A Christmas Reflection

By Graham Wood

Athanasius on The Incarnation

“And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory” – 1 Timothy 3:16.

This verse and the familiar opening verses of John’s Gospel about the incarnation of Christ draw us once again to the central message of the Christmas story. Of course, we will never fully understand this profound mystery, but we can reflect on aspects of it which can warm our hearts anew to admire once more the grace of God in Christ at this time.

Our verse above states ‘without controversy’ but that was not to prevail long in the experience of the early Christian church with the rise of the heresy known as Arianism in the fourth century.

Introduced by an Egyptian bishop, Arius from Alexandria, he taught, speaking of Christ, – there was a time once when ‘He was not’. That is, he was not the eternal Son of God, not the eternal Word.

The controversy raged within the Eastern Church as Arianism became increasingly believed and established until the rise of a young Coptic Egyptian Bishop, Athanasius, who after long study and reflection in Egyptian deserts produced what is still perhaps the most profound and comprehensive rebuttal of Arius that can be found even today in his short but powerful work – On The Incarnation.

In a modern reprint of this classic C. S. Lewis delightedly exclaimed on his first reading ‘When I first opened his De Incarnatione’ I soon discovered that I was reading a masterpiece.

In a fine Introduction to the life of Athanasius it is said, I believe rightly, that so important was the controversy with Arius, that Athanasius ‘knew that the very existence of the church was at stake’ and his opposition to the heresy consumed much of his life and thinking in those theologically turbulent years. Indeed, for his epitaph is ‘Athanasius against the world’.

The following are just a few of some of his main thoughts, selected from many on this profound theme (some slightly edited for modern reading). Speaking of Christ:

‘The more I desired to write …. to understand the Divinity of the Word, so much more did the knowledge thereof withdraw itself from me’

‘He has not assumed a body as proper to His own nature, far from it, for as the Word He is without body. He has been manifested in a human body for this reason only, out of the love and goodness of the Father, for the salvation of us men’.

‘It is we who were the cause of His taking human form, and for our salvation that in His great love he was both born and manifested in a human body’

‘Man who was created in God’s image and in possession of reason reflected the very Word Himself was disappearing because death and corruption were gaining even firmer hold on them and the work of God was being undone’.

‘What then was God to do? He alone, being Word of the Father was in consequence both able to re-create all, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be an ambassador for all with the Father’

‘Was God to keep silence? To allow to false gods the worship He made us to render to Himself? A king whose subjects had revolted would, after sending letters and messages, go to them in person.

‘He took to Himself a body, a human body even as our own. He could have revealed His divine majesty in some other and better way. No, he took our body, and not only so, but He took it directly from a spotless, stainless virgin, without the agency of a human father – a pure body, untainted by intercourse with man. He, the Mighty One, the Craftsman of all, Himself prepared this body in the virgin as a temple for Himself and took it for His very own, as the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt.’

Athanasius goes on to explain that it was Christ’s incarnation which gave such infinite value to His death.

‘His body was for Him not a limitation, but an instrument, so that He was both in it and in all things, and outside all things, resting in the Father alone. At one and the same time – this is the wonder – as Man He was living a human life, and as the Word He was sustaining the life of the universe, and as Son He was in constant union with the Father.’

‘Why did He not prevent death, as He did sickness? Because it was precisely in order to be able to die that He had taken a body, and to prevent the death would have been to impede the resurrection’

‘Death has become like a tyrant who has been completely conquered by the legitimate monarch, bound hand and foot, as he now is, ….all who are in Christ trample it as they pass by, saying. ‘O death, where is thy victory? O grave where is thy sting?

‘It is He Himself who brought death to nought and daily raises monuments to His victory in His own disciples.’

‘The Word Incarnate, as is the case with the invisible God, is known to us by his works. By them we recognise His deifying mission’

To summarise: This little work, little known by many contemporary Christians, is much more than about the Incarnation alone, it is also a unique spiritual treasure house and apologetic for many basic truths of Christianity

Perhaps Charles Wesley had been inspired by Athanasius to write his own immortal lines expressing the same central truth in his familiar hymn:

‘Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see,

Hail Incarnate Deity ! Pleased as man with man to dwell. Jesus our Immanuel’

May the Lord encourage our hearts once again this Christmas through the witness of this man of God writing so long ago, as ‘he being dead yet speaks’.