Wait … is this actually on the Incarnation? If you take up Athanasius’s fourth-century classic On the Incarnation for your Advent or Christmas reading, you’ll likely find yourself asking this very question. For you’ll soon make the discovery that many Athanasius readers make: On the Incarnation is mostly not about the birth of Jesus.
On the topic of the baby in the manger, Athanasius has only a little bit to say. Everything he does say about it is certifiably mind-blowing: “The incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God comes into our realm, although he was not formerly distant. … But now he comes, condescending toward us in his love for human beings.” Merry Christmas!
But most of Athanasius’s narrative energy goes into telling us about the risen Lord who died and now lives forevermore. You might wonder where the Christmas in your Christmas reading went.
Part of the problem is that Athanasius has a great mind and a full heart and wants to share the whole truth. Helmut Thielicke once voiced the theologian’s can’t-say-it-all lament in exactly these seasonal terms: “I have to speak about everything at once like the preacher who cannot talk about Christmas without touching on the theme of Good Friday and pointing out that the crib and the cross are hewn out of the same wood.” But to everything there is a season, and we ought to be able to focus on the Incarnation during this season.
I remember the disappointment I felt going to church one Christmas when, for whatever reason, I was especially well attuned to the buildup of the whole holiday. It was one of those years when all the carols were really connecting with me, wherever I happened to hear them. (In fact, I especially enjoy hearing them in the ordinary, secular spaces of commerce and errands. There’s nothing quite like pumping gas and hearing “veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail the incarnate deity” coming out of the speakers above the pumps!)
All month, I was not only gripped by the great doctrines but also cheered by the general jollification. Then came the Christmas sermon itself at my own church: “Baby Jesus Was Born to Die.” The preacher made the point, strongly and directly, that the real meaning of Christmas was actually all about Good Friday and Easter.
I don’t disagree. I’m evangelical, and this was a good gospel sermon. Theologically, I find the preacher’s point exactly right: The incarnation of the Son of God was directed precisely toward the goal of his death and resurrection. “The crib and the cross are hewn out of the same wood,” and though the crib is a condition for the Cross, the Cross is the main event. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that pang of disappointment, just like Christmastime readers might feel when they pick up On the Incarnation and find out most of its pages are really “On the Crucifixion” and “On the Resurrection.”