I am celebrating Christmas today by reading the Christian classic “On the Incarnation of the Word”, written sometime before 319 by Athanasius of Alexandria. I was planning on reading the entire thing (it’s short), but at halfway I’m having to stop and digest some, because I’ve already highlighted about a third of the text. It is not difficult reading, and I thoroughly recommend it. At the very least, you should read C.S. Lewis’ sharp and insightful introduction to the text. Both the Lewis intro and full text can be found here. For free! Party.
I find the power of Athanasius’ words magnified by their antiquity. These are truths that Christians have always believed, and that we still believe. I want to quickly summarize what Athanasius said about what the Incarnation was, and why the Incarnation had to happen.
What is the Incarnation?
We can quickly define it as God being born a man, but Athanasius unpacks this dense truth in a soul-stirring way.
“Invisible in Himself, He is known from the works of creation; so also, when His Godhead is veiled in human nature, His bodily acts still declare Him to be not man only, but the Power and Word of God… The healing of the man born blind, for instance, who but the Father and Artificer of man, the Controller of his whole being, could thus have restored the faculty denied at birth? He Who did thus must surely be Himself the Lord of birth. This is proved also at the outset of His becoming Man. He formed His own body from the virgin; and that is no small proof of His Godhead, since He Who made that (His own body) was the Maker of all else. And would not anyone infer from the fact of that body being begotten of a virgin only, without human father, that He Who appeared in it was also the Maker and Lord of all beside?”
So the baby born at the Incarnation was not just a god, but the very Maker of all things and the Father and Artificer of man. But why would the eternal creator form himself into his own creation? Athanasius gives us 2 reasons.
Why did the Incarnation happen?
1. For God’s self-revelation.
“The Savior of us all, the Word of God, in His great love took to Himself a body and moved as Man among men, meeting their senses, so to speak, half way. He became Himself an object for the senses, so that those who were seeking God in sensible things might apprehend the Father through the works which He, the Word of God, did in the body. Human and human minded as men were, therefore, to whichever side they looked in the sensible world they found themselves taught the truth.”
Of course, this could not be the only reason that God became man. Gods will was not “merely to become embodied or merely to appear; had that been so, He could have revealed His divine majesty in some other and better way.” No, the primary reason was the surely second.
2. To make us alive through his death.
I love this rich, awesome quote:
“He, the Mighty One, the Artificer 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. Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection. Thus He would make death to disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire.”
“The Word perceived that corruption could not be got rid of otherwise than through death; yet He as the Word, being immortal and the Father’s Son, was such as could not die. For this reason, therefore, He assumed a body capable of death, in order that it, through belonging to the Word Who is above all, might become in dying a sufficient exchange for all, and, itself remaining incorruptible through His indwelling, might thereafter put an end to corruption for all others as well, by the grace of the resurrection.”