On the Incarnation

by Athanasius of Alexandria

Each Christmas, I re-read a bit of St. Athanasius’s brilliant but short On the Incarnation to get me in the holiday mood.  Some things that jumped out at me this time:

For the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word’s indwelling in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all.  You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honored, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it.  So it is with the King of all…

We have recently had cause to discuss this solidarity of mankind in the context of original sin.  Athanasius points to the more important application of this principle to our collective redemption.

When God the Almighty was making mankind through His own Word, He percieved that they, owing to the limitation of their nature, could not of themselves have any knowledge of the Artificer, the Incorporeal and Uncreated.  He took pity on them, therefore, and did not leave them destitute of the knowledge of Himself, lest their very existence should prove purposeless…How could men be reasonable beings if they had no knowledge of the Word and Reason of the Father, through Whom they had received their being?  They would be no better than the beasts…But, in fact, the good God has given them a share in His own Image, that is, in our Lord Jesus Christ, and has made even themselves after the same Image and Likeness.  Why?  Simply in order that through this gift of Godlikeness in themselves they may be able to perceive the Image Absolute, that is the Word Himself, and through Him to apprehend the Father; which knowledge of their Maker is for men the only really happy and blessed life.

To be truly reasonable beings, he says, we must know God, and in particular His Word, which is the rationale of all things.  Mankind is made in the Image of God.  The Son/Word/Chist is the Image of God.  Therefore, man is made in Christ, that is, by Christ and after Christ.  We often think of the Incarnation as God making up a body for Jesus based on what we were already like, but that’s backwards.  We were already made in His image.  Thus, when he came “in our image”, it was no disguise, but the true bodily incarnation of the Son, the template after which we were made.

It was by surrendering to death the body which He had taken, as an offering and sacrifice free from every stain, that He forthwith abolished death for his human brethren by the offering of the equivalent.  For naturally, since the Word of God was above all, when He offered His own temple and bodily instrument as a substitute for the life of all, He fulfilled in death all that was required…

The same writer goes on to point out why it was necessary for God the Word and none other to become Man:  “For it became Him, for Whom are all things and through Whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the Author of their salvation perfect through suffering.” (Heb. II 9)

The hardest thing to understand about the Atonement is how one person (Christ) can legitimately pay the debt for the sins of someone else (me).  How is that fair, when Christ and I are two separate people?  It can only make sense if there’s some connection between us.  It may make no sense for a stranger to pay my tickets for me, but it makes a little bit more sense for my father to pay my tickets for me.  As Athanasius tells it, there was an intimate connection between us and the Word even before He became incarnate.  We were made through Him and in His image.  We are also for Him, in that (c.f. the earlier quote) we only fulfill our purpose by apprehending Him.  So we are directly connected to the Word by our efficient, formal, and final causes.  For a being who is my creator, the model for my creation, and my final destiny to take my sins upon Himself begins to sound less arbitrary.  He was necessarily involved in my salvation or lack thereof regardless.

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