AS WE approach another Christmas in this, our materialistic and secular irreligious climate, it maybe that there will still be many, perhaps for the first time, who would wish to understand something of the age-old mystery of the incarnation of Jesus Christ – a foundational and long-established Christian doctrine without which there would be no Christian faith at all.
If so, can a relatively obscure fourth century Egyptian ascetic who came to be a bishop in the church at Alexandria be relevant to us today on this seasonal issue?
I speak of St Athanasius and his small but very readable work on the subject entitled On The Incarnation, possibly the greatest short, succinct treatment of this mystery ever to grace the world of Christian literature. A currently available edition has an introduction by no less than C S Lewis, which itself is high commendation from the pen of one who also devoted his own thoughtful chapter to the subject in his book Mere Christianity.
In my edition, which is superbly translated and edited by St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Lewis comments: ‘This is a good translation of a very great book . . . when I first opened his De Incarnatione I soon discovered by a very simple test that I was reading a masterpiece . . . every page I read confirmed this impression.’
The fact that an English version of this ‘golden treatise’ was once a set book for examination by students says much of its importance and status as a serious contribution to our understanding of what will always remain a mystery – once immortalised by Wesley’s words: ‘Our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man’.
St Athanasius’s epitaph is: ‘Athanasius contra mundum’ – Athanasius against the world – and historically this explains his motive for writing as he was at the forefront of opposing, almost alone, the rise of the early heresy taught by Bishop Arius at about AD 319. Arius taught that Jesus was someone less than God and of the eternal Word of God, ‘once he was not’.
Athanasius understood clearly the nature of this challenge to the person of Christ and that the very existence of the church was at stake in presenting the alternative view faithful to Scripture, probably wrought in many lonely hours of study and thought in some lonely Egyptian desert dwelling.
Relevant today? Undoubtedly. In vivid yet homely words, Athanasius is still able to reach out to us over the centuries and to continue to speak powerfully in his great but simply written work today with many unique insights into the reasons for Christ’s incarnation. Thus:
‘There were two things which the Saviour 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.’
‘At one and the same time – this is the wonder – as Man He was living a human life, and as Word He was sustaining the life of the universe, and as Son he was in constant union with the Father.’
This small, greatly loved Christian classic is a treasure beyond price and one which does not bear a superficial reading and then to be put down, but rather to be the focus of much thought and repeated meditation worthy of the subject.
Very warmly recommended as your best Christmas read, and gift to friends or family.