St. Athanasius was born in Alexandria, Egypt, toward the close of the third century and came to maturity in an age when the church was severely threatened by political turmoil and religious controversy. In the midst of heated doctrinal disputes among bishops, and rivalry and intrigue among courtiers, Athanasius stood apart as a man of deep faith and passionate commitment to Christ.
A “Believing Soul”
Athanasius was raised by Christian parents and studied at Alexandria’s catechetical schools where he earned great respect for his theological abilities. He was ordained a deacon in his early twenties and appointed secretary to Patriarch Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria. It was around this time, while he was still quite young, that Athanasius wrote a brief treatise that would become one of the great classics of Christian literature—The Incarnation of the Word of God.
Writing with awe at God’s mercy and with the gratitude “of a believing soul in need of a Savior,” Athanasius explained the redemptive work that Jesus accomplished through his incarnation. He taught that it was expressly through taking on human flesh that Jesus redeemed fallen humanity and restored sinful men and women to the image of God in which they had originally been created.
Concisely yet ardently summarizing the heart of Christian truth, Athanasius wrote:
There were thus two things the Savior did for us by becoming Man. He banished death from us and made us anew; and invisible and imperceptible as in himself he is, he became visible through his works and revealed himself as the Word of the Father, the Ruler and King of the whole creation.
Battling the Arians
Shortly after Athanasius wrote his treatise, a theologian named Arius began teaching that Jesus wasn’t fully God, just the highest of created beings. Athanasius saw the error and danger in such teaching and spent the rest of his life as the “Champion of the Incarnation,” defending the Godhead of the Word about whom he had so lovingly written.
In 325, Athanasius accompanied Patriarch Alexander to the Council of Nicea. The council, presided over by the Emperor Constantine, condemned Arianism, but the Arians were strongly represented in the imperial court and continued to wield powerful political influence. Upon Patriarch Alexander’s death in 328, Athanasius succeeded him as bishop and showed himself to be a wise pastor as well as a gifted theologian.
Throughout his forty-five years as bishop, Athanasius was the target of bitter attacks by Arians and suffered exile five times. He spent a total of sixteen years in banishment, repeatedly deposed and reinstated as power shifted both in the church and at court. By the time Athanasius died in 373, however, Arianism had been weakened by internal divisions and no longer posed a major threat to the church.
Athanasius against the World
Athanasius’ defense of the gospel earned him the epitaph Athanasius contra mundum—Athanasius against the world. As the twentieth-century Christian apologist C. S. Lewis wrote, “It is Athanasius’ glory that he did not move with the times; it is his reward that he now remains when those times, as all times do, have moved away.”
Two selections from Athanasius’ masterpiece, The Incarnation of the Word of God, follow below. They have been especially chosen to help us this Advent prepare to celebrate the Word made flesh, Christ incarnate in our midst. Both excerpts affirm that Jesus generously, and necessarily, took on a human body like our own to restore us from our fallen state to the image of God. As you read Athanasius’ words, ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to you “the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior” who “saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy” (Titus 3:4-5).
He Took Our Death
This is why the incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world. . . . He saw a race of rational creatures on the way to death. He saw death reigning over them through corruption. He saw that the penalty for sin was holding us fast to corruption. He saw that it was monstrous that the law would fail before it came to fulfillment. He saw how unthinkable it was that the very things that he himself had fashioned should disappear. He saw, further, the exceeding wickedness of men, and how they had gradually increased their wickedness to an intolerable pitch against themselves. He saw, finally, how all men were under penalty of death.
He saw all this and took pity on our race and had mercy on our weak- ness. He could not bear the thought that death should have mastery over us. So, lest the creature should perish, and his Father’s handiwork be spent for nothing, he took upon himself a body no different from ours. He did not simply decide to become embodied, or merely to appear. . . . No, he took a body just like ours . . . from a spotless and stainless virgin. He, the Creator of everything, prepared his own body in the virgin as a temple for himself, and made it his very own. . . .
Thus, . . . because all were under penalty of the corruption of death, he gave his body over to death in our place, and offered it to the Father. He did this out of his loving-kindness so that, first, because all have died in him, the law concerning the ruin of men might be undone . . . and, secondly, while men had turned toward corruption, he might turn them again toward incorruption, and raise them from death by his coming in the flesh and by the grace of his resurrection. Thus he banished death from us as completely as straw is consumed by fire.
The Word Became Flesh
Although he is invisible, the Word of God can be known through the works of creation. Similarly, although his divinity cannot be seen in his bodily form, it can be seen that the one who can perform such marvelous acts is not merely man, but the Power and Word of God. He commanded demons and drove them out; this cannot come from man, but from God. Likewise, could anyone who saw him heal the diseases to which we are all prone, still consider him man and not God? He cleansed lepers, made the lame walk, opened the hearing of the deaf, made the blind see again, and with one word drove away all diseases and infirmities. Even the most ordinary observer could see Jesus’ divinity through these acts.
What person who saw him . . . open the eyes of a man blind from his birth could fail to perceive that the nature of men was subject to him and that he was its Maker? For surely it is clear that anyone who can give back to a man something that he was lacking from birth must be the Lord of men’s natural birth. . . . Or what person, seeing the water changed into wine, could fail to perceive that the one who did this is Lord and Creator of the waters? It was for this same reason that he walked upon the sea as its Master, just as he walked on dry land, to show those who saw it that he is Lord over all things. And in feeding a vast multitude on very little, bringing forth abundance where none was, so that from five loaves five thousand had enough . . . did he show himself to be any other than the very Lord whose providence is over all things?
All these things the Savior thought fit to do, so that, recognizing his bodily acts as works of God, men who were blind to his presence in creation might regain knowledge of the Father. . . . For what person who saw his power over evil spirits . . . could continue to doubt that he is the Son and Wisdom and Power of God? He even made creation break its silence: At his death—or rather at the cross, which was his trophy over death—all creation confessed that he . . . was not just a man, but the Son of God and Savior of all. The sun hid its face, the earth quaked, the rocks split, and all men were awed. All these things showed that Christ on the cross was God and that all creation was his slave and was witnessing by its fear to the presence of its Master.
(Excerpts are adapted from On the Incarnation of the Word, translated by John Henry Newman, 1801-1890).