By Fr. Paul Rivard
If St. Athanasius (296-373 AD) is known for one thing above all else, it is that he stood for Christian orthodoxy contra mundum, against the world. When the time came to show resolve, he set his face as a flint against the onslaught of heresy that began to overtake the fourth-century Church, and for this he was maligned and exiled repeatedly. His stand was finally vindicated by council upon council of the Church in the decades and centuries following his death, and a creed was even titled with his name as a monument to his clear vision of the Holy Trinity. But during his life, what would he be willing to set aside personal honor and praise in order to preserve? What would he face persecution and exile for rather than compromise? St. Athanasius refused to water down, minimize, or step around the most breathtaking paradox of the Catholic faith; the incarnation of the Son of God. Jesus Christ is both God and man. He grasped at an early age that the doctrine of the incarnation is worth standing up for, even alone and “against the world” if need be. He saw that our salvation in Christ depends above all upon who it was that grew in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Everything depends upon the paradox of who Jesus Christ is.
The Setting of On the Incarnation
About thirteen years before Saint Athanasius’s birth, a holy man named Antony took to the desert of Egypt to lead a monastic life of prayer and take his own stand against the world. Many followed the monastic example of Saint Antony by living their own lives of ascetic renunciation, devotion, and prayer in the desert. Indeed, Athanasius himself became St. Antony’s assistant for a time. This introduction of serious and organized ascesis into the spirituality of St. Athanasius was timely for him as a young man because an era of the most severe and systematic persecution of the Christian Church formed the setting of his boyhood. Young St. Athanasius learned the discipline of the desert during the hardship of emperor Diocletian’s bloody reign. It was in those fires of persecution that St. Antony’s ascesis hardened his resolve and made his vision clear. Hardship would never shake him from what the Church taught him in his youth about the victory of the incarnate Son of God. Indeed, it was there that the young man’s tolerance for hardship was forged.
Only five years after the Edict of Milan (313 AD) declared an end to the government’s opposition to Christianity, heresy began to flourish under the persistence of a priest and scholar named Arius (256-336 AD). In 318 the Church traded attacks from without for attacks from within as Arius began to publicly insist that the paradox of the incarnation should be resolved by removing full divinity from the Word of God. The heresy, that there “was a time when the Word was not,” seemed reasonable to so much of the Church that by the time Constantine became emperor over both the Eastern and the Western branches of the Roman Empire, the Church was forced to face her most serious divide to date. The first Ecumenical council was called in 325 at Nicea to resolve the matter - the truth of the incarnation. As a young deacon in attendance at Nicea, along with the cohort from Alexandria, Saint Athanasius proved very useful for the triumph of orthodoxy. Indeed, when it came to the incarnation, he had already written the handbook on the subject.
On the Incarnation is thought to have been written by Saint Athanasius as a teenager sometime just before or after the Edict of Milan in 313 and long before the emergence of Arianism in 318. An early date is supposed because nowhere in these concise and powerful chapters does Saint Athanasius mention Arius or defend orthodoxy as if against attack. While he does mention persecution, the Christian faith is presented in those pages through positive propositions by a brilliant, serious, and devout young Christian man. In his words there is not yet the sense of what came to define St. Athanaius’s later life, the urgent need to protect this doctrine of the incarnation against attack, even if alone and against the whole world.
The Divine Dilemma
Athanasius carries the discussion of On the Incarnation through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, for the significance of those later events cannot be divorced from the right understanding of his nativity. For the purposes of this article, drawing out insight into Christ’s first advent, one sees that Athanasius begins by pondering the rationale of God’s intervention. Athanasius begins with a consideration of what he calls the “divine dilemma.”
At the heart of the divine dilemma is the seemingly irresolvable problem of the fall of God’s perfect creation. On the one hand, the Great “I Am” made the whole universe out of nothing and formed humankind as the pinnacle of that creation. Humankind was to bear His image and likeness as little “I am’s,” having been granted the supreme responsibility of personal freedom. As free agents, those first people were capable of cultivating the best fruit of the garden of Eden - an unhindered and truly reciprocated love with God. Instead, humankind used that freedom to rebel against God. God’s most exalted creatures partook of the fruit of separation from the Source of all being.
The effect was quite logical. Athanasius wrote,
“For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into existence out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again” (On the Incarnation, 1.4).
Later in that same passage the vastness of this fall is pointed out by the saint in a quotation from Psalm 82:6-7, “I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High. But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.” Theosis, our mystical union with God, was ruined.
The first side of the divine dilemma is that “monstrous” idea that
“man, who was created in God’s image and in His possession of reason reflected the very Word Himself, was disappearing, and the work of God was being undone” (Ibid, 2.6).
It was utterly unfitting that beings so exalted by their creation in the image and likeness of God, “should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption” (Ibid.).
On the other hand, the second side of the dilemma was equally as grave. It was impossible for God to ignore, erase, or overlook the fall, for God had promised to Adam and Eve that the result of disobedience was death. As it would be unfitting for the Great “I Am” to create something that failed “to be,” so it would be equally monstrous for God to
“go back upon His word and that man, having transgressed, should not die” for God “could not falsify Himself” (2.6,7).
St. Athanasius circles back over the problem to search for a way out, rhetorically asking if perhaps repentance alone could repair the damage. But alas,
“had it been a case of trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough; but when once transgression had begun men came under the power of the corruption proper to their nature and were bereft of the grace which belonged to them as creatures in the Image of God” (2.7).
In short, the divine dilemma posed two impossible options: either the destruction of humankind or the repeal of God’s law. Roiling, as if with sympathy for God’s predicament, Athanasius asked, “What, or rather Who, was it that was needed for such grace and such recall as we required?” (2.7).
The King and His Portrait
When speaking of the fall, Athanasius recognized one element that ironically worked towards our benefit - the solidarity of humanity. He saw how when one fell, all fell. There could be no room for the thought that individuals were responsible for their sin alone, or that each new child begins afresh with the hopes of leading an un-fallen life. Instead, human nature is one, and since the consequence of our sin is death, the sentence is death for all. But it is here, by means of this devastating circumstance, that God would break the divine dilemma. The impossible bonds of that divine dilemma would be broken by the astonishing incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity, in solidarity with all humanity.
To illustrate the “solidarity” of humanity, Athanasius likened the incarnation of the Son to the arrival of a king.
“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 it is 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” (2.9).
It is by the solidarity of humanity that the first Adam could sin alone and yet introduce death to all. But it is also by the solidarity of humanity that the second Adam could recreate humanity in Himself and provide salvation for all who were on their “way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again.” People could again cooperate with God, now using their freedom to participate in Christ, reclaiming full and complete stature in Him.
The effect of the incarnation of God is not only like that of a king coming to inhabit his kingdom. Athanasius says that it is also like a portrait painter coming to restore a faded image.
“You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material. Even so was it with the All-holy Son of God” (3.14).
Jesus Christ, the Son of God came to sit for the portrait again to re-establish the image and likeness of God in human nature. The material upon which it was drawn was our very humanity.
Athanasius had once asked “who” was needed for the grace that we required in such a work of reclaiming humanity. Indeed the answer is none other than
“the Word of God Himself, Who also in the beginning had made all things out of nothing …. For He alone, being Word of the Father and above all, was in consequence both able to recreate all, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be an ambassador for all with the Father” (2.7).
Pure rationalists and heretics alike flee the Christian faith when pressed to consider the full import of that manger scene in Bethlehem. An infant lay in a manger - an infant whose person simultaneously held together all heaven and earth. The wise men were guided to the presence of Christ by astrological phenomena that the infant himself had orchestrated. They were right to bring gifts fit for royalty, but had they known in whose presence they knelt they may never have arisen to go back on their way.
It was upon the seemingly ever-expanding magnitude of this foundational claim about the incarnation that the immovable Athanasius focused his resolve. Rather than fall to the ground in blindness at the light of Christ, as did Saint Paul on the road to Damascus, Arius simply tucked his tail and ran away. Sadly, it was away from this light that much of the Church would also flee during the life of Saint Athanasius.
Christians must never go silent when conversation turns to the paradox of Almighty God holding the universe together as he lay in that manger. Yes, it is a good thing for this season to be filled with reminiscing over the parish Christmas play with costumed young people depicting the scene of that first advent of Christ and all the humility, providence, and familial warmth that makes this a favorite holiday. But fond memories aside, it must never be missed that the incarnation of our Lord in Bethlehem of Judea was in reality a most breathtakingly astonishing intervention of God into the fate of humanity without which there is no Christian faith. It was there that the solution to the divine dilemma lay. It was there that the kingdom of God broke through by the arrival of the king. It was in Him that the portrait of humanity was restored. It was about this incarnate Lord that the Bible would issue its final statement: “And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new” (Rev. 21:5).
Athanasius was prepared for the austerity of exile by the monastic discipline of St. Antony. He was readied for opposition by the tempering fires of persecution under Diocletian. Athanasius would unflinchingly cling to the orthodox doctrine of the incarnation knowing that his eternal life depended on it. Now, the whole Church must follow his example. Even if we have to stand alone and against the whole world, let us admit with Saint Athanasius,
“The marvelous truth is, that being the Word, so far from being Himself contained by anything, He actually contained all things Himself. In creation He is present everywhere, yet is distinct in being from it; ordering, directing, giving life to all, containing all, yet it is He Himself the Uncontained, existing solely in His Father. As with the whole, so also is it with the part. Existing in a human body, to which He Himself gives life, He is still Source of life to all the universe, present in every part of it, yet outside the whole; and He is revealed both through the works of His body and through His activity in the world” (3.17).
[All citations from: St Athanasius. On the Incarnation. St. Vladmir’s Seminary Press, 1993.]
Fr. Paul Rivard is Rector of St. George the Martyr Anglican Church in Greenville, SC.