American Orthodox Catholic Christianity

Faith Of Our Fathers Series


St. Athanasius the Great: On the Incarnation


Commemorated January 18 and May 2 

    St. Athanasius was born in Egypt of wealthy Christian parents who provided well for his education. He was barely 20 when he addressed to a recent convert two treatises-Against the Heathen and On the Incarnation-benefitting generations of Christians with their concise exposition of the Orthodox Faith.

    As a deacon Athanasius accompanied Patriarch Alexander to the First Ecumenical Council where he was recognized as an eloquent and impassioned champion of the Faith against the Arian heresy. Elected Patriarch of Alexandria in 328, Athanasius spent the rest of his life combatting this heresy, for which cause he was viciously persecuted and exiled several times. As a young man he had formed close ties with the monks of the Thebaid (he wrote a Life of St. Anthony, who was his spiritual mentor), and here he found strength in his trials. The Lord granted him a few years of peace with his devoted flock before calling him to his heavenly homeland in 373. 

(On the Incarnation: extracts)

       It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil; and it was supremely unfitting that the work of God in mankind should disappear, either through their own negligence or through the deceit of evil spirits. As, then, the creatures whom He had created reasonable, like the Word, were in fact perishing, and such noble works were on the road to ruin, what then, was God, being God, to do? Was He to let corruption and death have their way with them? In that case, what was the use of having made them in the beginning? Surely it would have been better never to have been created at all than, having been created, to be neglected and perish; and, besides that, such indifference to the ruin of His own work before His very eyes would argue not goodness in God but limitation, and that far more than if He had never created men at all....Was He to demand repentance from men for their transgression? You might say that that was worthy of God, and argue further that, as through the Transgression they became subject to corruption, so through repentance they might return to incorruption again. But repentance would not guard the Divine consistency, for, if death did not hold dominion over men, God would still remain untrue. Nor does repentance recall men from what is according to their nature; all that it does is to make them cease from sinning. Had it been a case of a 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. No, repentance could not meet the case. What--or rather Who was it that was needed for such grace and such recall as we required? Who, save the Word of God Himself, Who also in the beginning had made all things out of nothing? His part it was, and His alone, both to bring again the corruptible to incorruption and to maintain for the Father His consistency of character with all. 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. 

      For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world. In one sense, indeed, He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are, But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us. He saw the reasonable race, the race of men that, like Himself, expressed the Father's Mind, wasting out of existence, and death reigning over all in corruption. He saw that corruption held us all the closer, because it was the penalty for the Transgression; He saw, too, how unthinkable it would be for the law to be repealed before it was fulfilled He saw how unseemly it was that the very things of which He Himself was the Artificer should be disappearing. He saw how the surpassing wickedness of men was mounting up against them; He saw also their universal liability to death. All this He saw and, pitying our race, moved with compassion for our limitation, unable to endure that death should have the mastery, rather than that His creatures should perish and the work of His Father for us men come to nought, He took to Himself a body, a human body even as our own. Nor did He will merely to become embodied or merely to appear; had that been so, He could have revealed His divine majesty 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 human father--a pure body, untainted by intercourse with man. 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 in place 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, when He had 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.

      ...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... For the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word's indwelling in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has Io, t its power over all. 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 h use, the whole city is honored, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so is it with the King of ail; 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 Saviour of all, the Son of God, come among us to put an end to death.

(St. Athanasius, On the Incarbation, SVS Press, 56pgs.)


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