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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Staring a New Explanation

Perhaps the most important role of a theologian, or even the defining characteristic of a theologian, is that she or he work to reveal the Father to the world.  This may seem contrary to general understanding, but it must be the case, for it is the mission of Jesus Christ to reveal the Father to the world.  In fact, the very being of Christ as both God and Human man is the imaging forth of the Father.  He is the First Theology, the first Study of God who puts Himself forward to speak about the nature of the Father.  Thus any Christian theologian must work with the primary goal in mind to reveal the Father to the world.  This of course does not mean ignoring Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit; but in fact means the exact opposite.  For it is in the Son and the Spirit that the Father is most faithfully revealed to us, and by being in both, we come to know the Father most completely.  In knowing the Father, we know goodness, truth, life, peace, love, mercy, and justice.  Thus, in this move to reveal the Father, we gather all things together.

This revelation of the Father must of course take different forms depending on those to whom we are speaking.  To Christians who accept the ancient received faith of the Apostles and Fathers, our revelation of the Father must often take the form of academic or spiritual explanation.  We are entrusted to search out the mysteries of God and hand them over to each other for testing and enjoyment.  To those of other faiths, we are to reveal the Father in a way that is recognizable to them in their own faiths, so that they might come to glory in the Father, and that we might hope that they might come to glory in the Son as well.  To those who are our enemies, the modern humanist or atheist, we are to reveal the father by academic rigor, logical consistency, and clarification of our points.  Finally, to the person who identifies with none of these categories, our task is to reveal the Father by clarifying the Christian teaching and position.  For it is only by a clear explanation of the Wonderful Announcement and the Christian position that our position may be either accepted or rejected with information and insight on their part.

This short essay is an introduction to a series of articles I will be publishing on this website that will attempt to address this last problem.  They will be articles aimed, not at converting, nor convincing, but in explaining the Christian position to those who are curious to understand that position beyond the popular understanding, especially that which has taken on the moniker of the “religious right” or “Fundamentalism” or “Born again Christianity” or “Evangelical Christianity.”  These will not be repudiations of this position, but an explanation of the positions held by the majority of the Christians in the world who do not hold to the positions most often associated with the popular understandings of these Christians (understandings which are both earned and often not earned). 

So starting next week I will be delivering short explanatory essays on topics like “Biblical Inerrancy,” “God and Creation,” “God and Science,” and “Jesus and other religions.”   If there are topics that readers of this blog would be interested in asking for an explanation of, please feel free to leave a comment below. 

The goal here is not to argue against atheism or fundamentalism, but to begin to bring some of the popular understanding of Christianity into line with the wider community of Christian believers.  Thus I will not be making arguments as to why God must have created the world, but will be showing what many of us mean by the belief that God creates the world. 

I invite other Christians, people of other faiths, atheists, agnostics, and those who have no idea where they stand, to ask questions and comment though e-mail as I will be turning off comments on the posts, since the idea here is to explain, not to argue.  You may contact me directly at JoshuaWWise78@gmail.com. 

Trinity Sunday Sermon 2012 – The Minstrel

Everything comes from somewhere.  If something seems novel to you, you should suspect that it came from, or was at least inspired by something else.  As Ecclesiastes says, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

Let me tell you a story, a tall tale.

Long ago there was a town.  A boring, dry, drab little town that worked and lived and worked and went to church and lived.  It was a town where people walked, or ran, but that was all they did with their feet.

Until one day, a man came to the town bearing a miraculous tool, one which, when he put it between his hands and squeezed, made the most amazing sound.  He called the sound music, and the instrument an accordion.  And when he played it, and the music came out, his feet did the strangest thing.  They moved, but they did not walk.  They trotted, but they did not run.  His elbows went up and down, and his knees bent.

He called it dancing.

And soon, with a generous heart, he had given accordions and flutes and drums to the children of the town, and taught them how to play and dance.  And then, one night, he stole away and left the town by himself, humming softly in the night air.  

Now some people, both good and bad, thought the man was something of a magician.  They even thought that he had conjured the sweet or terrible new magic called music all on his own.  So one very brave boy followed him as he left the town, to see what he would do next.  He followed him for days, until the man came to a huge city that positively rang with music.  And he was greeted at the gate as the prince of that land.  The boy looked on and saw that everyone there in the city sang, danced, or made music with an instrument. And he knew that the man, magician though he might be, was not the source of the music.  The man made sense to the boy when he saw his home.

Today is Trinity Sunday.  It is a Sunday on which we can talk about that most wonderful mystery in the Church, the Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It is a day when we can wax Theological about how the Son is begotten by the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (or not).  It is a day when the Nicene Creed is especially poignant when we take a moment to say “Ah, yes, we believe in the Father, the Son, and the Spirit.  Good for us.”

It is a day when pastors either attempt to wrestle with that great and difficult idea of three persons and one God, or to shy away from it totally.  To show you how they are all One God, and yet three persons.  Or to tell you about how your church “Trinity” came to be.

I will do none of those things.  I will tell you that ideas come from somewhere.

The Father Loves the Son.  I have said it before.  Let me say it until I die.  The Father Loves the Son, and the Son loves the Father.  The Spirit Loves the Father and the Son, and the Father Loves the Spirit, and the Son Loves the Spirit.  They share all things with each other.  The Father shares His very being with the Son and the Spirit.  In the west, we say that the Love between the Father and the Son is the Spirit.  In the East, the Spirit is understood to come forth from the Father in a different way than the Son.

We know from John’s Gospel over the last few weeks that all that the Father has, is the Son’s.  The Father gives his being, life, light, knowledge, and love to the Son.  The Spirit sends the Son into the world, and makes the Father known.  The Father sends the Spirit into the world, and the Son sends the Spirit.  It is a jolly eternal joy in the Trinity where all that is had is shared.  Nothing is held back, and there is only self and the giving of self to another.  All that is the Spirit’s belongs to the Father and the Son.  All that is the Son’s is the Father’s and the Spirit’s.  All that the Father has, is, you see of course, given to the Son and the Spirit.

Nothing, nothing is held back.  All is revealed, all is loved, all is returned to the one who loves.  There is no shadow of doubt, no restraint, no distance.

There is only love.

Now the problem with Trinity Sunday is that we have a very hard time figuring out how to relate the Trinity to our daily lives.  Why should we care?  Why should the Trinity matter to us at all?  How is human life different because the Trinity is the Trinity?

Because everything comes from somewhere.

Let me tell you another story about a visitor.

He was…is…a man.  He came into the world and taught us to love one another.  To hold nothing back from one another, to love without barrier, without limit, without shadow or distance.  He taught us, naive and foreign as these ideas are, to give all we have to each other and to return all to the one who gives to us.  He taught us to live such that our lives are shared, communal, and always lived with another in mind.

He says “love one another.”  He says “give to one another.”  He says “be at peace with one another.”  And then he lays His life down for all of us.

And if you followed that man home…back to his eternal kingdom, what do you think you’d see, there, in the Trinity?  The heart that made all things, that made the stars, and humanity, and all that we have.  What would you see?

You would see that every moment of Jesus’ life and every teaching that he delivers makes sense when you see his home.

Because everything comes from somewhere.