In case you missed the February devotions Pastor Thomas posted daily on Facebook and Instagram, we have collected them here for you.
February 6, 2022
“But Jesus looked at [the Disciples] and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible (Matthew 19:26).”
Who is Jesus, and why does he matter? The whole of Christian identity hangs upon these two interlocking questions, so it comes as no surprise that Christians have been sweating and arguing over them since the very beginning. There have been good answers and lousy answers, divisive answers and unifying answers, and, most consequentially, fad answers and enduring answers.
Few answers have endured so well as On the Incarnation. It was written in the mid fourth century CE, when two factions divided by their opposing answers threatened the unity of the Church. Into this fraught moment stepped Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, and his answer—with a few subsequent refinements—would become the Church’s answer.
In this season of Ordinary Time, I invite you to join me as we make our careful, devotional way through On the Incarnation. I think you will find that Athanasius is offering us more than just an answer. He is also offering us a celebration of who Jesus is and why he matters. To those who find the idea of the Word becoming flesh and living among us “unseemly” or simply “impossible,” Athanasius offers the above verse of Scripture. God’s view of proprieties and possibilities, he argues, is broader than ours, and that is where we must begin: with a God’s-eye-view. Stay tuned.
You, O God, see all. Help us to see more. Amen.
February 7, 2022
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 came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being (John 1:1-3).
How did it all begin—life, the universe, everything? This might seem like a far-flung starting point for a book about Jesus, but Athanasius rightly observes that for Jesus to matter, everything must begin with God.
As far as Athanasius is concerned, it’s quite clear that life, the universe, and everything is the work of a deity. If the cosmos simply erupted into existence at random, he argues, then it would possess none of the internal logic that clearly orders its contents. In the separate paths the sun and the moon take through the night sky and the distinction of form and function that separates a hand from a foot, Athanasius sees God’s design.
Not just any God, though. Athanasius specifies that this God must truly be the creator of all things, not simply a craftsman turning out finished products from pre-existing raw material. Such a God, he points out, would only be the beneficiary of somebody else’s creation. No, Athanasius argues. For Jesus to matter, all matter must be God’s creation.
You, O God, are the creator of all things. Help us to treat all things accordingly. Amen.
February 8, 2022
By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the Word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible (Hebrews 11:3).
With life, the universe, and everything taken care of, Athanasius asks a more specific question: what about us? Humans, that is. What were the circumstances of our arrival on the scene of God’s creation?
First and foremost, we arrived good, like everything else. For Athanasius, this conclusion follows directly from his earlier assertion that God created all things. God is good, and “the source of all goodness,” and since God “envied nothing its share in existence”—the whole thing was God’s idea, after all—God’s goodness pervaded creation, including humanity, at the outset.
The goodness of humankind, however, came with an added wrinkle. We were not only made according to the will of God. We are also made in the image of God, and so are afforded “a share of the power of God’s own Word.” In other words, God created us to be in relationship with God, to “abide in blessedness” as Athanasius puts it. Relationships can be a challenge, though, and as we shall see, the burgeoning relationship between God and us was no exception. Stay tuned.
You, O God, envy nothing its existence. Help us to do the same. Amen.
February 9, 2022
I say, “you are gods, children of the most high, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince (Psalm 82:6-7).”
At this point in On the Incarnation, Athanasius pauses to address the question that he knows must be simmering in the back of readers’ minds. “For what reason, having proposed to talk about the Incarnation of the Word,” he asks on our behalf, “are we now expounding on the origin of human beings?”
Part of the answer—for Jesus to matter, everything must begin with God—we’ve already touched on. Here, Athanasius gives us the other part. He has started with the creation of humanity “in order that you might know that our own cause was the occasion of [Christ’s] descent [to Earth] and that our own transgression evoked the Word’s love for human beings […] We were the purpose of his embodiment, and for our salvation he so loved human beings as to come to be and appear in a human body.”
The answer, in short, is love. To know ourselves and our story as human beings is to know the reason for Christ’s coming, and to know the reason for Christ’s coming is to know the depth of love that God has for each one of us.
You, O God, reach out in love. Help us to reach back. Amen.
February 10, 2022
Sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned (Romans 5:12).
With the matter of God’s deep and abiding love settled, Athanasius returns to the question at hand: who is Jesus, and why does he matter? Two chapters back he wrote that human beings stood out amongst God’s creation because we were made in the image of God, and so were afforded “a share of the power of God’s own Word.” In other words, God gave us the capacity to be in relationship with God and—this is important—the freedom to choose whether we pursued that relationship or not.
Humans, Athanasius argues, chose the latter option, and turned away from God. In the Church, we call this turning away “sin.” This is where the trouble began, because in turning away from the source of life itself—recall that all things come from God—humans also became susceptible to all that saps life away: “corruption,” decay, and, ultimately, death. Vitally, Athanasius does not see this turning as a one-time thing, but as a situation that multiplied with each subsequent generation. The result: our relationship with God became a one-sided affair.
In you, O God, is life. Make us alive. Amen.
February 11, 2022
God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together in Christ (Ephesians 2:4-5).
We now find ourselves at a crossroads. As Athanasius tells it, human beings have turned away from God’s sustaining love, and so have become susceptible to “corruption,” decay, and death. Now what?
For Athanasius, there are two obvious ways in which God might respond to this situation, and neither of them satisfactorily resolve the story he has told so far (of note: it is Athanasius, not God, who is puzzling rhetorically over what ought to be done; God is not constrained by time and so is neither “surprised” by this development nor “forced” to make a decision about it).
(1) The first way is for God to “dissolve” the consequences of sin. This would prevent humankind from perishing but would do nothing to repair our relationship with God.
(2) The second way is for God to “permit…corruption and death to seize [humanity].” This would honor humanity’s earlier choice but would ensure its destruction.
Bad options all around, but since God is good, there must be another way. Stay tuned.
You, O God, can always make a way. Help us to follow it. Help us to follow you. Amen.
February 12, 2022
[The Word] was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him (John 1:10).
Before turning to God’s answer to the problem of humanity’s situation, Athanasius brings up one more potential solution. Why, he asks on the reader’s behalf, does God not simply demand that humanity repent of its sins? That would solve everything, right?
Athanasius sees two problems there. First, such a despotic act would override the human will, undermining God’s desire for mutual relationship. Second, sin is not only a matter of our deeds, a bad habit that can be broken with enough practice. The corruption of which Athanasius writes has affected not only our actions, but our very nature as well. We are not simply beings who sin; we are beings of sin, and it is going to take more than a stern talking-to from God to fix that.
Who, then, has the power to heal humanity’s sinful nature, to restore our capacity to pursue a relationship with God? For Athanasius, there is only one candidate for the job: the Word of God, through whom the universe came into being in the first place. The question is, how shall the Word go about this re-creative work? We shall see.
You, O God, wield your power in love. Help us to do the same. Amen.
February 13, 2022
Let the same mind be in you that was in Jesus Christ, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness (Philippians 2:5-7).
By turning to the question of how the Word of God shall redeem humanity, and all of creation with us, Athanasius at last reaches the topic from which On the Incarnation gets its title: the entry of God’s Word into “our realm,” the world as we presently see and understand it.
Athanasius takes care to point out that talk of the Word’s entry into the world should not leave the impression that the Word was ever absent. “No part of creation is left void of him; for while abiding with his own Father, he has filled all things in every place.”
Nevertheless, the Word is entering the world in a new way: as a human being, not, Athanasius is quick to point out, as a mere simulation of a human being. Simply taking on the appearance of a human being will not be enough, Athanasius argues, because in order to defeat sin and death, the Word must take on a form that is susceptible to those things as well.
You, O God, have come into our world. Help us to see you. Amen.
February 14, 2022
For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ (1 Corinthians 15:21-22)
At last, we come to the resolution, rescued from the cliff upon which I—and Athanasius, to be fair—left you hanging. Jesus is a human being. Jesus is God. It will take someone who is both to redeem creation. And what does all that add up to? Athanasius’s answer is this: it adds up to a God who refuses to abandon us.
To better illustrate, Athanasius likens God to a king whose city has been attacked from the outside because of the carelessness of the inhabitants on the inside. Any good king with the power to defend his city would do so on principle, and God is certainly a good king.
This goes beyond principle, though, because God is not content to ward off the attackers (who in this metaphor represent evil). God also means to correct the cause of their attack—the inhabitants’ carelessness—by teaching them (“them” being us, of course) and, finally, by redeeming them from the forces of sin and death. To accomplish this, none but the Incarnate God, Jesus Christ, will do.
You, O God, refuse to abandon us. Help us to remain with you. Amen.
February 15, 2022
[Human beings] exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever (Romans 1:25).
Now that Athanasius has reached On the Incarnation’s punch line (Jesus is a human being. Jesus is God. Being both, he is equipped to redeem creation), he circles back to fill out some of the more important details of the set-up.
First, Athanasius returns to the notion of humans being made “in the image of God.” He explains that by “in the image,” he means that humans have been made “in the likeness of God,” not in terms of our looks, but in terms of what—or rather who—we can know. Being made in the image of God, Athanasius argues, enables us to know God, and to accept God’s offer of relationship.
Unfortunately, humanity chose to reject God’s invitation and, turning away from God, lost no time fashioning false gods to worship instead. The appeal of these false gods, or “idols,” Athanasius argues, is that because we created them, we can make them do whatever we like. The God who created us, on the other hand, lies beyond our power. Thus, humanity exchanged faith for control, or at least the illusion of it.
Only you, O God, are God. Help us to turn away from the knockoffs we’ve devised. Amen.
February 16, 2022
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds (Hebrews 1:1-2).
Humanity, then, was out to sea, worshiping idols of every shape and size. As this state of affairs continued, Athanasius argues, we became less and less inclined to “look heavenward” and, as a result, our sensitivity to anything that lay beyond our immediate field of vision—including God—diminished.
Even so, God kept God’s covenant—that is, God’s promise to be our God no matter what—and set about revealing God’s self and God’s will to humanity in ways that we could see and understand. One such way was the Law, the statutes for holy living set down in the first five books of the Bible. Then there were the prophets, people who were appointed by God to be God’s messengers, “for human beings are able to learn from humans more directly about higher things.”
Such ways of God, Athanasius argues, afforded human beings the occasional upward glances, but our general insensitivity to God’s self and God’s will for us carried on. Something else—someone else—was called for.
You, O God, speak to us in many ways. Help us to listen. Amen.
February 17, 2022
Your face, O Lord, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation (Psalm 27:9).
Athanasius now returns to another question that he had previously explored only briefly: why, if humanity had become so obstinate and immune to God’s invitation into deeper relationship, does God not simply wash God’s hands of the whole affair and let (human) nature take its course?
It’s a question worth revisiting now that we know what God does to set things right: send God’s Word into the world to take on flesh, to live—and to die. We know how the story ends, of course, so we know that sin and death are no match for God’s power. Nevertheless, it is an extraordinary gesture compared to the hypothetical alternative that Athanasius brings up here: for God to do nothing.
What Athanasius concludes, however, is that such a course of action is not in God’s nature. It is God’s nature to love that which God has created, not to abandon it to its own self-destructive devices. We might wonder why God does not simply give up on us, but for God, that is never an option.
You, O God, love us no matter what. Help us to love you in return. Amen.
February 18, 2022
In [Christ], all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him (Colossians 1:15).
Scripture and other important Christian writings describe God in all sorts of ways: as a parent, ruler, creator, redeemer, companion, and so forth. Each of these descriptions is partly right because God is all these things, but none of them are definitive. Part of the wonder of God is that even though we can name God’s roles and attributes, we cannot get a handle on God as a whole. In some essential way, God lies beyond our capacity to describe and define.
Athanasius’s greatest contribution to this collection of divine titles comes in chapter 14 of On the Incarnation. He has already likened God to a King, but that is common. Here, he describes God as a painter whose work has been “soiled” by the accumulation of dirt and grime. And so God returns, but not to throw the portrait out and start over. No; God instead “renews” the image that God originally painted, using the original materials to bring the portrait back to life. And so it is with us, Athanasius argues. In Christ, God shall not cast creation aside and replace it, but restore it, as any loving artist would.
You, O God, see nothing as disposable. Help us to see in the same way. Amen.
February 19, 2022
The Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost (Luke 19:10).
If likening God to a restoration-minded artist is Athanasius’s greatest contribution to divine description, his second greatest must be this: likening God to a teacher. Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim described teaching as the “sacred profession,” and here, Athanasius assigns that profession a sacred practitioner: God revealed in Jesus Christ.
It is only natural that Jesus should be compared to a teacher, Athanasius argues, because just as “a good teacher always condescends to teach by simpler means those who are not able to benefit from more advanced things,” Jesus, in becoming human, makes God knowable to humanity once again.
Athanasius, then, is not only talking about the times in Scripture when Jesus is literally teaching, though that is part of it. Christ’s teachings in parables and proclamation are marvelous things to be treasured, certainly, but divine teaching is more than just speech. Jesus’s very life—and indeed his death and resurrection—is a teaching, because through him and the grace offered in him, his formal teachings become more than just words to ponder. They become glimpses of the Kingdom of God that we can see, understand, and live in. By coming down to teach on our level, Jesus is calling us up to a higher one.
You, O God, love us enough to teach us your ways. Help us to learn. Amen.
February 20, 2022
I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:18-19)
When we talk about who Jesus is and why he matters, we often start with the cross. This is understandable; after all, it is in dying and being raised from the dead that Christ has delivered us from servitude to sin and death, allowing us to live in hope of our own resurrection.
As Athanasius points out in this chapter of On the Incarnation, though, this begs the question: if Christ’s purpose in coming into the world was to die and be resurrected, what were the first 30ish years of his life on earth all about? Why did he bother living as a poor carpenter’s son in Nazareth, then as a Rabbi whose teachings incited all manner of controversy, if all he was doing was waiting around to die?
Athanasius’s answer is this: Christ living with us is as important a part of creation’s redemption as Christ dying for us. By taking the time to teach us and perform signs that attested to his identity, Christ showed us who he was. That way, when he did go to the cross, we could know why that mattered.
You, O God, know us. Help us to know you. Amen.
February 21, 2022
[Christ] himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed (1 Peter 2:24).
In this chapter, Athanasius addresses another difficult tangle that comes up when one tries to talk about Christ’s life as the embodied Word of God. He has explained why the Word took on human form and lived as one of us (see yesterday’s devotional), but that begs another question: how did the Word operate for the 30 years or so that Jesus lived? Was the “God who stretched the spangled heavens,” as the old hymn puts it, temporarily restricted to working through one man?
No, Athanasius affirms. The God who is the source and sustenance of all creation continued to “arrange,” “unfold,” and “give life to” all things at the same time that God was dwelling among us in Jesus Christ. To think otherwise, Athanasius argues, is to misunderstand the point of the Incarnation. God’s Word was born into the world so that God could be revealed, not confined. By sharing our human nature, Christ makes the work that God has always been doing throughout creation visible to us again, so that we might remember who it was who stretched the spangled heavens, and who guides their movement still.
Reveal yourself to us, O God, so that by your grace we may reveal you to others. Amen.
February 22, 2022
If I am not doing the works of my Father, do not believe me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father (John 10:37-38).
If we cannot know who Jesus is and why he matters without understanding that he is both human and divine, then it is important for us to avoid valuing one of those natures over the other in the conceptions of Christ that we each make for ourselves.
Athanasius illustrates this danger by imagining what would be lost if we only paid attention to the humanity of Christ and paid little or no mind to his divinity. If we did, we would see only a man, a man “who ate and was born and suffered,” just as we all do.
We can certainly see and comprehend this exclusively human Christ, and since Athanasius has already written that visibility and knowability are the twin aims of the incarnation, this would seem to be a good thing. It is, but Athanasius argues that we cannot stop there. God’s aim in becoming a human being is for God to be revealed in that human being, so that we might get reacquainted with a God we no longer know.
You, O God, are with us and beyond us. Help is to wonder at your glory. Amen.
February 23, 2022
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name (John 20:30-31).
Following up from yesterday’s devotion, how is it that the human Christ helps us begin to get reacquainted with God? For Athanasius, the answer to that question lies in the signs and wonders that Jesus performs, miracles that no person could do unless that person was also God. Being born of a virgin, turning water to wine, calming the storm, feeding thousands with a few stray fish and loaves of bread; each of these, and more, are evidence of Jesus’s divine identity.
As this section of On the Incarnation comes to a close, however, Athanasius teases the next one by turning at last to the miracle that stands above all others, both because of its scope and because of how central it is to who Jesus is and why he matters. We have seen how Christ has called us to know God through him by his life. Now, we shall see how Christ calls us to know him by his death. Let us turn now to the cross. Stay tuned.
You, O God, grace us with the miraculous. Help us to praise you for it. Amen.
February 24, 2022
He himself likewise shared [flesh and blood], so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power over death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death (Hebrews 2:14-15).
By this point in On the Incarnation, Athanasius has answered two thirds of the question that started this whole thing off: who is Jesus, and why does he matter? He has explained who Jesus is—the Word of God born into the world as a human being—and why it matters that he lived—so that we could get reacquainted with God through him.
Now, Athanasius turns to the final third of the question: why does it matter that Jesus died? A few chapters back, the author pondered why Jesus went through the trouble of living for 30ish years before going to the cross. Now, he does the reverse, and ponders why Jesus went to the cross instead of carrying on revealing God through his life and work.
Athanasius will take a few chapters to unpack his answer, but he offers the short version up front: by dying and being raised from the dead, Jesus removes death’s stranglehold on creation and calls us all into new life. How does that work? Athanasius is glad that you asked!
You, O God, have freed creation to flourish. Keep us from putting our constraints upon it. Amen.
February 25, 2022
When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “death has been swallowed up in victory (1 Corinthians 15:54).”
Following up from yesterday’s devotional chapter, Athanasius explains further why it matters that Jesus died. The answer lies in a “paradox,” a situation in which two contradictory things manage to coexist in spite of themselves.
In Jesus’s case, the paradox lies in the seemingly contradictory facts that as a human being, he can die, but as the eternal Word of God, he cannot die. Both cannot be true, yet both are, and that is why Jesus’s sacrifice matters: as one who dies and yet cannot die, Jesus short-circuits the machinery of death, not just for himself, but for all.
But why, pray tell, did Christ need to die on a cross? It’s such a humiliating, painful way to go. Why did Jesus not just wait until he succumbed to illness or old age? Would that not have accomplished the same thing? No, Athanasius argues, because although Christ was indeed a human being, his was an “incorruptible” body, one which knew no sin and as a result would not wither away to death of its own accord. Death would have to come for him.
You, O God, never take the easy way when it comes to love. Help us to do the same. Amen.
February 26, 2022
If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else (Romans 8:31-32)?
You may recall that at the beginning of On the Incarnation, Athanasius spent a great deal of time arguing against the idea that sin and death came into creation because of God’s weakness. His rebuttal—that God made human beings “free to choose” what our relationship with God would look like out of a loving desire for a mutual connection with us—re-casts our understanding of strength in God’s image. Where we might see strength in power and control, God sees it in charity and trust.
The idea of weakness comes up again with regard to Jesus’s death on a cross. Is it not a sign of weakness, Athanasius asks, that the Incarnate God was captured and tortured to death? Again, Athanasius argues that it only is if we refuse to accept God’s account of what it means to be strong. By going to the cross for our sake, by dying so that we might live, Jesus shows us what true strength—the kind that empowers others, the kind that loves and does not count the cost—looks like.
You, O God, are strong because you embrace weakness. Give us your strength. Amen.
February 27, 2022
[And Jesus said:] “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was going to die (John 12:32-33).
Now that he has made his case for Jesus’s death as a sign of God’s strength, not God’s weakness, Athanasius starts methodically circling around an important follow-up question: “yes, but why the cross?”
Athanasius has already noted two features of Christ’s death by crucifixion: it was public, and it was painful. Here, he zeros in on that first feature and asks what was accomplished by making Jesus’s death into such a public spectacle. To this imagined objection, Athanasius replies that Christ had to die publicly for his subsequent resurrection to be believed. If he had disappeared into some “deserted place,” only to reappear proclaiming that he had risen from the dead, he would surely be dismissed as a teller of “tall tales.”
This would topple everything. After all, if nobody believed that Jesus had actually been raised from the dead, including the Disciples, then there would have been nobody to proclaim the resurrection, and if nobody proclaimed the resurrection, then Christ’s deed would go unnoticed, undermining the point of the Incarnation as Athanasius sees it: that we should come to know God again. For that to happen, we had to see Jesus die.
You, O God, hide nothing from us. Help us to open our hearts to you. Amen.
February 28, 2022
Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone (Hebrews 2:9).
Athanasius now turns to this question: why did Jesus have to die in a way that was not only public, but humiliating?
In the ancient world, there were few more humiliating ways to die than crucifixion. Surely, Athanasius’s imagined reader objects, the Incarnate Word of God should have died a glorious and heroic death. Athanasius was likely thinking of the tragic heroes of Greek and Roman mythology. For us, the death of a superhero in an Avengers movie would fit the bill quite nicely.
Athanasius answers this objection by pointing out that for Jesus to have died a glorious death, he would have to have had a say in how he died. This would not serve God’s purposes because most of us do not have a say in how we will die, and so Christ could not be said to share in the death of all people. Death is something that happens to us, not something that we can choreograph in advance. For Jesus’s death to make us alive, death had to happen to him, too.
You, O God, do not glorify yourself at the expense of others. Help us to be like you. Amen.