Christmas Day.18 “He Became What We Are…” John 1:1-18
I’m not sure anyone since the apostles of our Lord has thought about the Incarnation of our Lord with more depth or more astuteness than Athanasius, the 4th century Egyptian church father. I’ve been spending a fair bit of time with Athanasius lately and hope that sharing some of his insights will be as helpful to you as it has been to me in appreciating the true meaning, power, and importance of Christmas, or as Athanasius more properly calls it “The Festival of the Incarnation of Our Lord”.
You’re probably familiar with his name because of that really long creed we only say once a year on Trinity Sunday—the “Athanasian Creed”. But actually, Athanasius had nothing directly to do with that creed—which bears his name, but sadly, is long and sometimes confusing. Athanasius’ actual writing is short, sweet, to the point. You can read his most famous work “On the Incarnation” in about 45 minutes and sum it up in one sentence: “Christ became what we are so we would become what He is.” (Oh, and by the way: Jesus is God. Really! Seriously. Truly. Completely. More on that in a sec…).
Now I don’t want you to think Athanasius was some egg-head who just sat around and thought about big questions because he had nothing better to do. Far from it. Athanasius was elected Bishop of Alexandria in 328 and that was one of the largest and most important cities of the Roman empire in the 4th century—kind of what LA/San Francisco put together would be for us today—a cultural, educational, and tech center that also happened to produce much of the food for the Empire (no movies though 🙁 Constantine had just made Christianity a legal religion, but a Syrian guy named Arius had stirred up trouble in Alexandria by insisting Jesus is not really God.
This was a problem because Roman Emperor, Pontifex Maximus, Constantine the Great hoped Christianity would be the glue to hold his disparate empire together—but it was having the opposite effect! So, Emperor Constantine called the council of Nicaea in 325 in which Athanasius participated and from which we get this little thing called “The Nicene Creed” which we still use today, in worship, most every Sunday.
But the Creed didn’t exactly work, then. Tons of people flocked to the church not because they believed in Jesus but because it seemed like a way to get ahead in Roman court politics. And Arius’ teaching was very popular. He was the originator of contemporary worship—seriously!—he wrote propaganda hymns set to tunes from popular sea shanties. Athanasius would famously write around 360 (during his 4th exile from Alexandria) that the world awoke to find itself Arian. Like Elijah, it seemed Athanasius alone was left and they sought his life too. Edward Gibbon (though an unbeliever) in his “Decline and Fall” history of the Roman Empire had huge admiration for Athanasius because he stood contra mundum; alone, against the world, for the truth…
What worried Athanasius about the world and the church (especially the church as Arius made it) was idolatry. For him, this was the biggest problem human beings face. Idolatry is the main reason the Word became flesh and dwelt among us—to fix our idolatry addiction. And you may go “Well, sure glad that doesn’t happen today! I mean we’re over idolatry today, right?” And, uh, no. Not the way Scriptures define idolatry! Athanasius summed up the biblical teaching on idolatry as “turning from the Creator to created things,” loving the finite more than the infinite, loving what is closest to us instead of the God who is infinitely transcendent and Other than us.
But you’re like, “So what?” Well if we weren’t worshipping idols we would not die (!!) That’s what. Yep. The sole cause of death (as Athanasius rightly saw!) is idol worship. When Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, that was idolatry. They turned from faith and trust in God alone to created things as able to make them gods themselves, totally sufficient in and for themselves. Athanasius saw that all creation depends on the Creator because only God radically owns His existence. Only God is truly sufficient for His own needs. But His creation depends on Him for life, happiness, joy—for everything. All creatures came from nothing and without faith in God teeter on the brink and finally return to nothing by dying. (!!)
And we still repeat this original sin, all of us. Christmas for most is a time to exchange material gifts, to spend time with family, to find our meaning and purpose in these things. Jesus is less “reason for the season” than the excuse for taking off work, getting some new toys and making ourselves happy with the company of family and friends. Just watch any Hallmark Christmas movie and you’ll see that being enthralled by the finite things that are closest to us is still the reason for the season for most of our world.
Health, material prosperity, and love of family and friends are the idols we still make and worship. See, Arius is still strong in Christendom! His sea shanties, dumbed down liturgy, and stupid theology dominate. Most churches use Jesus as a tool to advance idolatrous agendas of material health, wealth, and human love. We do not want to be beggars dependent on a transcendent and incomprehensible God to keep us alive moment to moment and to find joy only in sharing His divine life and love. Being justified by Faith alone seems demeaning!
People make idols (as Athanasius scholar Khaled Anatolios nicely sums up) “not because they mistakenly think the idol or creature is the absolute being, but because they have made the judgment, at a deep level, that finite being is just more thrilling than Absolute Being…” that bending the knee in worship to the One True God, the only Perfect Being “lacks the thrill of the shadow of nothingness falling over it.” (Anatolios, Pro Ecclesia V. 25 #2, pg. 234-35). We like to teeter on the edge of the abyss, even fall, rather than be scooped up like lambs in the arms of the Good Shepherd! “And does not this “mood” of idolatry utterly pervade our current existence?”
So Athanasius helps us see the real wonder and majesty of Christmas: because we are inclined to worship what is closest to us (the finite!) the Infinite God became flesh for us, to kind of trick us. He became the most attractive finite creature, so that His flesh would draw us from things below to things above, into the worship of the Perfect Being, the True God that Jesus is, in the flesh. It’s a pretty good trick, you have to admit! Clever, to think of it! If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. If they seek only what is closest to them, come close to them as One of them. Hide your Deity under their very own humanity, so their idolatrous impulses fool them into worshipping the One, True God after all!
Since men loved the dark more than the Light, Jesus came in the deepest darkness. Since we worship what is flesh, lowly, He became flesh, lowly. Since you thrill at teetering on the brink of nothingness, He took the plunge, all the way—way deep down!—to deepest depths of hell, all for you. Since you want to be God’s sons/daughters, well: “As many as receive Him, to them He gives the right to become children of God”(!!!).
He became what you are that you would become what He is. “Lo, within a stable lies/ He who built the starry skies,/ He who, throned in height sublime,/ Sits amid the cherubim… Teach, O teach us, holy Child,/ By Thy face so meek and mild, Teach us to resemble Thee/ In Thy sweet humility! Hail, O ever blessed morn!/ Hail, redemption’s happy dawn. Sing through all Jerusalem: “Christ is born in Bethlehem!” Merry Christmas! Amen.