St. Athanasius: A Man for All Seasons

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St. Athanasius

ATHANASIUS: THE TRUE MAN FOR ALL SEASONS

By Christopher C. MacDonald  

As impressive as Paul Scofield was in his portrayal of Thomas More in the 1966 film A Man For All Seasons, the man of conscience depicted there cannot really hold a candle to St. Athanasius who was once known as “Athanasius Contra Mundum (Latin forAthanasius Against the World).”[1]

My assertion is that in the middle of our relativistic Postmodern landscape in which we have either commercialized Jesus into a form of “Betterment Gospel” or dispersed him in some form of idealized semi-Gnostic way it is exactly with Athanasian clarity that we need to re-frame – or at least refresh – our Christology in significant ways.

The following are four short snapshots from Athanasius’ brilliantly compact booklet entitledOn the Incarnation. Each was selected expressly for its relevance to the current Postmodern situation.

Let us admit from the outset that while Athanasius had enemies it was a smaller pool. He did not have to answer an unending number of critics coming from all sides. Nor did he have to deal with the legacies of centuries old “theologies” and traditions (as he was writing in the Fourth Century.)

Context

Athansius sees the controversy or question over the “Word made flesh” in terms straight out of 1 Corinthians 1:18-23 concerning the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of God:

Now, Macarius, true lover of Christ, we must take a step further in the faith of our holy religion, and consider also the Word’s becoming Man and His divine Appearing in our midst. That mystery the Jews traduce, the Greeks deride, but we adore; and your own love and devotion to the Word also will be the greater, because in His Manhood He seems so little worth.[2]

 

Firmly rooted within St. Paul’s rubric which understands an inherent blindness on the part of both Jews and Gentiles to the “mystery” of  Christ’s true dual nature, Athanasius sets out to boldly make the case to both audiences nonetheless. The motive seems to be adoration, devotion and truth-telling.

  1. The Word Incarnate is the Agent of Creation and of Salvation

Athanasius is utterly clear where we are so utterly vague and confused on the utter connection between Creation and Redemption:

“the first fact that you must grasp is this: the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it in the beginning.”

 

One of the things which is striking in reading Athanasius is how he weaves scripture artfully through his presentation – not proof-texting as we so often do (like hanging a hat on a peg), but rather lacing his presentation with strains of well-chosen passages that are placed almost organically within his argument.

 

He sees the beauty and seamlessness of Christ as the Agent of Creation Who now is also the redemption of that Creation once fallen.

 

  1. Human History has Meaning and Corruption is Thwarted.

Naturally also, through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, all men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection…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. Even so is it with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be. For the human race would have perished utterly had not the Lord and Savior of all, the Son of God, come among us to put an end to death.[3]

 

When the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14) human history had been more than simply “tampered with.” Any talk of a Creator winding up Creation and walking off to let it do its thing was off the table. This was a God willing to gestate in a womb for nine months and spill out of a womb. This was the Word willing to take on sin, the devil and death. What happened in time and space mattered because as T.S. Eliot so eloquently would later write:

Then came, at a predetermined moment, a moment in time and of time,
A moment not out of time, but in time, in what we call history:

transecting, bisecting the world of time, a moment in time but not like a moment of time,

A moment in time but time was made through that moment :

for without the meaning there is no time, and that moment of time gave the meaning.

Then it seemed as if men must proceed from light to light, in the light of the Word,
Through the Passion and Sacrifice saved in spite of their negative being;[4]

 

Biblical faith is one of incarnation not reincarnation. That God came into the world as flesh and blood in time and space means what happens here and now matters. IT also demonstrates the extraordinary love of God.

  1. We Die a Different Death Overshadowed by Resurrection

Having set out the dilemma for a fallen and corruptible humanity in chapters 2-3  Athanasius begins to turn to the results of the Word made Flesh’s redemptive rescue operation saying:

We who believe in Christ no longer die, as men died aforetime, in fulfillment of the threat of the law. That condemnation has come to an end; and now that, by the grace of the resurrection, corruption has been banished and done away, we are loosed from our mortal bodies in God’s good time for each, so that we may obtain thereby a better resurrection.[5]

 

This seems a more cavalier attitude than the one we Postmoderns carry with us in our near silence on bodily resurrection as a reality and our avoidance with the rest of culture on mortality. Athanasius, along with the New Testament writers (especially Paul) see the resurrection hope as particularly powerful. Some modern authors do to. I am reminded of sociologist Peter Berger’s comment that “given the resurrection of Jesus “nothing is ultimately tragic.”[6] That can certainly be a game-changer in planning and living out one’s life and faith. What he means is simply that the power of death was sin and that died with Christ as sacrifice and then He was raised up from the dead, “Death used to be strong and terrible, but now, since the sojourn of the Savior and the death and resurrection of His body, it is despised; and obviously it is by the very Christ Who mounted on the cross that it has been destroyed and vanquished finally.” (On the Incarnation, p. 45).

  1. The Word Made Flesh leads to Peace Not War-Like Militarism

Athanasius, in his refutation of the Gentiles and his evangelistic appeal, writes something we dearly need to hear today as we attempt to join military might to religious agendas (specifically Christian):

While they were yet idolaters, the Greeks and Barbarians were always at war with each other, and were even cruel to their own kith and kin. Nobody could travel by land or sea at all unless he was armed with swords, because of their irreconcilable quarrels with each other. … as I said before, they were serving idols and offering sacrifices to demons, and for all the superstitious awe that accompanied this idol worship, nothing could wean them from that warlike spirit. But, strange to relate, since they came over to the school of Christ, as men moved with real compunction they have laid aside their murderous cruelty and are war-minded no more. On the contrary, all is peace among them and nothing remains save desire for friendship. (52) Who, then, is He Who has done these things and 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? Even from the beginning, moreover, this peace that He was to administer was foretold, for Scripture says, “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into sickles, and nation shall not take sword against nation, neither shall they learn any more to wage war.”[7]

 

One of the things that set the Gospel a world apart from the idolatrous Heathen states was How Jesus and His Gospel of love lead to peace and a new way. The Kingdom of God and Christ’s Lordship took precedence over former idolatries and one supposes even ethnic ties as the faith went world-wide. We seem to be arming-up and attaching a religious agenda (alibi) to it at exactly the point where Athanasius says Christians were laying down weapons and turning them into plowshares. To him this was evidence of God’s presence in their lives.

 

Athanasius goes on to strengthen the point saying,

 

“The barbarians of the present day are naturally savage in their habits, and as long as they sacrifice to their idols they rage furiously against each other and cannot bear to be a single hour without weapons. But when they hear the teaching of Christ, forthwith they turn from fighting to farming, and instead of arming themselves with swords extend their hands in prayer. In a word, instead of fighting each other, they take up arms against the devil and the demons, and overcome them by their selfcommand and integrity of soul. These facts are proof of the Godhead of the Savior, for He has taught men what they could never learn among the idols. It is also no small exposure of the weakness and nothingness of demons and idols, for it was because they knew their own weakness that the demons were always setting men to fight each other, fearing lest, if they ceased from mutual strife, they would turn to attack the demons themselves.”

 

It’s a point well taken (about keeping us fighting each other) . If we hope to stand out as truly different than an barbaric world which knows only violence, idolatry and fear then we have to act in active faith hope and love. Apparently the believers in Athanasius’ time did just that.

 

____________________

[1] Wikipedia article on Saint Athanasius,https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athanasius_of_Alexandria.  Cited on 12/8/2015.

[2] Athanasius, On the Incarnation (De Incarnatione Verbi Dei) St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church, Jersey City, NJ. 1999. Available in PDF. p. 4

[3] Athanasius, Ibid., p. 16

[4] Eliot, T.S. T.S. Eliot Collected Poems 1909-1962 “Choruses From the Rock,” (Harcourt Brace & Co., New York, 1963) p. 163.

[5] Athanasius, Ibid., p. 34.

[6] Berger, Peter L. The Precarious Vision. Doubleday & Co., 1961

[7] Athanasius, ibid., p. 82-83.

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