Seeing as tomorrow I start teaching on the faculty at WTC, I came over all theological today and reread through one of my favourite books, St Athanasius’ On The Incarnation.
I used to read ‘A Christmas Carol’ every Christmas before I was a Christ follower, now this instead is my favourite Christmas book, and it’s a lot older than Dickens’ classic that they say saved Christmas.
A key question we all have to grapple with and especially those of us who are honoured to preach, especially at Christmas or at Easter, is “Why did God – Christ, become human?”
I love that Athanasius used analogies to explain it. I’m always thinking in analogies (it really annoys Zoe! She says ‘No it’s not like this or that – it is what it is!)
But seeing as God had never become human before – he had to use analogies to explain it. And some of the pictures he used to say, ‘this is what is like’ can help you and me. They can explain or show us the reason today when someone has questions about Christmas, about what we call the incarnation and why it happened that God ‘took on flesh’ – what difference it makes that God became a baby at Bethlehem. The infinite infant.
This book is like the very first Alpha course, written to a young man by the name of Macarius (I think he may have played for United a few years back) who had just become a Christian, so now the Bishop is instructing him on the basics of what Christians believe.
Athanasius, the humble man from Egypt who never wanted to be a bishop, starts out by talking, like John’s gospel did, about the Logos, the Word of God, saying that the Word has originally existed without a body but ‘he has been manifested in a human body for this reason only – out of the love and goodness of his Father – for our salvation .’ Love is what it’s all about. And it’s personal – he did it to save us.
If you read any of my free OMG material you’ll find my favourite story from Athanasius about a stolen boat recovered that explains that part really well.
He goes through the story of the Bible, starting with a perfect creation, ending up with people – created too but different to all of the rest of creation in one major way, only people have the image of God. ‘He bestowed a grace which other creatures lacked- namely the impress of his own image, a share in the…being of the very word Himself.’
Then he writes about what Christians have historically called the Fall – we don’t like to hear about this these days, but people had a choice, and chose to rebel!
Why does that matter? Because that is the reason why the Word became flesh. ‘It was our sorry case that caused the Word to come down. Our transgression called out his love for us – so that he made haste to help us and to appear among us. It is we who were the cause of his taking human form and for our salvation that in his great love he was both born and manifested in a human body.’
I just love reading this because it explains our story or ruin, and God’s story of rescue; ‘The human race was in process of destruction….The work of God was being undone. The law of death reigned – and from it there was no escape. What then was God, being good to do? It is impossible that God should leave man to be carried off by corruption – because it would be unfitting and unworthy of himself.’
He describes how we can’t save ourselves – death had gone so deep into humanity that just repenting and trying our best and turning away from sin would never be enough to deal with the problem. We all needed a Saviour – who qualifies? Only One.
‘Who save the Word of God himself, who in the beginning had made all things out of nothing. He alone being Word of the Father and above all, was both able to recreate all and worthy to suffer on behalf of all – and to be an Ambassador for all with the Father.’
If you are reflecting back on Christmas, feeling like another one came and went – and ‘What was it all about?’ Well it wasn’t about presents, grub and booze – and if that’s all it was to you, you missed out big time and no wonder you feel empty right about now.
If you take a moment to ponder you can find the real reason we should celebrate, why Jesus Christ became a human being at Bethlehem bear in mind these words written centuries ago by Athanasius: ‘He saw the corruption that held us all close. He saw how unthinkable it would be for the Law to be repealed before it was fulfilled. He saw how the surpassing wickedness of men was mounting up against them, he saw 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 come to naught, he took to himself a body – a human body even as our own.’
‘…taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, he surrendered his body 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 there might be abolished. ’
I said he used analogies? He talked about a King. Listen to this, ‘…you know how it is when some great King enters a large City and lives in one of its houses because of his dwelling in that single house the whole city is honoured that enemies and robbers cease to molest it.’ (Ever been to Bognor Regis? It’s a pretty ordinary place. But Regis means the King has visited and left something special there – his name!). That’s the first thing the King does – he graces it with his presence so everything changes. But that’s not all this King does, he comes to fight and win! ‘A king who is found in a city… when it was attacked by robbers, avenges it and saves it from destruction.’ So Jesus coming to earth is like a King who comes to fight a battle, against sin and death – and win, by sacrificing himself!
Then he goes on to point out some other reasons for God coming in the flesh. My favourite is where he talks about how an artist restores a portrait. I love this one!
He says people turned so far away from God that as the apostle Paul says in Romans they were worshipping the creature rather than the Creator. ‘Men bowed down by the pleasures of the moment and the frauds and delusions of the evil spirits did not lift up their heads towards the truth.’
The image of God has been distorted in every human being, the portrait has been messed up! What does God do now? Well, ‘you know what happens when the portrait that is painted becomes obliterated and stained. The artist does not throw away the painting – but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again and then the likeness is redrawn on the same material. So it was with the all holy Son of God. He, the image of the Father came and dwelt in our midst in order that he might renew mankind made after himself and seek out his lost sheep as he said in the gospel.’
Get hold of a copy, it’s free to read online here. Let me know what you think. I bet you’ll love next Christmas even more.