The Enfleshment of God

incarnation

We’re currently in the season of Christmastide, in which the Church across the world celebrates the reality of the Incarnation of God. This central reality –inaugurated at Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary, first seen at Christmas, but then proceeding on through the entire life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels– is what gives meaning and purpose to every faithful Christian. God has become a man. The ramifications of this central reality are manifold and profound (and are properly explored at length beginning at Epiphany/Theophany and throughout the rest of the year), but now at Christmas we tend more to celebrate the fact of God becoming a man. The King of all creation has decided to come and dwell with us; there’s so much to consider about what that means, but for now, “O come let us adore Him.”

But even just adoring Immanuel (“God with us”) may furnish us occasion to question or even doubt the reality of the embodied transcendent God. How has this happened? And in such a lowly, humble way? The great 4th century Alexandrian Saint Athanasius penned an exceptionally lucid book entitled On the Incarnation, which, in addition to explaining the necessity and the consequences of the Incarnation, also deals with some of the curious details about the enfleshment of God as well. From Saint Athanasius’ treatise On the Incarnation, here are some thoughts… on the Incarnation:

“The incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God comes to our realm — howbeit he was not far from us before. For no part of Creation is left void of Him: He has filled all things everywhere, remaining present with His own Father. But He comes in condescension to shew loving-kindness upon us, and to visit us. … He takes unto Himself a body, and that of no different sort from ours. For He did not simply will to become embodied, or will merely to appear (For if He willed merely to appear, He was able to effect His divine appearance by some other and higher means as well). But He takes a body of our kind, and not merely so, but from a spotless and stainless Virgin, knowing not a man, a body clean and in very truth pure from intercourse of men. For being Himself mighty, and Artificer of everything, He prepares the body in the Virgin as a temple unto Himself, and makes it His very own as an instrument–in it manifested, and in it dwelling. …

“When inspired writers on this matter speak of [the Lord] as eating and being born, understand that the body, as body, was born, and sustained with food corresponding to its nature, while God, the Word [Logos] Himself, Who was united with the body, while ordering all things, also by the works He did in the body shewed Himself to be not [merely] man, but God the Word. But these things are said of Him, because the actual body which ate, was born, and suffered, belonged to none other but to the Lord: and because, having become man, it was proper for these things to be predicated of Him as man, to shew Him to have a body in truth, and not just seemingly.

“But just as from these things He was known to be bodily present, so from the works He did in the body He made Himself known to be Son of God. Whence also He cried to the unbelieving Jews: ‘If I do not the works of My Father, believe Me not. But if I do them, though ye believe not Me, believe My works; that ye may know and understand that the Father is in Me, and I in the Father.’ For just as, though invisible, He is known through the works of creation; so, having become man, and being in the body unperceived [as God], it may be known from His works that He Who can do these is not man, but the very Power and Word of God. For His charging evil spirits, and their being driven forth — this deed is not of man, but of God. Or who that saw Him healing the diseases to which the human race is subject, can still think Him man and not God? For He cleansed lepers, made lame men to walk, opened the hearing of deaf men, made blind men to see again, and in a word drove away from men all diseases and infirmities: from which acts it was possible even for the most ordinary observer to see His Godhead. For who that saw Him give back what was deficient to men born lacking, and open the eyes of the man blind from his birth, would have failed to perceive that the nature of men was subject to Him, and that He was its Artificer and Maker? For He that gave back that which the man from his birth had not, must be, it is surely evident, the Lord also of men’s natural birth.

“Therefore, even to begin with, when He was descending to us, He fashioned His body for Himself from a Virgin, thus to afford to all no small proof of His Godhead, in that He Who formed this is also Maker of everything else as well. For who, seeing a body proceeding forth from a Virgin alone without man, can fail to infer that He Who appears in it is Maker and Lord of other bodies also? …

“He is the true Son of God, being from Him, as from His Father, His own Word, and Wisdom, and Power, Who in ages later took a body for the salvation of all, and taught the world concerning the Father, and brought death to nought, and bestowed incorruption upon all by the promise of the Resurrection, having raised His own body as a first-fruits of this, and having displayed it by the sign of the Cross as a monument of victory over death and its corruption.”

There’s so much more that Athanasius says both about the fact of and the reasons for the Incarnation, and I’m sure I’ll return to it here in the future. If you’ve never read it, I encourage you to. This Christmastide would be a great time to pick it up.

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