“Jesus, in the song you wrote
The words are sticking in my throat:
‘Peace on earth.’
“Hear it every Christmas time.
But hope and history don’t rhyme,
So what’s it worth,
This ‘peace on earth’?”
For the last several weeks, Athanasius’s On the Incarnation has been displacing a lot of other reading I had hoped to do. In part, with much sadness in world news and in the lives of close friends, it was Bono’s Christmas-time question that got me here: “Hope and history don’t rhyme, so what’s it worth, this “peace on earth”?
Even more, though, the stories of two of my students led me to Athanasius.
Freshly home from a few days visiting with pastors in Turkey — for centuries the place where Christianity’s credal self-definition was hammered out, but where now Islam’s reduction of deity to a distant monad shapes people’s religious sensibilities — I was preparing my students for a journey into the story of the emergence of Christian orthodoxy, so hotly contested long ago in the mideast.
I made a passing comment about the martyrdom that is a mere theoretical possibility for Western Christians but a daily possibility for Christians elsewhere, when a student’s hand went up. Raised in North Africa, she recounted with proud tears how her father had been killed — after six attempts on his life — for not renouncing his faith in Christ. So much for theoretical possibilities.
On another occasion, a different student shared about how he had once served in the security detail of the leader of a formerly pro-west Muslim country. When the leader was deposed, the security officer’s Christianity was discovered, and he was tortured before he could make his escape. Now he studies theology in exile, hoping to be able to return one day to preach Christ. His story gave me context for his gently urgent questions about how to explain that Christianity calls for worship not of three separate gods but of one God in three persons.
Athanasius was bishop of Alexandria in North Africa in the early 4th century, and was a stalwart for the dual truths of Jesus’s divinity and humanity. His views on Christology shaped credal Christianity as it was hammered out from the 4th through the 8th centuries in the Mediterranean basin. His writing is beautiful and elegant, full of classical Greek’s delight in nuance and balance of expression. Felicitously, the most readily available English translation (published by St. Vladimirs Seminary Press) appears with a delicious introduction by C. S. Lewis, in which he explains that the heart of his own Mere Christianity grew out of his encounter with Athanasius’s On the Incarnation.
I cannot commend Athanasius’s Incarnation enough. Get it and read it. Actually, don’t just read it, pore over it.
For the sake of space, I content myself with a few observations.
I love chapter 15, where for Athanasius, the incarnation does — despite appearances to the contrary — give the rhyme to hope and history. Accommodating Himself to us “as a good teacher with his pupils,” the Word comes down to us and teaches us by “the simplest (perhaps even “most paltry,” eutelesteron) means.” Because people had ceased looking for God above, God came down and presented himself to our senses. Those in awe of creation find creation confessing Christ as Lord (in chap. 18 Athanasius will expand on this, ruminating over the way Christ “eats as man while ordering the universe as God”). For those inclined to think humans divine, the Savior’s works mark him as, alone of men, Son of God. Those drawn to demons find the demons driven by the Lord: the demons are shown to be not gods after all. For those who worship the dead and heroes, Christ’s resurrection shows Him to be Lord of death. “For this reason was He both born and manifested as Man, for this He died and rose, in order that, eclipsing by His works all other human deeds, he might recall men from all the paths of error to know the Father.”
Then too I was quite taken by “proofs” Athanasius offers for Christian teaching.
In the first place, it is in Christians’ new found fearlessness at death that Christ’s resurrection is demonstrated (chapters 27-29). “A very strong proof of this destruction of death and its conquest by the cross is supplied by a present fact, namely this. All the disciples of Christ despise death; they take the offensive against it and, instead of fearing it, by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ trample on it as on something dead” (ch. 27). I could not help but give thanks for my North African student’s father — as well as for my friend Robert Webber who now sustains himself in the throes of pancreatic cancer through daily Eucharist and prayer to a living Christ — as well as for my friend Frank James and his profound yet hope-filled grief at the loss of his believing brother Kelly who was found dead on Mt. Hood just weeks ago. In Athanasius’s world, pagans knew only gloom at the approach of death, and Gnostics looked for some sort of romantic leap into disembodied bliss (see for instance, the recently published “Gospel of Judas”). For the orthodox, though, Christ is, says Athanasius, “Arch-victor over death and has robbed it of its power.” Death stings still, but because of our share in Jesus’s resurrection, our deaths become “monuments to His victory.”
In the second place the incarnation is proven by the end of lovelessness (chapters 51-53). “Who then is He Who has … united in peace those who hated each other, save the beloved Son of the Father, the common Savior of all, Jesus Christ, Who by his own love underwent all things for our salvation?” (ch. 52). Athanasius, writing just a few years after the conversion of Constantine and at the beginning of the gospel’s conquest of the Roman/Byzantine empire, can be excused for some hyperbole. But by God’s grace, Athanasius was privileged to live in an age in which Greeks and Barbarians who “were always at war with each other and were cruel even to their own kith and kin” were coming to Christ and laying aside “their murderous cruelty,” becoming “war-minded no more.” Athanasius lived to see people groups “hear the teaching of Christ” and “turn from fighting to farming, and instead of arming themselves with swords extend their hands in prayer.” As I read, I could not help but think of the gentleness of the former security officer who wants to return to tell his enemies of the God-man’s love for them. I also could not help but wonder how many new martyrs of the gospel of God’s incarnate love it will take to bring conversion and repentance both in the Mideast where incarnation is now unimaginable for one set of reasons and in the West where it is equally unimaginable for an entirely different set of reasons.
Finally, reading Athanasius, I could not help but pray that those of us who confess Athanasian orthodoxy — which in time did become Lewis’s “mere Christianity” — may be given grace to embrace the apologetic power of Christian love. May our embrace of one another give an irreligious West and a falsely religious East reason to see the God who has sanctified their humanity by taking on their flesh and who has stretched out his arms on the cross so that “He might draw His ancient people with the one and the Gentiles with the other, and join both together in Himself” (ch. 25). May our common vocabulary of truth and love give unbelieving and wrongly believing neighbors reason to hear that “Someone, who against all divergences of belief, all differences of temperament, all memories of mutual persecution, speaks with the same voice” (Mere Christianity, Preface, p. 9).