably do a full body scan.’

‘We?’ I wondered to myself as he left and returned a moment later with Liz Hurley, who- I noticed- struggled to suppress a giggle when she saw me in the gown.

With Liz gawking on, he proceeded to peel back my gown like it was cellophane on a pound of ground beef, which is probably a good analogy because there’s nothing quite like being naked, perched on top of butcher paper, clutching your bait and tackle to make you feel like a piece of meat- that grayish, 50% off, sell-by-today-kind-of-meat.

The date-rapey Christmas song ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ started to play, which seemed appropriate since they then both started to bend me in impossible positions as though I was a yoga instructor or Anthony Wiener on the phone.

Bending and contorting me, they both picked over my every freckle and blemish like we were a family of lice-ridden Mandrills.

‘Anything suspicious down there?’ he asked ominously.

‘I hope to God not’ I said, but apparently invoking the deity did not provide sufficient medical certainty for him because he took his examination south, which was when he decided- for some reason- to ask me what I did for a living.

Normally when strangers ask me my profession, I lie and tell them I’m an architect. It helps avoid the awkward and endless conversations that the word ‘clergy’ can conjure.

But with no clothes on and even less dignity, there seemed to be little reason to pretend.

‘I’m a minister’ I said.

‘Really? What tradition? You’re obviously not a rabbi’ he said with a wink.

‘I’m a Methodist minister’ I said.

‘My grandmother was a Methodist’ he muttered.

Maybe it was because this was about the last position I wanted someone associating their grandma with me or maybe it was because the whole situation was so impossibly awkward, but once I started talking I found I couldn’t stop.

You’d be amazed how interesting you can make denominational distinctions sound when you’re as in the buff as Wilfred Brimley in Cocoon and being pawed over like a 4-H cow.

John (Cougar) Mellencamp’s ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa’ came on as the doctor finished and said in a measured tone: ‘You do have some moles on your back that concern me.’

Then he ordered me to sit back down and lean forward as far as I could, which I did, clutching the last corner of my gown against my loins.

The doctor took a black sharpie and drew circles on my back, which struck me in the moment as not very scientific; meanwhile, Liz Hurley grabbed a digital camera off the supply counter.

Under normal circumstances, the combination of supermodel, a nurse’s outfit and a digital camera would pique my interest, but somehow I knew what was next.

She told me to lean forward again so she could snap some close-ups of my back, which she did with slow, shaming deliberation. Then, I can only assume to degrade me further, she actually showed me the close-ups of my back.

Now it was my turn to throw up a little in my mouth.

‘That’s what I look like from behind? It’s like a flesh-colored Rorschach test. I should call my wife and tell her I love her’ I said to no one in particular.

She laughed and said: ‘The images are magnified so don’t worry. Trust me, everyone appears kind of ugly and gross when you get up that close for a look.’

‘And that’s not even the ugliest part about me’ I said.

She frowned. ‘Do you think there’s something we missed?’

‘No, no, you were thorough all right’ I said, ‘I was just thinking of something else- my soul.’

‘I guess that’s your speciality, huh Father?’ Liz laughed.

The doctor laughed too.

They thought I was joking. They both thought I was joking.

James Taylor was finishing his rendition of ‘Lo, How a Rose Ere Blooming,’ that line that goes ‘…true man, yet very God, from sin and death he saves, and lightens every load’- he was singing that line as I sat on the butcher paper and watched as Liz loaded the snapshots of me onto the black computer.

Watching each unflattering image first pixilate then load on to the screen in front of me, I thought again of that cursive catchphrase in the lobby and what rubbish it was: “Feel as perfect on the outside as you do on the inside.”

Because if you could get close up- all over- to me, not just looked at my skin but lived in my skin, lived my life- and not just in my shoes but in my flesh- then you could come up with a lot more ugly, indicting pictures of me than a hairy mole.

Because the cold, incarnate truth is, I’m even more pockmarked and blemished on the inside than I will ever appear on the outside.

On the inside-

I’m impatient and petty. I’m judgmental and a liar. I’m angry and insecure and fearful and unforgiving and…and I’m just a normal guy.

The cold, incarnate truth is- if you stripped me all the way down, not just of my clothes but of my pretense and prevarications, stripped off the costumes I wear and the roles I play right down to my soul, then you’d see how unsightly I really am.

I mean, the prophets Isaiah and John the Baptist wouldn’t tell us to make straight the pathways for the Lord if we weren’t all twisted up, tangled and knotted on our insides.

And really, that was what was so unbearable about baring it all in that exam room. It reminded me how seldom I allow myself to be made vulnerable.

What being exposed exposed was just how much I try to cover up my true self. What being revealed revealed was how often I hide behind masks and manipulations, how often I fail to be authentic because I’m afraid of failure, how seldom I’m fully, genuinely me with others because I’m convinced there’s a whole lot of me I don’t think is worth sharing.

So I pretend.

I act like everything’s alright when it’s not. I pretend me and mine are happy when maybe we’re not. I act like I’ve got my _______ together even when my _______’s falling apart all around me. I project strength when I feel weak, and I wear other people’s projections of me like masks.

I don’t keep it real. I pretend. I play-act. I hide.

And so do you.

And since we’re baring it all, we might as well go full monty: the truth is we feel the need to hide and pretend and put on a good face more at Christmas than any other time of the year.

Which is odd.

Because when it comes to Christmas, we don’t just believe that God takes flesh. We don’t just believe that God puts on skin. We don’t just believe that God puts on a body. We don’t just believe that God puts on Jesus’ body.

No, we believe that, at Christmas, God assumes- puts on, takes on- our humanity.

All of it. Every bit. Of every one of us.

The pathway God chooses to get close to us is our humanity- all of it, every bit of it. 

Every bit of every one of us. 

On the stereo Aretha Franklin belted out ‘Hail, hail the Word made flesh, the Babe, the Son of Mary’ from the second verse of ‘What Child as This.’

As Aretha sang and Liz finished up with my snapshots, the doctor gave me a patently false promise about not feeling a thing just before he started to dig out my first mole with the finesse of a mobbed-up Italian barber from North Jersey.

Hearing Aretha overheard and seeing my snapshots on the computer screen and thinking of my shame that morning and every unsightly truth it brought to mind, I thought of St. Gregory.

Gregory of Nazainzus.

The 4th century Church Father who taught that what it means to say ‘God was in Christ,’ as Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians, is to say that all of our humanity is in the God who was in Christ.

All our humanity. Every bit of every one of us.

It has to be.

     Otherwise, as Gregory put it, ‘that which is not assumed is not healed.’

Those parts of humanity not taken on by God in Christ are not healed.

Those embarrassing parts, those imperfect parts, those shameful and fearful and broken parts of us- if it’s true that Christ comes to save all then all those parts of us are in him; otherwise, they’re not healed.

Every bit of every one of us is in Him, Gregory says.

So there’s no need to hide. There’s no to pretend. There’s no need for shame or masks. We can give every embarrassing bit of our selves over to him because it’s already in him.

We’re not perfect on the outside and we don’t need to pretend that we are on the inside because every part of us is in him already.

Says Gregory.

————————-

With the gentleness of a cycloptic, differently-abled butcher, the doctor removed the rest of my blemishes and finished up by saying ‘You should come back in a year so we can do this again.’

‘I can’t wait’ I said as I started unfolding my street clothes.

Dressed, with my back looking like Clint Eastwood’s in Pale Rider, I found my way back to the lobby.

Someone, I’m not sure who, was on the stereo singing “Cast out our sins and enter in, Be born to us today.”

O’ Little Town of Bethlehem.

The plasma screen on the lobby wall was back to flashing their mission statement: “Feel as perfect on the outside as you do on the inside.” Accompanied by phony photos of people who pretended to feel both.

And, as I left, I said a little ‘Thanks be to God’ to myself because that that is not our Gospel.

 

Untitled44One of the deficiencies in arguing that Jesus (only) comes to die for our sin is that it leaves no redemptive room for the life and teaching of Christ.

His birth and life are just prologue.

Only Jesus’ death matters for salvation.

As NT Wright likes to quip, ‘What about all those bits in the middle?’

It comes as no surprise then that for many Christians our lives are only prologue as well, possibly interesting but not essential.

As Brian Zahnd likes to point out, when we deemphasize the life of Jesus we, in effect, demote the Ascended King who’s been given dominion of the nations to ‘Secretary of After Life Affairs.’

In §10-12 of On the Incarnation, Athanasius begins to take up a theme held by his fellow Church Fathers; namely, that salvation begins not on Good Friday but on Christmas Eve, for the eternal, macro goal of creation is theosis, the joining together of the infinite and the finite, of humanity with divinity. But therein lies the problem for Athanasius- not our guilt but our inhumanity.

Because of sin, we’re not sufficiently human to be joined together with life of the Trinity.

We no longer resembles the image of God so joining with God is an impossibility. Our image needs to be repaired.

And this is where Athanasius finds a redemptive purpose for the teaching of Christ that many common takes on the cross neglect- and not just the teaching of Christ; this is how Athanasius views the purpose of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible too.

A lot of times we throw around the phrase “made in the image of God,” as a way to dismiss others without sounding bigoted.

It’s often “we’re all made in the image of God, but…” It’s become the theological equivalent of “I’m not racist, but…”

But…what if we took it seriously?

What if in every human being, in every person we met, we truly believed we saw the ‘image of the Living God?’

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It’s easy to saw when looking at children, or Mother Theresa, or Nelson Mandela. But what about Stalin? Or Attila the Hun? Or Sarah Palin?

There are people we see everyday and when we look at them the image that stares back at us could not look anything less like God. Or perhaps its not even the face of someone else – maybe its the face that gazes back from the mirror that shows no sign of God’s likeness.

Athanasius took the phrase “made in the image of God” seriously.

An Egyptian bishop living 300 years after Jesus, Athanasius took seriously the claim – the promise – the declaration that God made humanity in God’s image. Imprinted on each of us is a portrait of the God who declared “Let us make Humanity in our image.”

“Let us make them in the likeness of God.”

And Athanasius knew something about images.

Once when he had run afoul of the emperor he had to flee Alexandria and hide in the tomb of an Egyptian mummy. He would have been surrounded by once beautiful painting – paintings that had faded. Painting that had flaked and cracked. Paintings that were worn away by the elements.

Athanasius imagined that what we see in the prophets – what we see in the life of Israel – what hear from Scripture – was an attempt to repair, to repaint our portraits. Moses and Isaiah, Daniel and Miriam, Jacob and Ezekiel, they all briefly saw God.

They saw what the original subject of the portrait looked like. They caught a glimpse of God’s likeness and returned to their people.

Athanasius-blog-Zachary-FranzenBut its hard to reproduce a painting from memory.

Whatever restoration they attempted was second hand at best.

A vague reflection, a vague memory of the original.

In Jesus – in God made flesh, “God with Us,” the original subject – the likeness of God is made flesh.

In Jesus we can look upon God and can, through him, restore our image.

In the life of Jesus the perfect image of God is manifest – made available to all of us.

When Mary looked at the baby she had carried for 9 months, when Joseph looked at the son he would raise, that he would love and take care of – when they looked at Jesus they saw God’s image for the first time.

In Jesus’ life and faithfulness, in his words and deeds, we discover not only the image of God in which we were created but also the possibility of our own image.

 

– Thanks to Andrew DiAntonio who contributed to this post

§8-10: Incarnation Quiz

Jason Micheli —  December 17, 2014 — 3 Comments

Untitled44Here’s a pop quiz based on the first 10 sections of Athanasius’ On the Incarnation.

 

1. Prior to the Incarnation, God the Word was:

A) Far away from us with God’s back turned against us because we are sinners and God is holy.

B) Nearer to us than we are to ourselves because even prior to the Incarnation the Word imbues all things in creation and holds them in existence.

C) In Heaven.

Bonus: What does it say about us that we typically think of God as remote? 

 

2. According to St. Athanasius, God the Word took flesh in order to:

A) Suffer God’s wrath in humanity’s stead.

B) To pay the price, suffering sin’s penalty for us.

C) To die our death and, in doing so, exhaust Death of its power over us.

D) To demonstrate God’s holiness by demonstrating the wages of sin upon the cross.

Bonus: What does it say about us that we interpret the cradle and the cross punitively when Genesis 1 speaks of death as sin’s consequence in no such tones?

 

3. Athanasius identifies the debt paid by the Incarnate One as:

A) God’s honor

B) Sin

C) Fidelity

D) None of the Above

Bonus: Why do we literalize scriptural metaphors like ‘debt’ when the Church Fathers felt free to use them without explaining exactly how they worked. 

 

4. For Athanasius, the place and purpose of Christ’s teaching in the Incarnation is: 

A) For us to get right with God through right actions.

B) To describe for us the ideal human life which will be possible only in the Kingdom.

C) To show us what we should do because Jesus told us to do it.

D) To reveal the means by which our tarnished humanity may be restored in God’s likeness.

Bonus: Why do so many of our understandings of how Jesus saves us on the cross have little place for the life and teaching of Jesus? 

 

You don’t really need the answer key do you?

Untitled44These short sections of On the Incarnation brought two different, disparate movies to mind.

The first film is last spring’s Noah starring Russell Crowe (#4 on Jason’s Man Crush List). I watched it with my boys until the scene just after the Flood when things felt like they were about to get a little rapey on the boat and I pressed pause.

Just before that scene, though, after the many waters have come and you can hear the agony of all those creatures great and small dying a terrible death outside the ark, my youngest son, who’s got at least a dozen storybook versions of this same story in his bookcase, said aloud, as though an epiphany:

‘God doesn’t seem very nice.’

Yeah.

No wonder God promises never to do such violence again.

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Reading Athanasius’ account of the incarnation, it hit me that the way we often speak of the cradle and the cross would have God break that post-Flood promise.

If Jesus is born in order to suffer the punishment we deserve, as we so often sing and say, then doesn’t God- at least symbolically- renege on his promise never to flood the earth again?

How is God killing all but a few of creation by water substantively different than saying Jesus was tortured the torture all of humanity deserve in God’s eyes?

Is it just a matter of quantity versus quality? Is God off the hook because he only kills Jesus this time?

Or can we surmise that when God forswears flooding he also rejects crosses? Rejects ‘redemptive violence?’

Noah and these thoughts came to mind because in §6 of On the Incarnation I was struck by the different tenor with which Athanasius speaks of the Word’s coming.

Due to the corrupting nature of death, Athanasius writes that the creation made by the Artificer was disappearing; in fact, you could follow Athanasius’ logic and argue that prior to the incarnation ‘humanity’ no longer existed.

But such is what God had said would happen: ‘If you eat of the fruit of the tree…you will surely die…’

Athanasius notes that it would be ‘monstrous’ if God, Goodness itself, turned out to be a liar. Once set in motion, Death spread inexorably, not as a punishment, but more like a disease that infection’s allowed to set in.

If it would be monstrous for God to be proved a liar, Athanasius also argues it would be ‘unseemly’ should God prove neglectful. ‘Neglect reveals weakness,’ Athanasius posits, ‘and not goodness on God’s part.’

If the Artificer let his creation dissolve into ruin and nothingness, then it would be better had he not made us in the first place, for ‘…it were not worthy of God’s goodness that the things he made should waste away.’

If we deserve restoration as God’s creatures, if God must restore us if he is to be worthy of his goodness, then the question turns from one of why to how.

How is God to restore us?

By our repentance?

While Athanasius doesn’t dismiss the value in repenting, repentance itself does not protect the veracity of God’s words in the Garden. Death is the problem. God said we would die and our repentance can’t undo death.

What’s more, repentance does not set us on a permanent course back to incorruption. We can’t say we’re sorry all the way back to Eden.

As Athanasius puts it, ‘…repentance [does not] call men back from what is their nature- it merely stays them from acts of sin.’ Put differently, ‘I’m sorry’ from creatures who are now less than creatures doesn’t cut it.

Death, which prevents us from living a fully human life, a life in God’s image, is the problem.

The only way to restore humanity then is for a true human life to be lived. For a true human life to suffer death and, in dying, triumph over death. This is a key different between Athanasius and many popular notions of cradle and cross.

For others, the incarnation is instrumental; it’s simply the means by which God gets to the end of the story- the cross- where the suffering Christ can elicit our repentance.

For Athanasius, the incarnation is the means and the end in itself. The Word taking flesh is like the antidote for which resurrection from death is the full and final cure.

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To reference the promised second movie, the Word taking flesh is like Aslan’s rumored arrival in Narnia in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Aslan’s landing in Narnia alone begins to melt the White Witches’ snow long before the Christ-like lion suffers death on the stone table.

His coming alone initiates healing.

Untitled44In the 26th verse of Genesis, God declares ‘Let us make humankind in our image…’ The first person plural is not peripheral for Athanasius. If the ‘us’ is a referent to the Trinity, then you and I do not on our own constitute the divine image. If God is only God as a community of fellowship and love between Father, Son and Spirit, then what it means for humankind to be made in the image of God is for the human community to be a fellowship of love in, with and under the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The imago dei is plural because God is triune.

Which means you’re more you when you’re in loving friendship with the ‘we.’

Moreover, because God created from nothing, God is literally the Source of all that is. God is Life. The opposite of such a God is privation. Death. Nothingness.

This is key to how Athanasius and the other Church Fathers construed the Fall. By seeking life independent of God, humanity incurs not sin and wrath but death. Adam and Eve do not provoke a long story of humanity offending God’s honor or holiness, as Calvin et al later held. No, as the Genesis text makes abundantly clear, Adam and Eve’s choice leads to death- not as a punishment but as a logical, do-that-and-you’re-gonnna-die, consequence.

The Fall for Athanasius simply induces a return to our ‘natural’ state. If God is the Source of everything than turning our backs on God leads to nothingness.

If God is the Source of Life, then the Fall leads to Death and, ultimately, to our disintegration.

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Disintegration is the closest Athanasius comes to speaking of Hell but already therein you have a wide departure from the popular notion of Hell as a place of eternal, conscious torment. Implicit in the latter view, is that the things in Hell remain things. Hell is a place that has a population.

For Athanasius, if God creates from nothing and holds everything in existence then there is no ‘hell,’ for hell, or the ‘people’ in it, are no-thing.

So there could be no more discordant concept to force upon On the Incarnation than the popular notion that God predestined sin in order to display God’s holiness in Christ’s Cross. Only the categories of guilt and punishment require such logic. Instead, for Athanasius, sin is better understood as an illness to be healed not an infraction to be punished.

The Fall leads to death.

Sin is illness.

Nothing could be more important to understand how Athanasius understands the incarnation.

The Word comes in the flesh because the flesh is sick.

The triune God who is the Source of Life created us in his image; therefore, sin is like a deprivation of what makes for life and a disintegration of the community for which we’re made.

So the incarnation is for our healing and reincorporation.

As sinners, we’re not reprobates worthy of wrath.

We’re sick. We’re broken.

And we’re alienated.

Most pop renderings of the incarnation and atonement stress how, as a result of sin, we’re alienated (‘separated’ is the preferred term) from God. I was only a youth director for little more than a year but even I resorted to the terrible, Romans Road illustration of Christ’s cross bridging chasm between God and you.

Athanasius hints at a different sort of alienation.

If the God who made us is community, then the Fall names a fracture of community. Because of sin, we’re alienated.

Not from God.

God is the One who sustains us at every moment of our existence; we’ll never be so great that we could alienate God from us- that’s idolatrous.

No, because of sin we’re alienated from one another:

“ Cities were at war with cities, and nations were rising up against nations; and the whole earth was rent with civil commotions…” 

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Athanasius’ On the Incarnation isn’t as archaic as you might think, not nearly as irrelevant as you’re tempted to suppose.

Take Ferguson. And Michael Brown.

Take Staten Island and Eric Garner.

Take ‘Hands Up. Don’t Shoot’ and ‘I Can’t Breathe.’

Take those police and the (not so?) grand juries.

Some on one side call it sin. Others, maybe on the same side, call it injustice.

Others on the other side call it tragic necessity. Or duty.

Whichever side, those on one side see those on the other side as ‘other.’

Whatever else you can or would like to say about Michael Brown or Eric Garner, what you can say without debate- what even the grand juries would have to concede- is that they are exhibits A and B for how alienated we are from one another in America.

Black and white.

Poor and not nearly as hard-up as you like to think.

Athanasius looks at Ferguson and Staten Island and the eventual forgetfulness among whites that will settle in and he says that the Fall begat not God’s wrath but disintegration.

A loss of the communal fellowship we call Trinity and in whose image we were made.

Sin then, for Athanasius (like Flannery O’ Connor 1.5 centuries after him) isn’t something we do. It’s something we’re in.

All of us.

Untitled44Take a random stranger, walking down the street.

Look at them. What do you see?

Do you see a sinner, deserving of God’s wrath punishment?

Or do you see a creature, made by and loved by God?

I recall my Jedi Master, Dr. Robert Dykstra, posing that multiple choice to us as an aside one semester at Princeton. The question was one that had been put to him by the chair of his ordination committee.

His answer was something like ‘I know the first answer makes me ‘right’ theologically speaking, but I think the second answer will make me a better pastor.’

I remember thinking: Damn, slick response.

And: Yup, probably so.

In §2-3 of On the Incarnation Athanasius begins to unspool his case that the second argument not only makes for better pastors, it makes for a better God. He does so by linking together creation and incarnation, cross and new creation all as one single work grace.

In my own little cul-de-sac of the Christian tradition, United Methodism, we spend a lot of time parsing and divvying up, labeling and sequentially ordering, the many forms or  movements of God’s grace.

Prevenient grace.

Justifying grace.

Sanctifying grace.

We memorize on individuated flash cards.

Among Methodist ordinands, there’s even a terrible likening of the ‘stages’ of God’s grace to a house with a front porch as though the mystery of God’s sharing of God’s own life with us is analogous to a Thompson Creek commercial on 106.7 The FAN.

For Methodists, ‘prevenient’ (from the Latin- our lone moment of slumming it with the papists- for ‘to come before’) grace is the work of God which comes before your Christian conversion. It’s the grace by which God gives you sight to recognize and character to accept the (real) grace God does in Jesus Christ the Cross.

Contrary to Methodists, Athanasius would countenance no such divisions or distinctions when it comes to God’s unmerited work among us. For Athanasius, everything, every last single damn thing, is completely gratuitous.

It’s all grace.

Viewed from the Artist’s perspective, it’s all the same grace.

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Before and after make no sense when it comes to grace. Seeing the Cross as the ‘amazing’ grace is to make a category mistake for it obscures that you likewise don’t deserve for the Creator to hold you in existence at every moment of your existence.

Everything, it’s all gratuity.

To so argue, Athanasius roots his understanding of the incarnation where others seldom even give a passing glance, with the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo.

Creation from

Out of

No-thing.

In §2 Athanasius contrasts creatio ex nihilo with the two rival views of his day.

On the one hand, there was Plato who believed that ‘God’ had created from pre-existing materials- which would’ve meant that ‘creation’ in some sense was eternal.

On the other hand, there were those who believed that the Supreme (remote) Being would not have deigned to create the world; therefore, creation was the result of exalted, subsidiary being(s).

The former view, Athanasius argues, would imply that God is not an Artificer, creating from things which did not exist, but is more like a mechanic or tradesman, crafting-not creating- from the stuff around him. And hence something less than thoroughly, sheerly gratuitous.

The latter view, Athanasius points out, renders Jesus something less than divine.

For Christian speech to be intelligible, neither view is acceptable.

The Word which created must not be distinct from the Word which comes in the flesh, but the Word which took flesh from nothing in Mary’s womb must also have created originally from nothing.

Lest grace be something less than constitutive God’s very character, which would make creche and cross something more like a change in God’s mood.

The One God created gratuitously, every thing from no thing.

But the Word was with God, present, at creation.

Therefore the Word is God.

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If so, the salvation wrought by the Word made flesh is but a continuation of the original grace that is creation by the same Word. Or better put, according to Athanasius’ reasoning, ‘salvation’ is a word that names everything in between ‘let there be light’ ‘behold, I tell you a mystery.’

It names it all because the only reason for a creation from nothing is that there can be no reason. It’s all gift. And so the only ‘reason’ is that God desires to share triune life. Just as each moment in Jesus’ ministry is but a part of what it means for Jesus to be incarnate, each moment after creation is an episode in the large, seamless drama of God bringing us into union with God.

So it’s true that, within that drama, there are chapters in which Dr. Dykstra’s first possible answer is demonstrably true. We are sinners worthy of wrath. But if the Word made flesh also made everything ex nihilo, then the bigger, truer, older answer is B.

We are completely gratuitous creatures of the Creator and, thus, loved as precious children.

Untitled44Many of you emailed me to say you planned on reading On the Incarnation along with me during Advent. Here’s my ‘intro’ to the essay. I’ll be posting my thoughts on sections 1-10 in the days ahead.

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?

 

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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.

No.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Untitled44There’s no better time than the Advent season of ‘holy anticipation’ to reflect on what I think is the most important question for Christians to ponder:

Why does God takes flesh in the first place?

Does God become incarnate in Jesus in order to die upon the cross; so that, we can be saved from our sins?

Is Christmas merely instrumental? Is the Incarnation just the means by which humanity pays the sin-debt owed to God, satisfying God’s wrath against us in the process?

Or is the Incarnation we celebrate at Christmas itself salvific in some way?  Is humanity in some measure saved simply by God assuming our humanity?

And what do we mean by ‘salvation?’

For all you theology nerds, church geeks and preachers desperate for sermon ideas, I invite you to join me this Advent in reading and reflecting upon the Church Father Athanasius’ short essay On the Incarnation.

A bishop in the early 4th century and a leader against the Arian heretics (those who did not believe that the fullness of God dwelt in Christ) at the Council of Nicaea, Athanasius’ work On the Incarnation is one of the very first texts of developed Christian theology.

Plus, its short. 40 pages.

Even better, it’s free. Right here: Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word

Print it out and after you’ve stuffed your face like the pilgrims of yore, get to reading.

Starting the week of 12/1 we’ll go at a 10-15 page pace a week.

Each week of Advent I’ll post my thoughts on what we’ve read, the context behind it and why it matters for thinking about and following Christ today.

Plus, each week I’ll post a podcast conversation about On the Incarnation between me and some special guests:

061213soulenDr. Kendall Soulen, Professor of Theology at Wesley Theological Seminary

Michael Harden, a Rene Girard scholar, author of The Jesus Driven Life and Executive Director of Preaching Peace

Bobby Ray Hurd, House Church Planter at Simple Church and the smartest dude I ‘know’ on the interwebs.

So read, listen, and send me a thought or question via email or the Speakpipe on the screen.

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To wet your whistle, here’s this money quote from Athanasius:

“Because the true story of the world has been lost in the seemingly endless epic of sin, Christ must retell- in the entire motion and content of his life, lived both toward the Father and for his fellows- the tale from the beginning.

The Logos became flesh in order to reestablish the original pattern after which the human form was crafted in the beginning, and to impress upon creation the beauty of the divine image.”

Want to know just how important those two sentences are for making sense of Christmas, Good Friday, the teachings of Christ and our hands-on embodiment of them for others?

Read.

Listen.

Ask.

12.1

Do it.