Repetition & Beauty

3 01 2016

For two relatively short years my family and I lived less than a mile from the shores of Lake Erie.   Naturally, we greatly enjoyed spending time on the beaches nearby. We loved the sand, shallow waters, and smooth, black slate rock– not to mention the frozen waves in winter which formed large mounds we could climb. During the warmer days of summer, one of the favorite activities for my wife and kids was to carefuseaglasslly comb the beach for “sea glass”. I realize it’s a bit of misnomer given the fact that we were on the shores of a lake, not a sea. Nevertheless, the finds that were made was akin to finding sparkling gems of great price. Often very small, coming in a multitude of colors with smooth rounded edges, the sea glass embodied an amazing icon of redemption.


Broken, useless glass, which was formerly a useful vessel of some sort, cast into merciless, cold waves.   A tragedy to be sure, but not the end of the story. Those same waves that initially appeared so menacing become an instrument of transformation for the jagged glass. Waves plus time plus rocks and sand eventually round off the sharp edges of the discarded glass. And at the last the waves wash the glass ashore, now a glittering jewel to be discovered and treasured.


Please forgive me if I have lead you astray to believe that I am making an analogy between the elements that create sea glass and our redemption and Jesus’ work on our behalf. I’m not intending to make an overly simplistic and cheesy sermon illustration. What the sea glass gave me was yet another glimpse into a world where our heavenly Father seems utterly obsessed with making all things new and glorious. He has made sure that our encounters like this are plethora.


The one point I want to make is much more pedestrian and dull than the grand scope of human salvation. The broken glass cannot become rounded and beautiful without the repetitive pounding of the waves.


We live in a time and place that seems to despise repetition of any kind (except commercials, of course!). We are hopelessly addicted to the “new”. New versions of our favorite books, comic-books and movies (note the endless string of re-makes and re-boots!). New news, new tweets, new tech (like the latest i-phone), new kitchen and bath, new relationships— on and on it goes in an endless parade. Now, let me be clear. I am the chief of sinners in the cult of “new”. If I had my way, I’d live in a new-construction home and drive a new car wearing my new favorite shirt.   But it’s worse: in this I’m also a terrible hypocrite! I want everything to be new, except in worship at church where I want all things old. And part of my love for the old worship is that it is relentlessly repetitive like those cold Lake Erie waves.   And being a creature of great forgetfulness and many sharp, broken edges, I cannot overstate my desperate need for the steady, reliable repetition that the waves of the old liturgies provide.


Such repetition is not fun, entertaining, tweet-worthy, or in any way “new”. It’s quite the opposite, in fact, and a much needed antidote for our “new” obsessed land.


What I’m currently trying to figure out is how it is that the same churches who constantly labor to produce new and exciting elements in their worship services give me the feeling that it’s the same-ole, same-ole. While the “boring”, repetitive liturgies of the old days seem always fresh and rejuvenating to me. A mystery and a paradox to be sure, but there are explanations that I will not go into here. (But I will confess that I’m not sure how many more liturgically un-rooted and disjointed worship services I can endure– heaven help me!!)


Despite my digression, the point is that as disciples of Jesus repetition is indispensible and unavoidable if we are to be made nemarthamchurchstainedglasswindoww. The repeating of prayers, Scriptures and Sacrament will be irreplaceable elements in our redemption and renewal if we willing submit ourselves to them. Just like the broken glass in the waves of the sea.

O you afflicted one, tossed with tempest, and not comforted, behold, I will lay your stones with colorful gems, And lay your foundations with sapphires. I will make your pinnacles of rubies, your gates of crystal, And all your walls of precious stones. (Isaiah 54:11-12)


Feast of the Ascension

1 06 2011

Ascension of the Lord

Tomorrow is the Feast of the Ascension.  It is an important Holy-Day for Christians (even though we tend to give it scant attention).  We are rescued from Satan, Sin and Death only because Jesus was crucified, died, was resurrected, AND ascended into heaven.  I beg your indulgence as I re-post my Ascension Day comments from last year. 

Also, my friend Jason Leininger has just posted some excellent insights into the Ascension on his blog: It’s worth checking out.


Lord Christ, You have ascended to the Eternal Throne of both heaven and earth.  Glory to You, Lord Christ, glory to you, for you have seated us at your right hand.


Until very recent years I paid little attention to Christ’s ascension.  It seemed little more than necessary logistics—Jesus was on earth and needed to communicate clearly to his disciples that he would no longer by physically among them.  And viola!  Jesus floats up on the clouds back to heaven to be with the Father.  A cool image, but largely void of import for the daily life of Christians.

Just one problem:  the Church, by its demarcation of sacred time, rejects the notion of an insignificant Ascension.  Forty days after Easter the Church calls us to enter again into the reality of our crucified, risen and ascended King.  Just as the Cross and the Empty Tomb are much, much more than mere reminders of Christ’s redemptive work, so also is Jesus riding the clouds.  Jesus of Narzareth brought about a new reality by his death and resurrection, and his ascension is no different.

To put it succinctly, by His death He destroyed death; by His resurrection He raised us to life; by His ascension, He seats us at the right hand of the Father’s favor and authority.  “Even when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together in Christ. . . and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”  (Ephesians 2:6-7)  When we are in Christ, death is no longer the final reality about us.  When we are in Christ, His everlasting, God-filled life becomes ours too.  When we are in Christ, our powerlessness is transformed into genuine, God given authority.

Thinking of ourselves possessing Godly authority is frightening and many Christians reject the idea outright.  But this is because in our broken world authority is always abused even by the best of men.  “Power corrupts.”  Power and authority being used consistently for the good is beyond our ken.  At least, it was, until Jesus came along.  He used his God-given authority to teach the truth, love the unlovable, cast out demons, heal the broken, train disciples, proclaim good news, bring the Kingdom of light into the darkness, and surrender his life even unto death.

This is the end of the sermon.  Go and do likewise—you have been so authorized!

Building Strong Spiritual Muscles for the Fight

18 05 2011

I can’t resist another lengthy quote from the book The Illumined Heart. There is so much here: on sin, sinful desires, how to deal with them, spiritual warfare, spiritual discipline, the character of God the Father, the Cross & Resurrection, holiness, and a proper understanding of the relationship between the spirit and the body.
Please note that when Mathewes-Green talks about “Anna” she is referring to a character she has created for the book that represents a Christian from the 5th century, living in the Middle East.

(What follows is from chapter 7 of Frederica Mathewes-Green’s book The Illumined Heart, entitle “Introduction to the Passions, and the Disciplines of the Body”)

…the attitude of the early church was that all material creation is very good. Yet along with our healthy responses to this world we have some blunted, broken ones that would have us treat it and other people in greedy, selfish ways. Those impulses are usually called “the sinful passions,” and training and restraining them is the primary spiritual exercise. When fully converted, the energy of fallen passions becomes power to do the will of God.

The word “passion” can trip us up, because (after the initial romance novel associations) we Western Christians think of passion as a good thing–as a motive for courageous action and dedication to a cause. Our use here, however, has a different meaning, and the key is to recognize the same root word behind “passion” and “passive.” Anna would see these recurring sinful impulses–for example, a tendency to blow up when her children have her rattled– as not an action, but a passion, a submission to forces that lead her away from God. Passions mean loss of self-direction and self-control, a slipping beneath the undertow of mindless impulse.


We take responsibility for such failures, but sly forces nudge us toward them as well. As St. Peter says, our enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Anna believes that such demonic powers truly exist, and that they are ever watching and hoping for opportunities to confuse and capture her. Anna knows she is born with a fallen disposition to sin, and bears full responsibility for her deeds; passions may not be chosen, but actions are. However, in the devil she has a fearsome enemy as well, working diligently to destroy her.

It is Satan that God’s wrath is directed against, Anna believes, not us. While our sins rightly deserve condemnation, God desires our salvation, and his judgment is a blessing, the diagnosis that precedes healing.

The early church understood the Cross primarily as the way God defeated Satan, rather than the way Jesus paid his wrathful Father the debt for our sins. Those ideas did not take precedence till very much later in the West. In the early church God was most often a seeking, saving Father, not an infuriated judge or a demanding creditor. One prayer from the Vespers service captures the balance: “Unto Thee, the awful Judge who yet lovest mankind, have Thy servants bowed their heads . . .entreating Thy mercy and looking confidently for Thy salvation.” He is truly the awful Judge, yet because his love is sure we can expect salvation with confidence.

…God’s most constant characteristic is his overwhelming, forgiving love, seen so naturally in human fatherhood, as in the story of the prodigal son. As long as this analogy of fatherhood underlies other images it sweetens them; no one automatically associates a judge or a creditor with generous, tender affection. Emphasis on those alternate analogies, however, gradually increased in the Western church in the last thousand years, and our relationship with God came to seem one mostly concerned with legal or financial debt, rather than longsuffering love between parent and wandering child.

The interior of Anna’s church is painted with many scenes of biblical events, a picture Bible for a time when many are still illiterate. The image depicting the Resurrection doesn’t show the garden tomb, but a scene out of the 1Peter. Jesus stands on the broken gates of hell, which are crossed over a black pit. At the bottom Satan lies bound in his own chains. Jesus is reaching out to each side, grasping Adam and Eve by their wrists, and pulling them up from their tombs, while the righteous of all generations stand assembled behind him. On Pascha (Easter) Anna’s congregation sings joyfully over and over, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”

This battle between Christ and the evil one forms the backdrop of every believer’s journey to theosis [holiness, or union with God]. Thus, Anna has two enemies to wrestle with: her own sinful passions, and the evil one who is ever alert to exploit them. As St. Paul warned, this war is not against flesh and blood but against spiritual forces that wish us destruction.

Fighting this war will require disciplines that involve our whole selves, both physical and mental aspects. Body and mind don’t, in reality, split as neatly as modern Western people think they do; things that affect the one pretty obviously affect the other, and they are united in ways we cannot comprehend. By the same token, disciplines of the body can strengthen the mind, and disciplines of the mind. . .can increase bodily fortitude.

Anna and [her husband] are part of a worshipping community that has inherited wisdom about how to discipline the body for spiritual growth. As fitting St. Paul’s analogy of the athlete, these consist of exercises. A weightlifter may spend diligent hours pumping iron, but not because he’s preparing in case he someday runs across a group of people gathered in dismay around a barbell. The muscles he strengthens each day, however, will come in handy if he is suddenly called on to lift a car off a little girl. In the same way, bodily self-discipline gained through exercises in one test area builds strength to combat temptation in all areas.

The most basic exercise is fasting.

Shepherds & Thieves, Life & Death

13 05 2011

How is it that those in the entertainment media (movies, TV, internet, and print) continue to make money even though they keep re-telling the same stories over and over, again. In movies, we’re getting to the point of having re-makes of re-makes. It can surely seem that there is nothing new under the sun. But there is obviously something deeper going one here when the masses continue to pay money to experience plots and themes they’ve already heard and seen a thousand times over: good guys verses bad guys in the midst of a romance set in a perilous and dangerous environment. Critics scoff at such things while the cheese and wine crowd congratulate themselves for having more grown-up sensibilities. Still, why do we keep telling ourselves the same stories over and over again?

Simply put, these basic themes are written into the very DNA or our hearts, minds, souls, (and yes!) bodies. We all long to know love, to be rescued (and to rescue others), to see evil go down in defeat. AND, we all long to have a key role in the events taking place around us. That is why we continue to read and watch the same old stories, over and over again– they touch a deep and essential aspect of our being.

Now here is where I get frustrated: Why do so many Bible-believing Christians (especially scholars!) neglect to read Scripture with the eyes of their hearts? Hearts, by the way, that long for the themes of rescue, love and the defeat of evil to be true. For it is in God’s holy word we have the tremendous joy of finding out that these themes are actually, truly real. We have been putting them in stories that we have put forth as fiction, but in Jesus of Nazareth fiction becomes truth. Or as C.S. Lewis has it, in Christ myth becomes fact.

(In much of the preceding I owe a great debt to the ideas and writings of John Eldredge. See for example, his books: Epic, Waking the Dead, Wild at Heart.)

Let me take you to two passages, the famous 23rd Psalm and John 10, where we must be very careful to read with the eyes of our story-filled hearts.

The Lord is our shepherd– Jesus is the good shepherd. Beautiful isn’t it?! Quiet green meadows, babbling streams and glassy pools– a warm sun and puffy white clouds, and a loving, caring shepherd who makes sure we’re well fed. Wonderfully idyllic isn’t it? It is unfortunate that sometimes the Christian reader’s focus ends there and misses some important stuff. It’s almost like the reader has skipped to the last chapter in order to be comforted by the words, “And they lived happily ever after.” There are some extremely important things that must happen before one can arrive at the happy ending. And, there are certain elements we need to know if we’re going to truly appreciate the goodness being described in the happily ever after.

In the 23rd Psalm, in addition to soft grass and refreshing water, there is a mention of a dark valley, an unnamed evil and some enemies. Hmm. . .that changes the kind of story God is telling. Or, how about Jesus in John 10? Yes, he talks about a full and abundant life, but He also mentions thieves, wolves and something about stealing, killing and destroying!

My fellow Christian brethren and sistren, let’s cut to the chase: the land surrounding our pasture is not entirely safe, AND we have an enemy Hell-bent (yes, pun intended!) on our destruction! And yet . . .yet so many of us don’t live as if those things are true! I’ll be the first to raise my hand and admit that in the midst of a particularly bad day I act surprised! Or worse, I blame my Shepherd! One of the great treasures of the Bible is that we get the inside scoop on our life in this world and we SHOULD be completely un-surprised when bad things happen to good people. Not that we need to become indifferent and callous to suffering, but we can rejoice in its midst because we know how the story ends– the Shepherd totally thumps all the thieves and wolves and provides for our safety and all our nourishment.

Now we must ask how this future hope helps us every day, here and now, where our environment is not quite safe and there are enemies prowling about. The answer? Scripture is trying to tell us that the future is also now. What king David understood about his Lord is that the story began with Him and it will end with Him. That makes the middle part of the story where the going gets tough not only bearable but joy and life filled. See, that Great Shepherd is with us now, providing a good measure of that future victory, peace, love and joy now! Jesus tells us in John 10:10, He has come for the express purpose of bringing us this life, fully. And let me be clear that his not just talking about the sweet by-and-by of eternity in heaven. Our Good Shepherd didn’t come just to lead us up to heaven, but to bring heaven into us here and now.

Let’s look at the famous 23rd Psalm with the eyes of our hearts:

The Lord (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is my Shepherd, therefore, I have all I need! I’m stubborn, so He makes me rest, eat and drink so that my life can be restored. Because my Shepherd is good (and holy) He only ever takes me on good and right paths. I believe this even though some trails take us into valleys that are terrifyingly dark and foreboding. But, there is no reason for me to succumb to the fear of evil as long as I keep my focus on my Shepherd who is never far and who carries the tools that can rescue me and crush my enemies. Speaking of my enemies, sometimes I see them and sometimes they cause me pain. Nonetheless, I laugh heartily with true joy because my Shepherd is preparing a Table of Victory in front of their very noses– they see that their days are numbered! My enemies also see how at that Table my Shepherd-King anoints my head with His oil of blessing and favor. Imagine! Me, a lowly, smelly sheep being treated like the King’s own son! My enemies also see that not only does my King give me the wine-cup of His joy, but He also makes sure that it is never empty– what glorious, extravagant waste (like bringing out the best wine after everyone is already drunk– it is either utter foolishness or the trumpet blasts of joy unleashed!). Therefore, despite my worst days, I have no doubt that I am being chased every day by goodness, mercy and love; and that my home is not this broken world, but is the unending palace and green fields of my Shepherd-King!

Oh, Jesus our Good Shepherd, may You plant Your Kingdom reality deep in our hearts, minds, spirits and bodies that we might not be overcome by the wolves and dark valleys of this life; but rather advance the Realm of Joy within us and without us– all to Your glory and the glory of the Father and Holy Spirit, who live and reign with You Lord Christ, One God, now and forever, Amen!

Christ the Wrath Bearer?

27 02 2011

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. (Hebrews 2:14-15, ESV)

No doubt we have all heard the following in sayings or songs: “Christ died for me.” “Jesus paid the penalty for my sins.” “He took my place on the cross.” The question is, what do they actually mean? Did Jesus really take a divine hit that I deserved? It is my purpose here to make the case that this is NOT what happened on the cross. In other words, it does not seem correct to say that the Atonement achieved by Christ’s death was about Him receiving, on our behalf, God’s righteous wrath.

Now, of course, the idea that the Messiah is getting a punishment from God that we deserve seems to be an obviously Scriptural notion. For example note: Isaiah 53:4-5, “Surely He has borne our griefs And carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, Smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed.” OR Romans 5:9 “…having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him.” (Note what Paul is saying before and after this, however.) OR Ephesians 2:3 where Paul refers to us as “children of wrath.” (It is important to read on to the next two verses where Paul states: “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ”).

The bulk of the New Testament verses on God’s wrath seem to be referring to God’s wrath at the end of time or the Great Judgment and are not connected with the Atonement (to see this, have your Bible program pull up all the verses with “wrath” in them from the New Testament).

So, read me very carefully, I am NOT attempting to deny the existence of God’s righteous wrath or that He deploys it now and again. But I am pleading that we who are the inheritors of a Western, Medieval interpretation of Scripture seek to place the emphasis of the Atonement on a syllable other than Divine punishment. This emphasis has been so overwhelming that it wasn’t until I was in seminary and was reading Robert Webber’s Ancient-Future Faith that I encountered for the first time how Jesus had defeated Satan, Sin, and Death by his death and resurrection. I am thankful that I learned this seminal truth of the Gospel before I began preaching every week, but it is sad commentary on the preaching and teaching I had been sitting under for the previous twenty-four years! I’m sure such I ideas were mentioned– but that was precisely the problem, they were never more than mentioned. All the while the Evangelical mantra: “Jesus took our place on the cross and died for our sins so we could go to heaven” was relentlessly propounded.

That Evangelical message may have played well for a certain stretch in our history– a stretch where many grew up with some level of understanding of human sin and Divine judgment, etc. But take note: that message now falls on ears who find them utterly irrelevant. The good news is that we don’t need to change or water-down the Gospel in order to connect with and persuade the post-modernists in our midst. We just need to reclaim a more ancient emphasis. One that tells the story of Satan’s domination over the human race through the power of death (a domination that we have freely chosen, by the way). A story that includes a daring rescue borne of an undying Divine love. A story whose ending is certain, but in which our place in it depends on our choices– shall I choose the darkness or the Light, death or Life, captivity or Liberty?

Once again, in order to bring light to this discussion, I’d like to present the instruction of Athanasius concerning the Atonement, from paragraph 20 of his On the Incarnation:

We have dealt as far as circumstance and our own understanding permit with the reason for His bodily manifestation. We have seen that to change the corruptible to incorruption was proper to none other than the Savior Himself, Who in the beginning made all things out of nothing; that only the Image of the Father could re-create the likeness of the Image in men, that none save our Lord Jesus Christ could give to mortals immortality, and that only the Word Who orders all things and is alone the Father’s true and sole-begotten Son could teach men about Him and abolish the worship of idols.

But beyond all this, there was a debt owing which must needs be paid; for, as I said before, all men were due to die. Here, then, is the second reason why the Word dwelt among us, namely that having proved His Godhead by His works, He might offer the sacrifice on behalf of all, surrendering His own temple to death in place of all, to settle man’s account with death and free him from the primal transgression. In the same act also He showed Himself mightier than death, displaying His own body incorruptible as the first-fruits of the resurrected. . . .

The Body of the Word, then, being a real human body, in spite of its having been uniquely formed from a virgin, was of itself mortal and, like other bodies, liable to death. But the indwelling of the Word loosed it from this natural liability, so that corruption could not touch it. Thus it happened that two opposite marvels took place at once: the death of all was consummated in the Lord’s body; yet, because the Word was in it, death and corruption were in the same act utterly abolished. Death there had to be, and death for all, so that the due of all might be paid. Wherefore, the Word, as I said, being Himself incapable of death, assumed a mortal body, that He might offer it as His own in place of all, and suffering for the sake of all through His union with it, “might bring to naught him that had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might deliver them who all their lifetime were enslaved by the fear of death.” (Heb. 2:14ff)

Again, nowhere does Athanasius bring into the discussion the need to deal with the righteous wrath of God. Yes, Jesus took our place on the cross. BUT he did it to pay the death-debt incurred in Eden, and NOT to deflect or absorb the fiery flames of God’s righteous anger. To some, this may seem like a nuance with which we should not occupy our time. But I would strongly argue that this distinction is crucial if we are going to walk steadily in the Father’s holy love– something we will struggle to do if we have misconceptions of Him. And certainly the Enemy of our souls seeks largely to convince us of wrong pictures and narratives of the Father.

Do you hear the difference between Athanasius’ narrative (which I believe to be the Biblical one), and the narrative borne out of Medieval Europe? In the first one, we have a loving and holy Father-Creator who allowed Adam and Eve to freely embrace or reject Him; and when they chose wrongly He allowed them to suffer the natural consequences– the biggest one being death. He did not, however, abandon them utterly to this curse. The story of the Old Testament is the painful tale of God’s unrelenting love and grace offered again and again to those whom He had created (which was, again and again, rejected!). Yes, God did have entire populations of men, women and children put to death. But I would argue that these rare acts of wrathful judgment are equally acts of mercy and grace, for the Lord cut short the years of horrendous evil that these populations where perpetrating upon one another and those around them. In those cities, God lovingly brought to an end murder, rape, child abuse, torture, child sacrifice, and worse! Our Creator-God could have allowed us to continue on indefinitely under the curse of death– we certainly deserved it. Instead, in the fullness of time, He sent His eternal Son to take on our human flesh in order that He could fulfill and put to an end the punishment of death.

In the second narrative (the false one), we seem to have a heavenly Father who is continually building up a righteous wrath that will one day be unleashed upon humanity– unless He sends His one and only Son and then lets loose upon Him instead. Here, Jesus had to save us from His Father, our Creator, instead of from Satan and death. Here, we have a God whose wrath must be appeased. (This is never the case even in the Old Testament, where we routinely see Yahweh relenting, or “repenting” as the King James has it, from his intentions to send forth His judgment– as with Nineveh, for example). Here is a God whom I will always fear in an unhealthy way, and whom I will strive to please out of that fear rather than out of love and adoration. Here is a heavenly Father that I will likely come to loath. As a consequence the joy, peace, and abundant life that Jesus promises will always be far from me– all because I believed a lie.

Personally, I have, in fact, believed a similar lie. I struggle continually to be free of the false narrative which describes God my Father as a harsh task-master, to whom I had best be grateful for even the smallest crumb from the meager store of blessings that He only sparingly dispenses. He must be harsh, for my good, you understand. Otherwise I may become soft and spoiled and incapable of growing up to maturity. This is NOT the Father Jesus depicts in the parable of the Prodigal Son. This is NOT the Father of Jesus who eagerly awaits to pardon, restore, and reward those children who turn in His direction.

It is no longer a theological curiosity for me– this business of the Atonement and what Jesus was doing on the cross. I MUST reject, as false, the idea and narrative of a wrath-full, heavenly Father who will have his vengeance doled out– either upon His eternal Son or us! This is a lie of Satan’s liking. God did not send Jesus to save us from Himself! He sent Jesus to save us from the dark clutches of the Enemy of our souls who owned us because of our sin and rebellion. May the light of Christ, who willingly gave himself up to death to set us free from death, shine brightly upon our false pictures of the Father so that we can all know the freedom and joy of loving the One, true God and Father of all.

The Image of God

16 02 2011

Salvation is so much more than the forgiveness of our sins (as significant as that is), because there is much more wrong with us than the fact that we have broken God’s rules. Therefore, holiness is so much more than obeying God’s rules and striving to be nice people. Holiness has to do with the restoration of God’s image within us. That most holy of images has been damaged almost beyond recognition because of the way we have hurt others AND by the way others have hurt us. God’s image in us is horribly marred because in our rebellion against God we have taken sides with the Evil One and allowed his lies to mutate that image even more. We have enjoyed our rebellion, embraced the lies, and found ourselves miserable slaves of death and sin. Now tell me, who’s going to liberate a bunch of treacherous slaves? Beyond that, who would bother not only with our liberation, but would also work to see us restored to the status of royal sons and daughters of the Great King? Who would have the temerity, the power, and authority for such an endeavor?


St. Athanasius (4th century AD) tells us Who. In paragraph 13 of his great work On the Incarnation, he explains why only God the Word would or could do this. Prior to this quote Athanasius has been explaining that God would not

St. Athanasius

abandon those whom He created in His image. Even though they ignored the revelation of Nature, the Prophets and the Law; and though they continued to pursue a course of rebellion against their Creator, God knew their path would only lead to destruction and non-existence. Therefore, He would not just let them go. But, no human and no angel could accomplish the renewal of God’s image in humanity– only He who IS the eternal and perfect Image of the Father could do this work– and He could do it only by taking on human nature, by becoming one of us, yet one who would not succumb to the flesh and the demons. He alone could make us new.

[In the face of humanity’s hopeless situation] What, then, was God to do? What else could He possibly do, being God, but renew His Image in mankind, so that through it men might once more come to know Him? And how could this be done save by the coming of the very Image Himself, our Saviour Jesus Christ? Men could not have done it, for they are only made after the Image; nor could angels have done it, for they are not the images of God. The Word of God came in His own Person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father, Who could recreate man made after the Image. In order to effect this re-creation, however, He had first to do away with death and corruption. Therefore, He assumed a human body, in order that in it death might once for all be destroyed, and than men might be renewed according to the Image. The Image of the Father only was sufficient for this need.

Glory to You, Lord Christ, glory to You!

De Incarnatione Verbi Dei

2 01 2011

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.  (John 1:1-3)

The time between New Year’s Day and Epiphany (Jan. 6th) is when most are feeling the “let down” of the post-Holiday season.  It’s a time when everyone is looking forward to getting back to a normal schedule.  I, too, feel the “let down” of this time, but I also enjoy the relative quit these few days afford me.  I am referring mostly to the quiet in the culture.  Since the day after Halloween our culture has been focused on the Holidays, especially Christmas.  Christmas music is played wall-to-wall from Thanksgiving Day on.  Now, in these early days of the new year everyone is eagerly leaving all of that behind until next year.  This leaves people like me a little room to contemplate and worship the Incarnate One we supposedly celebrate (or at least remember) in the “Holiday Season.”

And make no mistake, Christmas IS about the Incarnation– the Eternal Son, the Eternal Word of the Father taking on human flesh and human nature in the most daring rescue mission ever undertaken in heaven or earth.  Please don’t let the cute little baby in the hay fool you!  Even many well meaning Christians who proclaim that “Jesus in the Reason for the Season” allow themselves to get so caught up in the cultural celebration of the holiday season (which, of course, is not all bad for one’s soul) that they fail to see and to proclaim the Incarnation (despite singing carols about Immanuel, “God with us”).  Therefore, it is my honor and pleasure to present a bit of the most penetrating and worship-filled words ever written about the Incarnation.  They were written by a holy and courageous man early in the Fourth century.  His name is Athanasius, and I invite you to do some research on him and find your spirit greatly encouraged by what you find.  In the words that follow we are allowed a glimpse, beyond the nativity scene, into the great and astounding story of humanity’s rescue from Satan, sin, death, and… non-existence (which is depicted most powerfully in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce).

Caution:  In what follows, read slowly, meditate often.

St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation

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“The renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning.  There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation; for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it in the beginning.”

[from the end of Par. 7]  “For He alone, being Word of the Father and above all, was in consequence both able to recreate all, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be an ambassador for all with the Father.”

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“For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world.  In one sense, indeed, He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are.  But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us.  He saw the reasonable race, the race of men that, like Himself, expressed the Father’s Mind, wasting out of existence, and death reigning over all in corruption.  He saw that corruption held us all the closer, because it was the penalty for the Transgression; He saw, too, how unthinkable it would be for the law [the penalty of death given at the Fall] to be repealed before it was fulfilled.  He saw how unseemly it was that the very things of which He Himself was the Artificer should be disappearing.  He saw how the surpassing wickedness of men was mounting up against them; He saw also their universal liability to death.  All this He saw and, pitying our race, moved with compassion for our limitation, unable to endure that death should have the mastery, rather than that His creatures should perish and the work of His Father for us men come to nought, He took to Himself a body, a human body even as our own.  Nor did He will merely to become embodied or merely to appear; had that been so, He could have revealed His divine majesty in some other and better way.  No, He took our body, and not only so, but He took it directly from a spotless, stainless virgin, without the agency of human father– a pure body, untainted by intercourse with man.  He, the Mighty One, the Artificer of all, Himself prepared this body in the virgin as a temple for Himself, and took it for His very own, as the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt.  Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death in place of all, and offered it to the Father.  This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, when He had fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection.  Thus He would make death to disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire.”  [Emphasis mine]

A few scattered thoughts:

  • Not all contemporary Christians miss these crucial elements of the Incarnation written about by Athanasius.  Singer and Songwriter, Andrew Peterson, produced an album several years ago by the title of:  Behold the Lamb of God:  The True Tall Tale of the Coming of Christ.  The album is a great tool for worship and contemplation during Advent.  Also, Peterson and his crew have taken the songs of this album on tour every Advent for the last seven years or so.  I highly recommend attending one of these sessions if you get a chance– it is a great anti-dote to the hype of the commercialized Christmas that surrounds us and attempts to drown out true worship with its noise and pull.  At any rate, compare Peterson’s words with Athanasius’ teaching:

“Gather ’round ye children come, and hear the old, old story;

Of the power of death undone, by an infant born of glory

Son of God, Son of Man

Gather round remember now, how creation held its breath,

How it let out a sigh, and filled up the sky with the angels

Son of God , Son of Man

So sing out with joy for the brave little boy

Who was God, but he made himself nothing

Well he gave up his pride and he came here to die, like a man

Therefore God exalted him, to the place of highest praises,

And He gave him the name above every name

That at the very name of Jesus…

Son of God, Son of Man

We would sing out with joy for the brave little boy

Who was God, but he made himself nothing

And he gave up his pride and he came here to die, like a man

So in heaven and earth and below,

Every knee would bow in worship

Every tongue would proclaim Jesus he reigns with the angels”

  • One thing that really struck me is what Athanasius does NOT say in this section of his treatise.  He does not talk about how Jesus was punished, on our behalf, by God.  He does not describe how God’s just wrath had to be unleashed and how Christ took it so we wouldn’t have to.  Yes, Athanasius does say that Christ offered himself up to the Father, and how the penalty of death promised in the Garden of Eden had to be carried out if the Father was to remain true to His word.  In the speech of theologians, Athanasius offers no support for “penal substitutionary atonement” that is often discussed today.

John Piper, whose books I have read and for whom I have sincere respect and agreement with on many things (despite the fact that he is a staunch five-point Calvinist, while I am a bull-headed Wesleyan-Arminian) saddened me greatly in his book, The Passion of Jesus Christ (2004, by Crossway Books).  In this short book he provides “Fifty Reasons Why He Came to Die.”  I opened the book anticipating Piper’s usual incisive and convicting prose only to be dismayed by what he chose to devote the very first “reason” to:  that Jesus came to die in order “to absorb the wrath of God.”  Of all the things to begin the book with!!!  Why not how Jesus has undone the power of death by his death?!  Why not how the dominion of Satan and sin has been toppled?! Why not how Christ restores God’s own image in us by his death and resurrection?!  Why not how Christ has opened the way to God’s eternal Kingdom for all sinners who believe?!  Why not how Jesus of Nazareth restores to us what it really means to be human– to be as God meant us to be in the beginning?!  Instead, Piper takes a page to explain the word “propitiation.”  A significant biblical word, no doubt, but not a good place to start.  I think this book was especially targeted for unbelievers and immature Christians who became more interested in Jesus after seeing Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.  If I’m right, I wish Piper would have began the book with at least a glimpse of the depth and grandeur of what Christ has restored by His death and resurrection.  Instead, the reader begins by having his focus turned towards a wrath-filled God who makes His eternal Son “absorb” the whole punishment intended for a deserving humanity.  The reader may have been more captivated by the tale of a people who had come under the thumb of Satan, Sin and Death, by their own fault, but who were rescued by the very Sovereign they had committed treason against– made possible by the eternal Son who freely offered his body unto death in order to pay our ransom and set us free.

What Athanasius has to say about how the Father and the Son relate to one another makes much more sense to me than the image of a righteously angry God unleashing His full wrath on His innocent, holy and eternal Son.  Rather, we can see here the Eternal Word, who, out of sheer love for the Father and for us (whom He had help create), “gave himself up to death, even death on cross.”  And by his unspeakably self-less and brave act we are rescued and the Father’s original plans and integrity are upheld, to the glory of the whole Trinity.