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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Out of the Battle into the War Room

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Montgomery Hall at the top of San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo, CA (Marin).

For [a]consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to [b]the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; 27 but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, 28 and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, 29 so that no [c]man may boast before God. 30 But [d]by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, [e]and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption,” ~1 Co. 1:26-30

This passage is really the one that defines me and always has. True, when we were younger and in a college study and the youth leader was foolish enough to ask the group about “favorite scripture verses” they prolly had it coming when either Mitchell or I would pipe up quite seriously with “1 Chronicles 26:18!” Then the other of us would offer to read it:

“At the Parbar on the west there were four at the highway and two at the Parbar

The meaning of the word “parbar” is unknown – and we of course – knew this quite well. Then the other would say “wow,” and shake his head, “makes you really think doesn’t it?” And the other joining in the serious contemplation of the utter meaninglessness of  the verse would finish “I find that so touching. Let’s move on.”

Of course the Bible Study leader knew we were having them all on…but not much could be done.

It took me time and crushings to learn how to use my gifts , er…appropriately.

******

1989 at Seminary chapel back door. Look at that mullet!

1989 at Seminary chapel back door. Look at that mullet! Note the “Joker” bolo tie I made.

So things look like they are a go for Seminary at the Graduate Theological Union, via the back door at SFTS in San Anselmo. Do I have enough money? No. Rent is $510; I get $387 General Assistance for being poor. If I spend all of that and raise another $113 a month, then I have food stamps $194 to live off for food each month then need only money for phone and transportation to classes in  Berkeley or to church.

Hey, good enough for Ghandi..good enough for me. Soon I will learn “homespun.”

That will be it. SSI will not be fast tracked after all. I will not get that for 8 months to 2 years if at all. There is no rest for the weary. I have not had a rest or vacation in 15 years.

Please pray. I have to leap on this immediately. The initial fees for enrollment and to pay for transcripts and a background check are around $150 total. I do not have it.

Mt friend Gregor scoffs at me which is his divine right as a skeptic and unbeliever. He wonders how I can believe. I laugh back and  tell him to not do so would be a bit like suddenly becoming a virgin again. “The genie is out of the bottle,” I say. “I’ve already slept with women and already know God. To pretend otherwise would be disingenuous.”

I have no idea if God will come through with financial help for seminary or not. It is HIS deal. If He wants me as a teacher then He will; if not – well then no. I can only apply and do all I can do. Then I have to go and get like straight A’s because nothing short of that will do for me. Some of you have seen me determined in many a situation – how dogged and relentless I can be.

You have never seen me in a library. I am a total animal. I go into Beast Mode.

*******

I love and respect my ex-wife. I encouraged her to attend the GTU because she has a marvelous brain and she had a great interest in theology. To here her tell it she no longer believes in God. She outgrew that in Seminary and this happens on a regular basis at the GTU apparently.

What is I did the whole first year JUST speaking in Sean Connery's voice. Who would know?

What if I did the whole first year JUST speaking in Sean Connery’s voice. Who would know?

I am a deep mix of objective knowledge and research and subjective experiences. Those experiences are, granted, often more overt than most believers ever get to experience.

Why? I have no idea. Truly.

But I do fulfill Paul’s scripture about for three minutes prior to my conversion 39 years and 11 months ago yesterday – I was as dumb as a fence post, foolish morally and directionally, scrawny, fearful and weak in every category except tallness and that just made me an easy target.

Then alone I was visited by God who came into the room with an intense heaviness and wanted me if I would allow (which God took a lot more seriously than I did).

A few minutes later I emerged truly a different person. No longer weak, dumb, or fearful. I never had to much work in school because my brain just took over. I learned to listen well. I still do.

Notice the reason: That no one may boast except in God. Oh! that sounds JUST like us in the American Church!

I do not “profess to be wise” despite my learning and street experience. It has taught me more about what I do not know and cannot perceive and to listen better in the moment. It has taught me to prepare as a man to respond.

What kind of professor will I be? An explorer.  Very much a Dead Poet’s Society meets C.S. Lewis kinda thing. But I can’t boast about my prowess any more than my height. Did I “work” at that?

******

They have already told me that because of my age I will find it hard to find a teaching job at a college. We’ll see. But if so – why not High school!!?

My time in Oakland is winding down I think. I do believe I will be on campus in San Anselmo by the end of August and start classes Sept. 8.

 

 

On Finding Jesus

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It’s not easy being a human being, and that’s if you are born healthy, have resources, and don’t constantly shoot yourself in the foot by really dumb decisions.

During your adult life the spiritual question lays begging. No one is truly indifferent even those who claim passionately to be so. For example, everyone has an opinion on Jesus.

My real empathy is found with those who have been clubbed over the head by those who have “Found Jesus” and are damned insistent that everyone they meet find Jesus now on their terms. Their excuse for being belligerent is that “warning people” is actually “loving them.” When I have pointed out that Jesus was only stern and harsh with the Religious they usually turn and “warn” me.

I think they are just plain mean.

As for finding Jesus? It would seem it goes both ways. “He who seeks finds” says Jesus and he is certainly the Pearl of Great Price in the parable. But he more often than not finds us. His name means “Yahweh to the Rescue” and the incarnation proves it is always God moving towards us, not the other way around.

“Jesus found me” is a lot more accurate than “I found Jesus”. And it doesn’t stop there. I wander all the time and Jesus leaves the other 99 sheep, puts on his hiking boots and comes after me. I assure you, it has nothing to do with my likeability. Anyone who knows me will tell you this is true. It says everything about his character and nature.

To be more specific, and in 38 years I have never written about this before (and I am not sure why), I was leaving Colorado on a plane having witnessed my fill of Christian hypocrisy. As I waited, alone, an invisible heaviness filled the room that was undeniable.

Of course I know now what and Who it was, but at the time I had no way of having the slightest clue.

A dialog of sorts (non-verbal) ensued wherein I had a clear choice. There was never a threat; quite the opposite. It was an open door to a relationship of love and meaning.

I admit, the undeniable heaviness in the room helped sell the whole thing. I have long argued that some people have “less choice than others” (Like Paul…I mean, c’mon, how much choice did he really have after he gets knocked off his camel and Jesus speaks to him?). All I can say was it did not matter. Unlike C.S. Lewis, I went joyfully with only one caveat.*

*******

* Remember I was 18 and rough around the edges so I asked God “so if I give my life to you do I have to be like these other asshole hypocrites?” I got the mental impression “No,” and the Almighty did not mention my foul language.

Of course, six months later I would be just as hypocritical and have to really eat crow many times (and who knows how many more times in the future?) Just proving you can never get too much humility.

Raveling

He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything. ~Col. 1:17-18

11x14The country is vast and feels often as if it is unraveling. I hear people say often that Americans are driven by lust or greed but it is not true at all. No. We are really driven by fear.

Christ know this and His depiction of us as “sheep” is not meant to be unkind at all. He is the Good Shepherd who “knows his sheep”.  Even today when shepherds get caught in the rain and have to hole up in a cave overnight they easily separate the sheep the next day by simply walking a distance apart and calling out. Their own sheep know their voice and gather around them.

Jesus doesn’t come moralizing.  He comes to be with us and for us to be found in Him. We unravel when we meet Him and He comes in and ravels within holding things together. To the extent we allow Him first place in everything this raveling is clean and straight and true. And if it starts to go awry in the Church we can pause…just stop and unravel some. He is the head of the body. Refocus on Him as the head. Allow the raveling to continue again.

Waiting on the beach

breakfastHe had appeared to his Mary Magdalene and then the disciples twice. So, as recorded in John 21,  they do what they are good at…they go fishing.

I guess like all of us we are not sure exactly what to do after meeting God and coming into newness of life.

None of us really knows what to do with it, then or now.

Peter, either demonstrating leadership skills, or loaded with cabin fever declares he is going fishing. Others think this is a good idea and they pile in a boat and work all night at what they do best. They catch nothing at all.

Jesus calls to them from 100 yards away on the beach; close enough to hear Him but not close enough to really make out His face. He tells them to cast on the right side of the boat (just feet away from where they have been casting)  and the nets are immediately full of fish to the extent they should have ripped. This immediately takes John back to the earlier incident where Jesus said to do the same with the same result. He says to Peter “It is the Lord” and anyone who has read or heard the story remembers that Peter puts on his outer garment at that point and throws himself into the sea to get to Jesus faster.

Why the garment? Respect. He’s already failed Jesus three times and don’t think he’s not hounded by it.

What has Jesus done? He has prepared a fire and already has fish cooking on the beach. Peter is toiling in the water with a heavy garment on trying to get to Jesus as fast as he can while the other disciples labor in the boat to get to land with the load of fish.

Jesus, when he addressed them earlier used the term “padia” (“little infant friends” instead of “teknon” which are generally just children of the family 0f any age), asking them if they had caught anything?

It is a very sweet scene if you look at it from Jesus’ point of view.

When they do haul up on the beach cold, wet, and hungry there is not as much work to do as they thought. The nets from the huge haul of 153 fish are not ripped, and food and fire have been provided. They have only to secure the boats, nets and fish and come, sit and eat.

Is it odd for them? Sure. Peter is still laboring under the burden of guilt from his unconfessed betrayals; the others have cowered in the upper room and not believed in His resurrection. Only the women seemed to have believed and taken action. More than a few of the men have probably wished they had never met Him.

But as they sit there with Jesus eating the cooked fish and He speaks with them, they know He was dead and is now alive. Much of what He previously has said has started to drop…coin by coin… down into them from endless sacks of heavy change, each one changing them slightly inside, altering them forever and not a few of them suspect that the upcoming promise of the Holy Spirit will mean even more of this in ways unimaginable.

Jesus has told them that they are waiting for a significant event in the near future. But in the meantime He has been waiting for them on the beach to be with them. Yes, there is some business with Peter to be done within earshot of the others; it’s family business: feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.

There are the significant actions to be done. But this is also the time to sit and be with Him.

Christ in “The Haunt of Jackals”

The Haunt of Jackals

No.1

Imagine a society where, instead of baking bread for hungry people, they produced mass quantities of pictures of bread and posted ads for them at every corner, and handbills were given out with pictures of different types of bread, hundreds of different types of bread. Pictures of wheat bread, pumpernickel, Jewish rye, banana bread, croissants, sheepherders bread, bread sticks, garlic bread…heck, even melba toast.

Now imagine that these images of bread not only became the dominant mode of exchange (some hoarding these pictures, others spending them as fast as they could get them), but were actually consumed on a daily basis despite the fact that they had no nutritional value whatsoever.

Imagine that, besides the handbills, posters and billboards which depicted the pictures of bread, the evening television news consisted of discussions and international debates over which of these pictures of bread were worth the most, and which were declining in value or had become disreputable as a true picture of bread. Imagine witnessing special interest groups arguing and protesting the advantages and disadvantages of consuming their particular type of bread-pictures. And, of course, in such a world, litigation would be intense over who had the actual rights to each type of bread picture, and there would often be disputes over counterfeit pictures or poor foreign copies had infiltrated the market.

And the entire time that men and women were viewing these billboards, wheat was growing up around the posts. And wherever they stapled posters, streams gurgled by with yeast cultures forming in the shallows and the sun.

What would you make of such a society?

No.2


Hold that thought while we look at another hypothetical situation… (for more go HERE)

Christ the Center: The Names of Christ

The Word spoke the cosmos into being as Agent, redeems it as sole Mediator, and is it’s consummation as Bridegroom. All “naming” –  human’s most profound and special gift, is derivative from the Word in Whom, through Whom and for Whom creation exists and his held together (Colossians chapters 1-2 in their totality).

As such, this One whose name is “above all names” has seeded Himself deeply not only in Creation, but in all the ways we approach it through language and try to understand and appropriate it. This Word (logos) is inherent in the multiplicity of interconnections that exist in Him. Yet, in His wisdom, the Word has come to us in the flesh (John 1 in it’s totality) and has explained the very character and intentions of God toward all Creation.

This God, who has a passion to be known via self-revelation, plants these resonate notes within our beings, then in grace overtly sounds those clear notes via the names that are so evocative of Him.

In the Old Testament,  these names are both deep  and expansive. In the New Testament we find new names given by Jesus to Himself that are even more viceral. Do you need bread? Do you desire wine? Do you need light, Peace, Rescue, Comfort, and/or Truth?

Unlike other great teachers we respect, Jesus presents Himself not just as Messenger but also the incarnate Message.

Know that this God is passionate about revealing Himself to you in Christ. God becoming flesh is the ultimate demonstration in time and space of the love of God. That this One would then die in our place for evil and human brokenness is almost too much to fathom. That this same Word incarnate is then raised tangibly from the dead and promises us the same is a glory and love we can never understand…only respond to and be thankful for.

These are but a few (a short list) that we will explore in the days to come.

Name above all names

The Alpha and the Omega

Author and Perfector of Faith

Wisdom of God

Image of God

Captain of Salvation

Chief Cornerstone

Head of the Church

Bridegroom

Chief Shepherd

The Way

Lord of the Living and the Dead

The Truth

Only Begotten Son

The Life

Light of the World

Sun of Righteousness

Savior of the Body

Sure Foundation

True Vine

True God

Word of Life

Prince of Peace

Bread of Life

Prince of Life

Master

Lord Jesus

Lord of Lords

Lord of Glory

Lord of Righteousness

Lord of the Church

Lord God Almighty

King of Kings

This just scratches the surface.

In an age that would deconstruct such a One (every Christmas season in Newsweek and Time); and a commercialized Christendom that would make The Living One “commemorative”  or part of some formula for personal salvation alone, these potent “names” for the Living One stand outside calling for depth, relationship and new ways of seeing reality and the Love of God.

_____________________

If your church is hungry for in-depth study of, and meditation on Jesus feel free to contact me via email and I’ll get right back with you. Weekly series for exploration are available in the Santa Cruz area. Weekend seminars are available to churches or groups in the Greater San Francisco Bay Area.