From a discourse by Saint Athanasius, bishop
On the Incarnation of the Word
The Word of God, incorporeal, incorruptible and immaterial, entered our world. Yet it was not as if he had been remote from it up to that time. For there is no part of the world that was ever without his presence; together with his Father, he continually filled all things and places.
Out of his loving-kindness for us he came to us, and we see this in the way he revealed himself openly to us. Taking pity on mankind’s weakness, and moved by our corruption, he could not stand aside and see death have the mastery over us; he did not want creation to perish and his Father’s work in fashioning man to be in vain. He therefore took to himself a body, no different from our own, for he did not wish simply to be in a body or only to be seen.
If he had wanted simply to be seen, he could indeed have taken another, and nobler, body. Instead, he took our body in its reality.
Within the Virgin he built himself a temple, that is, a body; he made it his own instrument in which to dwell and to reveal himself. In this way he received from mankind a body like our own, and, since all were subject to the corruption of death, he delivered this body over to death for all, and with supreme love offered it to the Father. He did so to destroy the law of corruption passed against all men, since all died in him. The law, which had spent its force on the body of the Lord, could no longer have any power over his fellowmen. Moreover, this was the way in which the Word was to restore mankind to immortality, after it had fallen into corruption, and summon it back from death to life. He utterly destroyed the power death had against mankind – as fire consumes chaff – by means of the body he had taken and the grace of the resurrection.
This is the reason why the Word assumed a body that could die, so that this body, sharing in the Word who is above all, might satisfy death’s requirement in place of all. Because of the Word dwelling in that body, it would remain incorruptible, and all would be freed for ever from corruption by the grace of the resurrection.
In death the Word made a spotless sacrifice and oblation of the body he had taken. by dying for others, he immediately banished death for all mankind.
In this way the Word of God, who is above all, dedicated and offered his temple, the instrument that was his body, for us all, as he said, and so paid by his own death the debt that was owed. The immortal Son of God, united with all men by likeness of nature, thus fulfilled all justice in restoring mankind to immortality by the promise of the resurrection.
The corruption of death no longer holds any power over mankind, thanks to the Word, who has come to dwell among them through his one body.
Saint Athanasius (295 – 373)
He was born in Alexandria. He assisted Bishop Alexander at the Council of Nicaea and later succeeded him as bishop. He fought hard against Arianism all his life, undergoing many sufferings and spending a total of 17 years in exile. He wrote outstanding works to explain and defend orthodoxy.
Athanasius’s passion for the truth seems tactless to many of us today, to the point where some Catholic devotional works even express embarrassment over it. This is grotesque. Before we congratulate ourselves on being more gentle and civilised than Athanasius and his contemporaries, we should look at the lack of charity that characterizes academic controversies today (from string theory to global warming) and the way that some of the participants are willing to use any weapon that comes to hand, from legal persecution to accusations of madness to actual assault. The matters in dispute with the Arians were more important than any of these scientific questions. They were vital to the very nature of Christianity, and, as Cardinal Newman put it, the trouble was that at that time the laity tended to be champions of orthodoxy while their bishops (seduced by closeness to imperial power) tended not to be. The further trouble (adds Chadwick) is that the whole thing became tangled up with matters of power, organization and authority, and with cultural differences between East and West. Athanasius was accused of treason and murder, embezzlement and sacrilege. In the fight against him, any weapon would do.
Arianism taught that the Son was created by the Father and in no way equal to him. This was in many ways a “purer” and more “spiritual” approach to religion, since it did not force God to undergo the undignified experience of being made of meat. Islam is essentially Arian, granting Jesus a miraculous birth, miracles, a crucifixion and a resurrection, but all as a matter of God demonstrating his power by committing more spectacular miracles than usual.
Arianism leaves an infinite gap between God and man, and ultimately destroys the Gospel, leaving it either as a fake or as a cruel parody. It leaves the door open to Manichaeism, which mixes Zoroastrian, Buddhist and Gnostic elements into Christianity, so that God is good but creation is bad (or at worst, a mistake) and the work of an evil anti-God. Only by being orthodox and insisting on the identity of the natures of the Father and the Son and the Spirit can we truly understand the goodness of creation and the love of God, and live according to them.