On Christian-year spirituality

Robert E. Webber, arguably more than any other individual, was “instrumental in the awakening of American evangelicals to their ancient Christian heritage. Today, one can witness the use of ancient liturgical practices by many evangelical churches across a remarkable spectrum of denominations. Webber’s broader ancient-future orientation has been adopted by many younger evangelicals and churches. And a steady stream of evangelicals continue to follow Webber on the road to Canterbury and the Anglican tradition” (The Robert E. Webber Center for an Ancient Evangelical Future).

Having read his landmark book, Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World, I am now motivated to read another title in his “Ancient-Future Series” by Baker Books: Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality through the Christian Year. Besides the Book of Common Prayer and its ordering of worship, nothing has given more style, shape, and substance to my faith than practicing “Christian-year spirituality,” which is alternatively called the “liturgical year” or “church year.”

What is the Christian year? Webber defines it as “A discipline of personal and corporate worship through which we are formed into Christlikeness. We intentionally enter into Christ by living in the pattern of his saving deeds and anticipating his rule over all creation” (33). More simply, he defines it as “life lived in the pattern of death and resurrection with Christ” (21). Webber writes:

This spiritual tradition was developed in the early church and has been passed down in history through the worship of the church. It enjoys biblical sanction, historical staying power, and contemporary relevance. Through Christian-year spirituality we are enabled to experience the biblical mandate of conforming to Christ. The Christian year orders our formation with Christ incarnate in his ministry, death, burial, resurrection, and coming again through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, and Pentecost. In Christian-year spirituality we are spiritually formed by recalling and entering into his great saving events (21-22).

Webber reminds us that Christian-year spirituality is a means to the end of union with Christ, “If we see the Christian year as an instrument through which we may be shaped by God’s saving events in Christ, then it is not the Christian year that accomplishes our spiritual pilgrimage but Christ himself who is the very content and meaning of the Christian year” (24). Put differently, “Without Christ there could be no Christian time.”

Here are some salient passages in my reading so far.

On Christian-year spirituality 

The very heartbeat of time, the source of meaning and power for the cycle of all time, derives from and returns to the death and resurrection of Christ in which God was uniquely active reconciling us to himself (2 Cor. 5:18). It is Christ in his saving event who is the source, the summit, and the very substance of both objective and subjective spirituality (24).

Christian-year spirituality is nothing less than the calling to enter by faith into the incarnation, the life and ministry, the death and resurrection of Jesus. God’s saving action is not only presented to us through the practice of the Christian year, it also takes up residence within us and transforms us by the saving and healing presence of Christ in our lives. As we enter the saving events of Jesus and especially the paschal mystery in faith, Christ shapes us by the pattern of his own living and dying so that our living and dying in this world is a living and dying in him (26).

How can we as members of the church participate in a present spirituality that is rooted in past events and anticipates a future event? The answer to this question is that we are shaped and formed spiritually by Christ in the church through a worship that continually orders the pattern of our spirituality into a remembrance of God’s saving deeds and the anticipation of the rule of God over all creation (27).

“The Christian year is the Word proclaimed and enacted” (28).

On the cycles of light and life

The emphasis of the cycle of life is on the incarnation, whereas the central motif of the cycle of life is the death and resurrection. However, there is fundamental unity between these cycles. Both have to do with the paschal mystery and the salvation of the world. One dwells on the incarnation while the other enters into the death and resurrection. One accents God coming among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth; the other recalls the purpose for which he came – the self-giving sacrifice of his life to free the world from the domain of Satan and thus secure forgiveness and healing for the peoples of the world. Consequently, as we reflect on both the cycles of light and life, we are drawn into the inescapable fact of how the birth and death of Jesus are of a single piece, a garment that cannot be rent into two without doing violence to the Christian message.

There is also another way the cycles of light and life are brought together; both follow the pattern of expectation, fulfillment, and proclamation. Advent is expectation, Christmas is fulfillment, and Epiphany is proclamation; Lent is expectation, Easter is fulfillment, and Pentecost is proclamation. Thus there is a historical progression into both Christmas and Easter as well as spiritual procession from each. When we recall and relive the experience of God’s people who pilgrimage into and out of the incarnation or into and out of the death and resurrection, we mark our own spirituality with expectation and fulfillment (95).

On the special nature of Sunday

“Sunday . . . is the foundation and kernel of the whole liturgical year” (30).

Historically Sunday is the day of God’s re-creation, the day that promises that God will renew the face of the earth. Historically Sunday worship expresses three truths: It remembers God’s saving action in history; it experiences God’s renewing presence; and it anticipates the consummation of God’s work in the new heavens and the new earth (169).

For the individual (as opposed to corporate) dimension of Christian-year spirituality, a devotional work can help walk you through the current season. Here are some recommendations:

Cycle of Light: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany

  • Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Plough Publishing House)
  • Sarah Arthur (ed.), Light Upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany
  • N. T. Wright, Advent for Everyone (A Journey Through Matthew; A Journey with the Apostles; Luke)
  • Rowan Williams, Choose Life: Christmas and Easter Sermons in Canterbury Cathedral 
  • Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God Is In the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas
  • Edwin H. Robertson (ed.), Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons
  • Walter Brueggemann, Names for the Messiah: An Advent Study

Cycle of Life: Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost, and Ordinary Time

  • Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter (Plough Publishing House)
  • Sarah Arthur (ed.), Between Midnight and Dawn: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Lent, Holy Week, and Eastertide
  • Sarah Arthur (ed.), At the Still Point: A Literary Guide to Prayer in Ordinary Time
  • N. T. Wright, Lent for Everyone (Matthew Year A, Mark Year B, Luke Year C); The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion
  • Rowan Williams, Meeting God in Paul: Reflections for the Season of Lent; Meeting God in Mark: Reflections on the Season of LentThe Sign and the Sacrifice: The Meaning of the Cross and ResurrectionChoose Life: Christmas and Easter Sermons in Canterbury CathedralChrist on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgment; Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel
  • Augustine, Sermons for Christmas and Epiphany; Sermons to the People: Advent, Christmas, New Year’s, Epiphany
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God Is On the Cross: Reflections on Lent and Easter
  • Stanley Hauerwas, Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Seven Last Words
  • Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus ChristThe Seven Last Words from the Cross
  • Walter Brueggemann, A Way Other Than Our Own: Devotions for Lent

“You are my Beloved”


El Greco, “The Baptism of Christ”

For 20th century Christian writing, Henri J. M. Nouwen is to spirituality what C. S. Lewis is to apologetics. I recently completed my first book by NouwenA secular Jewish friend of the Catholic priest made a request, “Say something about the Spirit that my secular friends and I can hear.” The result is Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular Age. 

Taking his cue from the baptism of Jesus, when the Spirit descends, like a dove, and a paternal voice from heaven declares, “You are my Son, the Beloved; my favor rests on you” (Matt. 3:16-17; Mark 1:10-11; Luke 3:21-22), Nouwen makes a surprising move by arguing that this vertical communication between the Father and Son is also a horizontal communication between the Son and humanity. What is “the most intimate truth about all human beings”? We are God’s Beloved.

These words do not “reverberate in every corner of [our] being” because we fall into “the trap of self-rejection.” Our dark side says, “I am no good  . . . I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned.” The heavenly voice cannot be heard when worldly voices drown it out, saying: “Prove that you are worth something; do something relevant, spectacular, or powerful, and then you will earn the love you so desire.” We have trouble imagining ourselves adopted into the family of God. Therefore, Nouwen says the greatest challenge is to claim our Belovedness as “the core truth of our existence.”

Here is my favorite excerpt:

Aren’t you, like me, hoping that some person, thing, or event will come along to give you that final feeling of inner well-being you desire? Don’t you often hope: “May this book, idea, course, trip, job, country, or relationship fulfill my deepest desire.” But as long as you are waiting for that mysterious moment you will go on running helter-skelter, always anxious and restless, always lustful and angry, never fully satisfied. You know that this is the compulsiveness that keeps us going and busy, but at the same time makes us wonder whether are getting anywhere in the long run. This is the way to spiritual exhaustion and burn-out. This is the way to spiritual death.

Well, you and I don’t have to kill ourselves. We are the Beloved. We are intimately loved long before our parents, teachers, spouses, children, and friends loved or wounded us. That’s the truth of our lives. That’s the truth I want you to claim for yourself. That’s the truth spoken by the voice that says, “You are my Beloved.”

Listening to that voice with great inner attentiveness, I hear at my center words that say: “I have called you by name, from the very beginning. You are mine and I am yours. You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests. I have molded you in the depths of the earth and knitted you together in your mother’s womb. I have carved you in the palms of my hands and hidden you in the shadow of my embrace. I look at you with infinite tenderness and care for you with a care more intimate than that of a mother for her child. I have counted every hair on your head and guided you at every step. Wherever you go, I go with you, and wherever you rest, I keep watch. I will give you food that will satisfy all your hunger and drink that will quench all your thirst. I will not hide my face from you. You know me as your own as I know you as my own. You belong to me. I am your father, your mother, your brother, your sister, your lover, and your spouse . . . yes, even your child . . . wherever you are I will be. Nothing will ever separate us. We are one.”

Nouwen’s book deepens a longing to “hear these words as spoken to [me] with all the tenderness and force that love can hold.” Of course, these words are not new. St. Paul wrote to the Church in Rome with the confidence of our baptized status as God’s Beloved: “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39).

Come Ye Sinners

Today in church we sang a beautiful hymn, “Come Ye Sinners,” by Joseph Hart, an 18th century Calvinist minister in London. The hymn takes its inspiration from Matthew 11:28-30. Here is a live recording of the hymn by Norton Hall Band.

Below is my favorite verse and the refrain:

Come, ye weary, heavy-laden,
Lost and ruined by the fall;
If you tarry till you’re better,
You will never come at all.

I will arise and go to Jesus,
He will embrace me in His arms;
In the arms of my dear Savior,
Oh, there are ten thousand charms.

The “once for all” sacrifice of Jesus Christ

In his book, On the Thirty-Nine Articles: Conversations with Tudor Christianity, Anglican theologian Oliver O’Donovan writes about how the English Reformers, against the medieval idea of “repeated sacrifice in the Eucharist,” insist upon the “once for all” sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross:

There before Pontius Pilate was that new mankind, there and nowhere else. No choice of ours can enhance or detract from the universality of that figure; no subsequent refusal can turn the future of redemption into another course. The question that is asked of us in our time is not: shall all mankind, then, be saved in Christ? — for that question has been answered by him in his time and does not need the living of our lives to answer it further. The question is this: shall we ourselves be saved with all mankind in Christ? For if we refuse and are lost, we have carried away no part of mankind with us to perdition, we have recorded no dissenting votes. Our time is of itself nothing, and represents nothing; but between the living of our lives and that eclipse of our time into nothingness, God has set his time, the day of Jesus’s resurrection. 

To return, then, to the cardinal assertion of Article 31: there is no other grace available to mankind than the offering once made. History cannot generate any other, not by building upon it, by repeating it, thereby denying it its sovereignty over history and absorbing it into cyclical patterns out of which our time is spun. . . . . Our salvation is wrought for us in the death and resurrection of a first-century man — not strung out week by week in ritual representation through history, which is to make God the prisoner of time rather than its master. 


The sacraments, then, mediate to us in our time the decisive redemption of mankind by Christ in his. He is present to us — of course! for how else could we be part of his representative humanity? But this does not come about by his being imprisoned in the necessities — cyclical or progressive — of our time, but rather by our liberation to be united with him in his. The sacrament represents that first-century event to us, and binds us into the reality of that first-century event. “I am crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2.20). 

The mockery of Greeks

After his exposition of the incarnate God, Athanasius refutes “the unbelief of the Jews” from their own scriptures (33-40) and “the mockery of the Greeks” (or Gentiles) from the evident facts of creation and the effects of Christ’s work (41-55).

Refutation of the Gentiles

If the Greeks were “friends of the truth,” Athanasius says, they would see the reasonableness of divine embodiment, but they remain willingly blind. I chose this passage because it contains the most renowned statement in the theological treatise, “For he was incarnate that we might be made god,” which is sometimes translated, “God became man so that man might become god.”

Therefore, just as if someone wishes to see God, who is invisible by nature and not seen at all, understands and knows him from his works, so let one who does not see Christ with his mind learn of him from the works of his body, and test whether they be human or of God. And if they be human, let him mock; but if they are known to be not human, but of God, let him not laugh at things that should not be mocked, but let him rather marvel that through such a paltry thing things divine have been manifested to us, and that through death incorruptibility has come to call, and through the incarnation of the Word the universal providence, and its giver and creator, the very Word of God, have been made known. For he was incarnate that we might be made god; and he manifested himself through a body that we might receive an idea of the invisible Father; and he endured the insults of human beings, that we might inherit incorruptibility. He himself was harmed in no way, being impassible and incorruptible and the very Word and God; but he held and preserved in his own impassibility the suffering human beings, on whose account he endured these things. And, in short, the achievements of the Savior, effected by his incarnation, are of such a kind and number that if anyone should wish to expound them all he would be like those who gaze at the expanse of the sea and wish to count its waves. For as one cannot take in all the waves with one’s eyes, since those coming on elude the perception of one who tries, so also one who would comprehend all the achievements of Christ in the body is unable to take in the whole, even by reckoning them up, for those that elude his thought are more than he thinks he has grasped. Therefore it is better not to seek to speak of the whole, of which one cannot even speak of a part, but rather to recall one thing, and leave the whole for you to marvel at. For all are equally marvelous, and wherever one looks, seeing there the divinity of the Word, one is struck with exceeding awe (p. 107). 

Particular Question: What does Athanasius mean when he says, “For he was incarnate that we might be made god”? Following this idea, the Eastern church uses the term deification (or theosis) to describe the transformative process of becoming a little Christ. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis puts it this way: “It is a living Man, still as much a man as you, and still as much God as He was when He created the world, really coming and interfering with your very self; killing the old natural self in you and replacing it with the kind of self He has. At first, only for moments. Then for longer periods. Finally, if all goes well, turning you permanently into a different sort of thing; into a little Christ, a being which, in its own small way, has the same kind of life as God; which shares in His power, joy, knowledge, and eternity.” By contrast, the Western church uses the term sanctification to describe this same process. Since word choices matter, is deification a preferable term to sanctification?

Universal Question: According to Athanasius, man will either mock the incarnation of the Word or marvel at it. We live in an age of mockery, and Christians are not immune from this posture. How does Athanasius’ analogy (highlighted above) instruct us to develop “exceeding awe”?

The unbelief of the Jews

After his exposition of the incarnate God, Athanasius refutes “the unbelief of the Jews” from their own scriptures (33-40) and “the mockery of the Greeks” (or Gentiles) from the evident facts of creation and the effects of Christ’s work (41-55).

Refutation of the Jews

Athanasius argues that God’s own people, the Jews, were “shameless before plain facts” that show the embodiment of God in the person of Jesus Christ, thus fulfilling the Hebrew scriptures. I chose this passage because it explains why the Jews do not recognize Jesus as the Messiah.

If the Gentiles are honoring the God who gave the law to Moses and the promise to Abraham, and whose Word the Jews dishonored, why do they not know, or rather why do they willingly ignore, that the Lord who has prophesied by the scriptures has illumined the inhabited world and has been made manifest bodily to it, just as the scripture says, “The Lord God has appeared to us” (Ps 117:27), and again, “He sent his Word and healed them” (Ps 106:20), and again, “Not a messenger, nor an angel, but the Lord himself has saved them” (Isa 11:9). They are suffering like one, maimed in mind, who might see the earth illumined by the sun, but denies the sun which illumines it. For what more has he who is expected by them to do when he comes? Call the Gentiles? But they have already been called. To make prophet and king and vision to cease? This has already happened. To refute the godlessness of idols. It has already been refuted and condemned. To destroy death? It is already destroyed. What then must Christ do, which has not been done? Or what is left unfulfilled, that the Jews now rejoice and disbelieve. For if, as we thus see, they have neither king, nor prophet, nor Jerusalem, nor sacrifice, nor vision, but the whole world is filled with the knowledge of God, and those from the Gentiles are abandoning godlessness, and henceforth taking refuge in the God of Abraham through the Word, our Lord Jesus Christ, it should be clear even to those are exceedingly obstinate that Christ has come, and that he illumines absolutely all with his light and teaches the true and divine teaching concerning his Father. So one can rightly refute the Jews from these and many more passages from the divine scriptures (pp. 92-93). 

Particular Question: What does the analogy (highlighted above) on the denial of the sun imply about the epistemological and spiritual condition of unbelieving Jews?

Universal Question: How is the analogy, which compares Jesus Christ to the sun, related to the prologue in the Gospel of John (1:1-18)?

Dying with hands stretched out

After two accounts of the “divine dilemma,” Athanasius treats more fully the death of Christ and the resurrection of the body (sections 20-32). I chose to highlight the passage below because Athanasius, more than any other theologian that I have read, helps me to understand why Christ had to endure death on the cross as opposed to some other kind of death.

The Death of Christ and the Resurrection of the Body

For if he came to himself to bear the curse which lay upon us, how else could he have “become a curse” (Gal 3:13) if he had not accepted the death occasioned by the curse? And that is the cross, for thus it is written, “cursed is he who hangs from the tree” (Deut 21:23). Moreover, if the death of the Lord is a ransom for all and by his death the wall of partition” (Eph 2:14) is broken down, and the call of the Gentiles effected, how would he have called us if he had not been crucified? For only upon the cross does one die with hands stretched out. Therefore it was fitting for the Lord to endure this, and to stretch out his hands, that with the one he might draw the ancient people and with the other those from the Gentiles, and join both together in himself. This he himself said when he indicated by what manner of death he was going to redeem all, “When I am lifted up, I shall draw all to myself” (Jn 12:32). And again, if the enemy of our race, the devil, having fallen from heaven, wanders around these lower airs and, lording it here over the demons with him, similar in disobedience, through them works illusions in those who are deceived and attempts to prevent them rising upwards—about this the Apostle also says, “Following the prince of power of the air, who is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 2.2)—yet Christ came that he might overthrow the devil, purify the air, and open up for us the way to heaven, as the Apostle said, “through the veil, that is, his flesh” (Heb 10:20), this must have been by death, and by what other death would these things have happened except that which takes place in the air, I mean the cross? For only he that completes his life on the cross dies in the air. Therefore it was right that the Lord endured it. For being thus lifted up, he purified the air from the diabolical plots of all demons, saying “I saw Satan falling as lightening (Lk 10:18), and blazing the trail he made anew the way up to heaven, saying again, “Lift up your gates, O princes of yours and be raised up, everlasting gates” (Ps 23:7). For it was not the Word himself who needed the gates to be opened, since he is the Lord of all, nor was any made thing closed to its Maker; but we were those who needed it, who he himself carried up through his own body. For as he offered to death on behalf of all, so through it he opened up again the way to heaven (pp. 75-6).

Particular Question: Is Athanasius drawing a typological link between the tree of prohibition (“death occasioned by the curse”) and the tree of crucifixion (“cursed is he who hangs from the tree”)?

Universal Question: Does the open embrace of crucifixion—hands stretched out—mean Christ died for all of Adam’s progeny or only for the elect among Jews and Gentiles?

Reinscribing the portrait

In his treatise On the Incarnation, Athanasius gives two accounts of the “divine dilemma”: What should God do after the fall of man? The first account concerns the problem of life and death (sections 2-10) while the second concerns the problem of knowledge and ignorance (sections 11-19).

The Divine Dilemma Knowledge and Ignorance

God created human beings as bearers of his image but sin deformed the image. Therefore, God alone can renew his image by taking that which is ours: a body. Divine embodiment was necessary owing to the weakness of human beings, who failed to know God through “the grace of being in the image,” through “the works of creation,” and through “the law and the prophets” (pp. 61-62). I chose this passage for its instructive analogy (highlighted below).

For as when a figure painted on wood has been soiled by dirt from outside, it is necessary for him whose figure it is to come again, so that the image can be renewed on the same material—because of his portrait even the material on which it is painted is not cast aside, but the portrait is reinscribed on it. In the same way the all-holy Son of the Father, being the Image of the Father, came to our place to renew the human being made according to himself, and to find him, as one lost, through the forgiveness of sins, as he himself says in the Gospels, “I came to seek and to save that which was lost” (Lk 19:10)Therefore he said to the Jews, “Unless one is born again” (Jn 3:5), not referring to the birth from women, as they supposed, but indicating the soul being born again and recreated in that which is after the image. But since the madness of idolatry and godlessness held firm the inhabited world and the knowledge of God was hidden, whose was it to teach the inhabited world of the Father? A human being, one might say. But humans were not able to traverse everywhere under the sun, nor by nature were they able to run so far, nor were they sufficient to become credible regarding this, nor were they able by themselves to withstand the deceit and illusion of the demons. For with everyone smitten and troubled in soul from demonic deceit and the vanity of idols, how was it possible to convert the human soul and the human mind, when they cannot even see them? How can one convert what one cannot see? But perhaps one might say that creation was sufficient. But if creation sufficed, such evils would not have occurred. For there was creation, and human beings wallowed no less in the same error regarding God. Who again was needed, except the God Word who sees both soul and mind, who moves everything in creation, and through them makes known the Father? For he who by his own providence and ordering of the universe teaches about the Father, his it was to renew the same teaching. How could this be done? Perhaps one might say that it was possible through the same means, so as to show the things concerning him through the works of creation. But this was no longer certain. Not at all! Human beings had neglected this before, and no longer were their eyes held upwards but downwards. So, rightly wishing to help human beings, he sojourned as a human being, taking to himself a body like theirs and from below—I mean through the works of the body—that those not wishing to know him from his providence and governance of the universe, from the works done through the body might know the Word of God in the body, and through him the Father (pp. 63-64). 

Particular Question: What is the paradoxical character of the analogy?

Universal Question: Even though the portrait has been reinscribed, how do “demonic deceit and the vanity of idols” still contribute to the blindness of renewed creation?

The King takes residence in the house that he built

In his treatise On the Incarnation, Athanasius gives two accounts of the “divine dilemma”: What should God do after the fall of man? The first account concerns the problem of life and death (sections 2-10) while the second concerns the problem of knowledge and ignorance (sections 11-19).

The Divine Dilemma Regarding Life and Death 

God created human beings for life but sin introduced corruption and death. Therefore, God alone can recreate human beings by taking that which is ours: a body. Could the recreation of man occurred without the embodiment of God? Athanasius persuasively and eloquently answers “No.” I chose this passage because it showcases the analogical imagination of a theologian (highlighted below). We are apt to forget that the babe in a manger is “the King of all,” who has condescended in love to reign in the house that he built.

For the Word of God, realizing that in no other way would the corruption of human beings be undone except, simply, by dying, yet being immortal and the Son of the Father the Word was not able to die, for this reason he takes to himself a body capable of death, in order that it, participating in the Word who is above all, might be sufficient for death on behalf of all, and through the indwelling Word would remain incorruptible, and so corruption might henceforth cease from all by the grace of the resurrection. Whence, by offering to death the body he had taken to himself, as an offering holy and free of all spot, he immediately abolished death from all like him, by the offering of a like. For being above all, the Word of God consequently, by offering his own temple and his bodily instrument as a substitute for all, fulfilled in death that which was required; and, being with all through the like [body], the incorruptible Son of God consequently clothed all with incorruptibility in the promise concerning the resurrection. And now the very corruption of death no longer holds ground against human beings because of the indwelling Word, in them through the one body. As when a great king has entered some large city and made his dwelling in one of the houses in it, such a city is certainly made worthy of high honor, and no longer does any enemy or bandit descend upon it, but it is rather reckoned worthy of all care because of the king’s having taken residence in one of its houses; so also does it happen with the King of all. Coming himself into our realm, and dwelling in a body like the others, every design of the enemy against human beings has henceforth ceased, and the corruption of death, which had prevailed formerly against them, perished. For the race of human beings would have been utterly dissolved had not the Master and Savior of all, the Son of God, come for the completion of death. 

Truly this great work supremely befitted the goodness of God. For if a king constructed a house or a city, and it is attacked by bandits because of the carelessness of its inhabitants, he in no way abandons it, but avenges and saves his own work, having regard not for the carelessness of the inhabitants but for his own honor. All the more so, the God Word of the all-good Father did not neglect the race of human beings, created by himself, which was going to corruption, but he blotted out the death which had occurred through the offering of his own body, and correcting the carelessness by his own teaching, restoring every aspect of human beings by his own power (pp. 58-59). 

Particular Question: How is the body like a “temple” or “house”?

Universal Question: If the immaterial Word of God was loving enough to become material for our salvation, why do we give short shrift to material existence? Put differently, why are we still ashamed of our body when the body is the locus of Christ’s atoning work?

The apparent degradation of God

9780881414097__75001__90976__62667.1340818740.300.300During this Advent season, I cannot think of a more relevant work of theology than St. Athanasius’ On the IncarnationI am reading this book with a current student (Matthew Jordan) and graduate (Joey Jekel). For each section of the work, I will reproduce a salient passage and explain why I chose it. Then I will ask a particulate question to explicate some part of the passage and a universal question to explore a larger topic in the section.

Here are the sections:

Athanasius opens his treatise with an invitation to the Christian reader. I chose this passage because it reinforces that the purpose of theology, at its best, should be “an even greater and fuller piety towards [Christ].” Theology that stuffs the head but starves the heart is a waste of time; it puts me at risk of self-righteous knowledge rather than humble practice.

Come now, blessed one and true lover of Christ, let us, with the faith of our religion, relate also the things concerning the Incarnation of the Word and expound his divine manifestation to us, which the Jews slander and the Greeks mock, but we ourselves venerate, so that, all the more from his apparent degradation, you may have an even greater and fuller piety towards him, for the more he is mocked by unbelievers by so much he provides a greater witness of his divinity, because what human beings cannot understand as impossible, these he shows to be possible (cf. Matt 19:26), and what human being mock as unseemly, these he renders fitting by his own goodness, and what human beings through sophistry laugh at as merely human, these by his power he shows to be divine, overturning the illusion of idols by his own apparent degradation through the cross, invisibly persuading those who mock and disbelieve to recognize his divinity and his power (p. 49).

Particular Question: What is the connection between Christ’s “apparent degradation” through the cradle and his “apparent degradation through the cross“? Put differently, how are the incarnation and atonement linked?

Universal Question: Why is “the Incarnation of the Word” a scandal to Jews and Gentiles alike?