On the Incarnation of the Word 57 – An Honourable Life Is Needed

Posted: December 9th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 57 – An Honourable Life Is Needed

Read the closing section of Athanasius’ treatise for his final doxology. I’m going to reflect on his opening in this section, though.

But for the searching of the Scriptures and true knowledge of them, an honourable life is needed, and a pure soul, and that virtue which is according to Christ; so that the intellect guiding its path by it, may be able to attain what it desires, and to comprehend it, in so far as it is accessible to human nature to learn concerning the Word of God. For without a pure mind and a modelling of the life after the saints, a man could not possibly comprehend the words of the saints.

Note that, unlike much common modern usage, “Scriptures” and “Word of God” above do not refer to the same thing. Hopefully by now, on the 57th post on this treatise, the distinction in usage is clear. We often put too much emphasis on what you think about God or our ideas about him. It’s not that these things don’t matter. They do. Rather, the point is that we are only able to understand and practice what the Scriptures and the saints teach to the extent that we live lives like they lived. We know God by doing life with him.


On the Incarnation of the Word 56 – When Christ Appears Again

Posted: December 8th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 56 – When Christ Appears Again

This penultimate section looks forward to the “appearing” of Christ in glory.

And you will also learn about His second glorious and truly divine appearing to us, when no longer in lowliness, but in His own glory,—no longer in humble guise, but in His own magnificence,—He is to come, no more to suffer, but thenceforth to render to all the fruit of His own Cross, that is, the resurrection and incorruption; and no longer to be judged, but to judge all, by what each has done in the body, whether good or evil; where there is laid up for the good the kingdom of heaven, but for them that have done evil everlasting fire and outer darkness.

Much of the language commonly used in English discussions of Jesus today implies that he has gone off somewhere away from the world and will one day “come” back to it. That’s a distortion of the language of Scripture. “Ascension” describes royalty coming into their power. And that’s obviously the case with Jesus as he “ascended” to the throne of God to be seated at his right hand. “Clouds” or smoke are the imagery of the presence of God throughout the OT. I think we miss that as well.

But Jesus isn’t somewhere far away. He is with us always. He is our head and is the wellspring of the life of the Church. He is now veiled, and when he “appears” in glory that veil will be dropped and all creation will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord that already fills it. But Jesus is not coming back from some distant place. He is here now. He has already ascended to the power of his kingdom. It’s just a kingdom that operates very differently from any other kingdom we’ve ever encountered.

I also want to point out what Athanasius describes as the fruit of the Cross. (Certainly not the only one as the work of the Cross surpasses our imagination, but the main fruit.) It’s not forgiveness, which it would be if the primary problem was that we had done wrong by violating a law. Nor is it payment for a debt that could not be forgiven (as some put it instead). No, the fruit of the Cross is life. The instrument of death becomes the source of our resurrection and incorruption defeating the power of corruption and death that had before ruled man.

And, as Scripture always says, we will be judged for the works we have done in our body. We are our bodies and the things we do with them matter. Oh, they don’t change God’s attitude toward us. God has made that as clear as it can be made in Jesus of Nazareth. But the things we do in and through our bodies shape who we are as human beings. Are we becoming the sort of people able to experience the fire of God’s love as comfort and warmth? Or are we making ourselves into the sort of people who will experience that love as pain and torment when we can no longer feed the destructive passions we have written into our flesh? Through the grace and power and love of Christ, may it be the former!


On the Incarnation of the Word 55 – Idolatry Diminishing?

Posted: December 7th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 55 – Idolatry Diminishing?

I read Athanasius’ summation of much that he has already written and my first reaction on this reading, probably shaped by my earlier reflections on my pluralist formation, is almost one of confusion.

This, then, after what we have so far said, it is right for you to realize, and to take as the sum of what we have already stated, and to marvel at exceedingly; namely, that since the Saviour has come among us, idolatry not only has no longer increased, but what there was is diminishing and gradually coming to an end: and not only does the wisdom of the Greeks no longer advance, but what there is is now fading away: and demons, so far from cheating any more by illusions and prophecies and magic arts, if they so much as dare to make the attempt, are put to shame by the sign of the Cross. And to sum the matter up: behold how the Saviour’s doctrine is everywhere increasing, while all idolatry and everything opposed to the faith of Christ is daily dwindling, and losing power, and falling.

It is true, when you study history, that Christianity spread like wildfire through ancient pagan lands, overturning long-standing and oppressive gods and religious practices. By the time Athanasius writes the above, even the Empire is beginning its turn from its pagan gods.

But my life experience has been almost the opposite of the above. I absorbed the experience of one spirituality after another. And while Christianity was a part of the mix, there was often little in it to distinguish it from or elevate it above the rest. Indeed, some of my experiences with Christians were pretty negative and made it less attractive. Even now, Christianity is fading in lands where it was once the default, where the pagan religions had seemed to almost end.

Why?

That’s the question that comes to my mind. For Jesus of Nazareth is no less compelling now than he was when Athanasius wrote those words — at least, not if you really encounter him. And nothing else I’ve lived or experienced really compares with the vision of reality we see in Christ. Not the unending cycle of death and rebirth found at the core of nature worship. Not the karmic cycle on the wheel of samsara trapped in maya. Not the strict path of discipline of the Buddha seeking enlightenment. Not the vision of a reality devoid of deeper or lasting meaning that lies near the heart of many materialistic perspectives. I’ve explored and lived many of those along the course of my journey and I find that when I compare them to the God made known to us in Jesus of Nazareth, I agree with Athanasius’ sentiment. And I understand why the ancient pagan world turned so dramatically.

So then why are so many turning back to pagan paths? Why did it take so long for me (and others) to really begin to see this strange Jesus and be drawn to him? What is different in our world today?

That’s a complex question and there are undoubtedly more threads weaving the present tapestry than I can ever fully grasp. Nevertheless, I think part of the problem is that the Church has ceased to even try to be one. And in the morass of Christian pluralism, many of the pictures painted of Jesus and God, many of the ideas, many of the theologies are actually repellent.

It’s harder today to actually see Christ than it was when Athanasius wrote his treatise.


On the Incarnation of the Word 54 – He Was Made Man That We Might Be Made God

Posted: November 19th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

In this next section, Athanasius makes one of the more profound statements. It captures the process and goal of salvation and our union with Christ in one phrase. It’s the sort of thing that packs an enormous amount into just a few words. Read and reflect on the whole section.

For He was made man that we might be made God

Jesus was made one of us. In the language of Irenaeus (and Paul), Jesus lived the life of the faithful man, overturning our choice as the unfaithful man. In that recapitulation, he broke the power of death over us. Jesus restores us to God, our only source of life. And as we participate in the life, we become participants in the life of God. Because of Christ’s union with humanity, we are able to share in the communion of the life and love of the Triune God. This is the underlying reality that makes Christianity so powerful and compelling. Our God is a God of self-sufficient, eternal love. And we are created to be participants in that life of love.

And, in a word, the achievements of the Saviour, resulting from His becoming man, are of such kind and number, that if one should wish to enumerate them, he may be compared to men who gaze at the expanse of the sea and wish to count its waves. For as one cannot take in the whole of the waves with his eyes, for those which are coming on baffle the sense of him that attempts it; so for him that would take in all the achievements of Christ in the body, it is impossible to take in the whole, even by reckoning them up, as those which go beyond his thought are more than those he thinks he has taken in.

I love this analogy. Have you ever tried to follow the waves of the ocean with your eyes? Have you ever tried to focus and follow a single part, even a single wave? It’s impossible. So it is that our minds cannot compass the wonder of Christ. But as we can stare at the ocean in awe and wonder, so we can behold Christ, even as minds are overwhelmed.


On the Incarnation of the Word 53 – Pagan Gods Routed by the Sign of the Cross

Posted: November 17th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 53 – Pagan Gods Routed by the Sign of the Cross

In this section, Athanasius continues to describe the rout of the pagan gods by Christ. I found this particularly interesting living, as we do, in a place and an age where some form (though certainly a milder form) of ancient paganism is experiencing a revival.

And to mention one proof of the divinity of the Saviour, which is indeed utterly surprising,—what mere man or magician or tyrant or king was ever able by himself to engage with so many, and to fight the battle against all idolatry and the whole demoniacal host and all magic, and all the wisdom of the Greeks, while they were so strong and still flourishing and imposing upon all, and at one onset to check them all, as was our Lord, the true Word of God, Who, invisibly exposing each man’s error, is by Himself bearing off all men from them all, so that while they who were worshipping idols now trample upon them, those in repute for magic burn their books, and the wise prefer to all studies the interpretation of the Gospels?  For whom they used to worship, them they are deserting, and Whom they used to mock as one crucified, Him they worship as Christ, confessing Him to be God. And they that are called gods among them are routed by the Sign of the Cross, while the Crucified Saviour is proclaimed in all the world as God and the Son of God. And the gods worshipped among the Greeks are falling into ill repute at their hands, as scandalous beings; while those who receive the teaching of Christ live a chaster life than they.

We are the body of Christ. We are the ones who claim to be living in the Kingdom of God, declaring Jesus of Nazareth our Lord. If we see the reverse of the above happening today, how can we not be culpable? And is not our failure a failure of communion (oneness) and love? After all, Jesus gave those who do not believe the right to judge if we follow Jesus by our love. If Christianity is failing in the West, it is failing because we do not love.

We follow an incredible God, found nowhere else and unlike any other god. Once I finally saw that God in a handful of people and began to seek to know him, I was captivated by the beauty of the Triune God. I’ve been entranced ever since. But I also have to agree with Gandhi. “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.”


On the Incarnation of the Word 52 – United In Peace

Posted: November 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 52 – United In Peace

I’ve spent no small amount of time reflecting on the Christianity Athanasius describes in today’s section of his treatise. The things he takes for granted are more difficult to see among Christians today.

Who then is He that has done this, or who is He that has united in peace men that hated one another, save the beloved Son of the Father, the common Saviour of all, even Jesus Christ, Who by His own love underwent all things for our salvation? For even from of old it was prophesied of the peace He was to usher in, where the Scripture says: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their pikes into sickles, and nation shall not take the sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

The above is a fairly consistent ancient interpretation of that famous Scripture. They saw the peace of Christ as something real already working itself into and through the live of those who joined the already present and growing Kingdom. These days, it seems that many Christians instead interpret the peace of Christ that passes all understanding as something internal, individual, and purely spiritual, not as something that has any real, tangible, communal reality. They view the description of the prophecy above as something that will happen in the future, not as something that is already in the process of being fulfilled.

And this is at least not incredible, inasmuch as even now those barbarians who have an innate savagery of manners, while they still sacrifice to the idols of their country, are mad against one another, and cannot endure to be a single hour without weapons:  but when they hear the teaching of Christ, straightway instead of fighting they turn to husbandry, and instead of arming their hands with weapons they raise them in prayer, and in a word, in place of fighting among themselves, henceforth they arm against the devil and against evil spirits, subduing these by self-restraint and virtue of soul.

Athanasius is saying this peace is breaking out among warring peoples as they turn to Christ. It’s not an ideal. It’s not hypothetical. It’s real. He was writing in a age in which wars were not at all unknown. Athanasius lived within the context of an empire that defended itself against those who warred against it and by the time of this writing, Christians were participants within the government of that Empire, sometimes the emperors were Christian, and many in those armies were Christian. His head was not off in the clouds and out of touch with reality. He dealt with those realities every day.

And yet, Athanasius still writes the above. What did he see and experience that we are missing?

Why, they who become disciples of Christ, instead of warring with each other, stand arrayed against demons by their habits and their virtuous actions: and they rout them, and mock at their captain the devil; so that in youth they are self-restrained, in temptations endure, in labours persevere, when insulted are patient, when robbed make light of it: and, wonderful as it is, they despise even death and become martyrs of Christ.

It was, of course, St. Paul who famously wrote that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against powers and principalities. The weapons of the powers haven’t changed and the above captures some of them well in its list of things those who follow Christ resist and overcome. The threat of death, of course, remains the ultimate weapon. Death’s power over us may have been broken in the Resurrection, but we still often give it power through our fear.


On the Incarnation of the Word 51 – No Longer Mind the Things of War

Posted: November 14th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 51 – No Longer Mind the Things of War

Now Athanasius is stressing the point that Christ is passing among all people everywhere, crossing all national and cultural boundaries, and drawing people away from their former gods. Moreover, he notes that the savagery of war and murders that has always reigned among people is being ended by Christ. Here is his closing statement in this section.

But when they have come over to the school of Christ, then, strangely enough, as men truly pricked in conscience, they have laid aside the savagery of their murders and no longer mind the things of war: but all is at peace with them, and from henceforth what makes for friendship is to their liking.

I once held a strong perspective on doing whatever it took to protect house and hearth. While the way I was raised left me with a fairly strong compassion toward the weak, my attitude toward the strong was often, “Do unto them before they do unto you.” I considered what it would mean to kill someone in battle before I enlisted, and though it’s not something I ever had to do, I was satisfied that it was something I could do. I was also a whole-hearted supporter of the death penalty and perhaps even the idea that an armed society is a polite society.

Since my journey led me to self-identify with Christ, I’ve gradually found my basic assumptions about life and the nature of reality upended. I doubt I’ll ever be a St. Martin of Tours, who renounced all violence, but I find that is hard to both hold close a heart ready to do violence and follow the King of Peace.

Christianity was known for the peace it wrought among warring peoples. Is that still true today? Is it true when Christians in our nation are markedly more likely to support the use of torture than non-Christians? Is it true when people gather not to discuss concerns and find consensus, but simply to shout the other party down by any means possible? The words once asked of Jesus seem to hang in the air today?

Who is my neighbor?

Do we believe that Jesus’ haunting and penetrating answer to that question has changed? Or do we believe it doesn’t apply to us today because our situation, of course, is different?

Or do we simply not care?


On the Incarnation of the Word 50 – Greeks and Resurrection

Posted: November 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 50 – Greeks and Resurrection

In this section, Athanasius continues to refute pagan perspectives. His comment against the sophists is probably difficult to understand without some understanding of their development in ancient and classical Greece. This history is interesting if you want to look it up, but by Athanasius’ time sophists were regarded as teachers of rhetoric rather than actual wisdom. As such, when Athanasius compares the common language with which the Word taught and communicated to us and which his followers largely used to the sophists, he is comparing it to their eloquence and rhetorical ability. And he says the Logos overshadows them all. It’s an interesting way to formulate the idea and I didn’t want anyone to miss it.

However, I want to focus on this excerpt.

Or who else has given men such assurance of immortality, as has the Cross of Christ, and the Resurrection of His Body? For although the Greeks have told all manner of false tales, yet they were not able to feign a Resurrection of their idols,—for it never crossed their mind, whether it be at all possible for the body again to exist after death. And here one would most especially accept their testimony, inasmuch as by this opinion they have exposed the weakness of their own idolatry, while leaving the possibility open to Christ, so that hence also He might be made known among all as Son of God.

This emphasizes a point the N.T. Wright makes in his big book, The Resurrection of the Son of God, which a lot of modern people overlook. And it’s this one. Everyone in the ancient world knew what resurrection meant. It meant new bodies after death, a new embodied life of the same person. But other than some of the Jews, no group actually believed that resurrection was possible. The tale of Orpheus is as close as you come in the pagan Greek mythos and the point of the narrative is that resurrection can’t happen.  This was actually one of the problems in the Corinthian Church that Paul was trying to address. They had accepted that Jesus, as the Son of God, had somehow been resurrected, but they didn’t believe that as a result we would be resurrected. A lot of people use Paul’s words today to emphasize the importance of the bodily resurrection of our Lord, and that’s not a bad usage. But Paul was actually taking their acceptance of that truth as a given and from it arguing that we would all one day be resurrected.

Without the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, there is no Christianity and there is no point to our faith. But if he did not defeat death for all humanity in his death, if we also do not rise, then again there is no point in being Christian.


On the Incarnation of the Word 49 – Christ Conquers All Gods

Posted: November 4th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 49 – Christ Conquers All Gods

As always, read the whole section by Athanasius. But I want to focus on his last thought in it.

Or why, if Christ is, as they say, a man, and not God the Word, is not His worship prevented by the gods they have from passing into the same land where they are? Or why on the contrary does the Word Himself, sojourning here, by His teaching stop their worship and put their deception to shame?

I think it might be easy for us, in our modern Western society, to miss the impact of his point here. Gods were tied to places and to peoples. Athanasius is pointing out that the worship of Christ is spreading across all lands, all places, and all peoples. And the gods who were there before him seem powerless to stop him. Christ is not bound to any place or people. If he’s just a man and not also the divine Logos, how is that possible?


On the Incarnation of the Word 48 – The True Son of God

Posted: October 29th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 48 – The True Son of God

Athanasius continues his argument against the Greek pagans, and it’s worth reading the entire section. There are certainly parts of it that echo strongly in today’s environment. But I want to focus on one thought.

Then, if the Saviour is neither a man simply, nor a magician, nor some demon, but has by His own Godhead brought to nought and cast into the shade both the doctrine found in the poets and the delusion of the demons and the wisdom of the Gentiles, it must be plain and will be owned by all, that this is the true Son of God, even the Word and Wisdom and Power of the Father from the beginning.

Jesus didn’t simply best individuals. He brought all the powers to nothing. The Son is the eternal Word and was from the beginning. The Son is begotten, but always uncreated and true God.