An Easter Reflection with St. Athanasius

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For that death is destroyed, and that the Cross has become the victory over it, and that it has no more power but is verily dead, this is no small proof, or rather an evident warrant, that it is despised by all Christ’s disciples, and that they all take the aggressive against it and no longer fear it; but by the sign of the Cross and by faith in Christ tread it down as dead. For of old, before the divine sojourn of the Savior took place, even to the saints death was terrible, and all wept for the dead as though they perished. But now that the Savior has raised His body, death is no longer terrible; for all who believe in Christ tread him under as naught, and choose rather to die than to deny their faith in Christ. For they verily know that when they die they are not destroyed, but actually live, and become incorruptible through the Resurrection.  And that devil that once maliciously exulted in death, now that its pains were loosed, remained the only one truly dead. And a proof of this is, that before men believe Christ, they see in death an object of terror, and play the coward before him. But when they are gone over to Christ’s faith and teaching, their contempt for death is so great that they even eagerly rush upon it, and become witnesses for the Resurrection the Savior has accomplished against it. For while still tender in years they make haste to die, and not men only, but women also, exercise themselves by bodily discipline against it. So weak has he become, that even women who were formerly deceived by him, now mock at him as dead and paralyzed. For as when a tyrant has been defeated by a real king, and bound hand and foot, then all that pass by laugh him to scorn, buffeting and reviling him, no longer fearing his fury and barbarity, because of the king who has conquered him; so also, death having been conquered and exposed by the Savior on the Cross, and bound hand and foot, all they who are in Christ, as they pass by, trample on him, and witnessing to Christ scoff at death, jesting at him, and saying what has been written against him of old: O death , where is your victory? O grave, where is your sting”

– St Athanasius the Great, On the Incarnation of the Word of God, 27.

 

This selection from the work of St. Athanasius must cause us to tremble in our modern world. Can we think of what those Christians must have been like? Set aside for a moment the thought that you may know a Christian who is like this now, in these later days of the world. Consider them, young and old, considering death a conquered and captive enemy. Consider the faith of those who, facing not only their own deaths, but the deaths of their loved ones, thumbed their nose at the once terrible enemy.

We may think that St. Athanasius is exaggerating the faith of the people of his own day. But is that the common trend of the ordained? Do they not usually decry the lack of faith in their own day and wish for the better days of old? Certainly, Athanasius could have called back to the time of the Apostles and thought, “See then the great example of faith. Behold the Apostolic Theater that the powers of the air and the rulers of earth were witness to. See how they, like a public display, laid their lives down for all that they would only believe that death had been overcome.”

But he does not call back to another day, but holds up the faith of his own day. We may think it sexist that he says “not only men, but women too,” but it was thought an ancient virtue of men that they were to be brave in battle and unafraid before death. Here Athanasius demonstrates that in Christ, “there is not male and female.” The virtue, once thought to belong to men, is shared by both sexes in Christ.

If we can set aside our cynicism, we might react to these Christians in one of two ways. The first, since we are modern people, wise in our technology, anthropology, science, and cultural superiority, might pity them for the uneducated bumpkins who thought that the myth of the dying god had actually come true. They mistook that ancient cycle of the dying and rising corn for the life of this man. Or perhaps they had been duped by the government, or satisfied some desire that the Gospel message met in their unexamined psychological makeup. Yes, with all that we know now, we may well pity them for their brashness in the face of that final destruction which death brings to us. We know the truth, of course, with our advances in knowledge. Men don’t come back from the dead. There is no hell under the earth, no heaven in the sky.

Yes, such a course is possible. But for me the second option. Instead of pitying them, I would worship them as far as is allowed by the God who makes them holy. I would revere them, fall down at their feet and cover my face for the pitiful faith of my own age.

I am among Christians, perhaps among the least likely to simply embrace such an attitude toward death with simple ease. I have suffered time and time again that existential angst that seems to crowd the mind with the unassailably certain knowledge that death is only ending, not beginning. I have sat in the darkness of the relentless voice that insists that I am only the barest collection of matter doomed to come to the same ending as my beginning: Disparate matter with no consciousness. The world, marching on for billions of years, will march on after I am gone, much as it marches on as I am here, without concern for my existence. The voice is relentless at times. The temptation to despair an endless drone of a senseless mechanistic universe.

But when this position has had its say, when it has made every case against hope of continued existence, every plea for despair, and when it has painted the darkness an ever deepening shade of black,  the Christian response remains.

Alleluia, Christ is Risen!

The modern darkness, the unrelenting pressure to relent to the nihilism of nothing, or the more comforting relative peace of the world that we make out of ourselves, is the very thing that the Gospel stands against. It is not the trump card played against the Gospel, but the bound and captured enemy that the Gospel drags before us and says “behold, you need fear him no longer.”

Death is swallowed up in victory.

Our modern situation is then no different than that of the ancient world. Athanasius wrote against those who, in his day, argued that Christianity was nonsensical, unscientific, and too mythical. He stood like a bulwark against tides of pagan, determinist, and heretic thought. His confidence rested in that “old time religion” of the Apostles. God has overcome death in Christ.

The faith of the Apostles is not dead. It still calls people, in this modern world, to proclaim that victory over death has been won. We simply need to be reminded that that is the central teaching of the Christian faith. It is not that Christ died, but that Christ rose. For it is only by his rising, that we who were disparate collections of matter,  and who will go back into this same dissolution, have any hope.

 

For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ – 1 Corinthians 15:53-54

 

 

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