Some exquisiteness from the magnificent ‘On the Incarnation’ by St. Athanasius (298-373 AD) (Kindle Edition)! My title ‘What was God to do?’ comes from a repeated question Athanasius asks in this chapter.
Chapter III: The Divine Dilemma and its solution in the Incarnation – (continued)
(11) “When God the Almighty was making mankind through His own Word, He perceived that they, owing to the limitation of their nature, could not of themselves have any knowledge of their Artificer, the Incorporeal and Uncreated. He took pity on them, therefore, and did not leave them destitute of the knowledge of Himself, lest their very existence should prove to be purposeless. For of what use is existence to the creature if it cannot know its Maker?
…They would be no better than the beasts, had they no knowledge save of earthly things; and why should God have made them at all, if He had not intended them to know Him? But, in fact, the good God has given them a share in His own image, that is, in our Lord Jesus Christ, and has made even themselves after the same Image and Likeness. Why?
Simply in order that through the gift of Godlikeness in themselves they will be able to perceive the Image Absolute, that is the Word Himself, and through Him to apprehend the Father; which knowledge of their Maker is for men (and women – come on Athanasius!) the only really happy and blessed life.
…So great, indeed, were the goodness and the love of God. Yet men(!), bowed down by the pleasures of the moment and by the frauds and illusions of the evil spirits, did not lift up their heads towards the truth. So burdened were they with their wickedness that they seemed rather to be brute beasts than reasonable men, reflecting the very likeness of the Word.
What was God to do in face of this dehumanising of mankind, this universal hiding of the knowledge of Himself by the wiles of evil spirits? Was He to keep silence before so great a wrong and let men go on being thus deceived and kept in ignorance of Himself? If so, what was the use of having made them in his own image originally? It would surely have been better for them always to have been brutes, rather than resort to a condition when once they had shared the nature of the Word. Again, things being as they are, what was the use of their ever having had the knowledge of God? Surely it would have been better for God never to have bestowed it, than that men should subsequently be found unworthy to receive it.
…What 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?
…He is revealed both through the works of His body and through His activity in the world…At one and the same time – this is the wonder – as Man He was living a human life, and as Word He was sustaining the life of the universe, and as Son He was in constant union with the Father…He sanctified [human flesh] by being in it.”
Amen to that!
“If Jesus’ whole life to us is God’s word to us, then he is God’s word not only when he is intelligible, not only when he makes clear sense – not only when he is graspable and useable by us. He is also God’s word when he is wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. [Rowan] Williams notes our temptation to make the ‘tightly swaddled baby’ of the Christmas stories into ‘a gift-wrapped object, passive and docile for use in our business, our transactions; a lucky mascot; the sleeping partner in the firm (the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay)’ – ‘little Lord Jesus, like Little Lord Fauntelroy, who generates in us such good and warm feelings that we know we can’t be wrong’. Williams reminds us just how strange this view is:
‘The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes / But little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.’ Every parent in Christendom must have blinked with incredulous envy at this miracle: never mind the angels and the star, a baby who doesn’t cry when surrounded by a herd of hungry cows is much more of a prodigy! Babies, in fact, may be wordless and dependent, but they are not, as a rule silent, nor are they passive. They make their presence felt, they alter lives; their dependence is a matter of fingers clutching at ours when we’d like to be getting on with something; broken nights, hungry mouths at the breast; the need to be taught and watched and entertained, brought into the world of human speech and relation. If God is with us as a child – a real child – he is not after all so tidily gift-wrapped, so functional. If God is with us as a child, he is certainly with us as one who calls out our tenderness and compassion; but he does so by an insistent presence without shame or restraint, crying and clutching. He is the God who, in St. Augustine’s unforgettable words, penetrates my deafness by his violent loud crying . . . . . So far from the divine child being a cipher, the tool of our schemes and systems, he confronts us with the alarming, mysterious, shattering strangeness of God.’
That Jesus is also God’s word to us when he is this child reminds us that God is not simply there to meet our needs, and that our language about and understanding of God – which tries to wrap him up, tie him down, and place him silent in the manger – needs interrupting, needs to be made aware of its deafness. We are too prone to relish the success of our language about God, to think that we have understood – that our smooth, neatly interlocking concepts allow us to grasp all that really needs to be said about God. Williams takes the disturbing, interrupting, uncontrollable nature of a child’s crying as a sign of the wildly prolific, difficult, messy, uncontrollable, inelegant, disturbing nature of the language about God that we find in our Bible and in the testimonies of obstinate believers who refuse to see things in quite the way we do, and therefore as a sign of the ways in which God escapes all our language.
[T]here is a terrible aptness, a rhetorical rightness, in a God who speaks in a child’s cry. And it is so cruelly hard – for believer and unbeliever alike – to face the possibility that silence, stumbling aparent crudity, tell you more of God than the language of would-be adult sophistication. As if the best theology were the noise of someone falling over things in the dark.
It is God himself who lobs rocks into the smooth pond of our language about God, shattering our complacency – and only so can he keep us from preferring the idols which our words construct. ‘[W]e must be surprised, ambushed and carried off by God,’ Williams says, ‘if we are to be kept from idols.’ ‘God himself is the great “negative theologian”, who shatters all our images by addressing us in the cross of Jesus.’
When we think about God, there is always an extent to which we end up fitting him into our world, as one element in it among others. We simply can’t think God’s absolute difference from the world, and God’s absolute intimacy to it; we can only gesture towards an understanding with inadequate pictures and images. We need constantly to be reminded that the reality towards which even our best words gesture transcends them and exceeds them – that, however much they are appropriate ingredients in the process by which we are drawn into the life of God, and weaned from self-serving idols, all our words fail radically to grasp God. The God we can think, the God we fit into our mental schemas, the God we can put on a list of things we understand, is not not God.”
Mike Higton, Difficult Gospel – The Theology of Rowan Williams, p.50-52