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Thinking Out Loud

A City Occupied: A Christmastide Reflection

by Michael Jinkins | Dec 29, 2015

Christmastide ReflectionI read old books. I read new ones too, of course. But I often read old books. Why?

Anyone who has read the excellent essays of Marilynne Robinson will see how much we can benefit from allowing our minds to be nourished by texts from the past. Her essay, “On Human Nature,” bringing writers like Gregory of Nyssa into conversation with William James and Richard Rorty, provokes the imagination in ways that a reading of contemporaries alone could never have achieved.*

G.K. Chesterton has said that listening to the voices of the past – and this includes the voices preserved in what we often refer to as “tradition” – is a way of extending the franchise to the generations who have gone before us. The dead should get to vote, Chesterton says.

In his preface to a very old book (I’ll turn to this specific book in a moment), C.S. Lewis says that old books help us put “the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective.” For this reason, he believed that for every new book we read, we ought to read one old book. We keep a balanced perspective by drawing on wisdom old and new. This seems pretty sensible to me. We are tempted to believe that the crises, debates, problems and controversies of the moment in which we live are the worst ever faced. Old books help us to see that no age was ever free of difficulties. They also help us to understand that the assumptions we share in an age may be the very things keeping us from finding solutions. A “new” solution can sometimes come from a very “old” source. “Two heads are better than one,” C.S. Lewis writes in his preface, “not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.” This is particularly true if one of the heads comes from a very different time.

The book to which Lewis wrote this preface is, as I said a moment ago, a very old one. It dates from the fourth century A.D. and was written by one of the greatest theologians of the ancient church, Athanasius. The title of the book is De Incarnatione or On the Incarnation.**

I confess that I love this book, although I do not share the general philosophical worldview of its author. I learn something new every time I turn to this very old book. It is without apology a book of Christian doctrine, a theological book of the highest order, and it requires careful study, not only to understand it in the context of its own philosophical and theological world, but to translate it (literally and figuratively) into our contemporary vernacular. But I have often found that it is precisely in this hard work of study and translation that we gain some of the most extraordinary “spiritual” insights.

Again, in his preface to this book, C.S. Lewis observes:

“For my own part I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.”

To show what I (and Lewis) mean, I would like to reflect for a few moments on just one of the many ways Athanasius attempts to plumb the meaning of the mystery of God’s incarnation.

For Athanasius, our atonement is inseparable from God’s union with humanity in Jesus Christ. Humanity has been atoned with God in Jesus Christ. We have been reconciled with God in the act of God’s becoming human. And now, our human flesh has been taken into the very depths of the Triune God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit; in union with God, our broken humanity is healed.

Athanasius attempts to explain what this means for us by telling a story. Imagine, he writes, a great king who has entered into a great city that has become overrun by bandits and brigands. These enemies are ruining the city. The great king takes up residence in one of the houses of this city and declares the city to be his own. Indeed, the great king makes it his own by dwelling in this city. The king’s occupation of the city has the effect of routing the bandits and brigands who would not dare to exert their claims or attempt to take advantage of the city’s inhabitants now that the city has been made the king’s own. The king has united himself to the city and to its inhabitants through his presence in it. The city is his. Athanasius then draws the line clearly from the illustration to the theological reality:

“For since God has come to our realm and has dwelt in a body similar to ours, now every machination of the enemy against humanity has ceased and the corruption of death, which formerly had power over them, has been destroyed. For the race of humanity would have perished, unless the Lord of all and Savior, the Son of God, had come to put an end to death.” (De Incarnatione, chapter nine).

Speaking as Athanasius did in an age when earthly kingdoms were common and lawless brigands were a regular threat, his example would have been immediately understandable. However, there’s almost a greater effect in hearing the story today when literal kingdoms are few and the threats we face are somewhat different. The metaphor works perhaps even better because of the distance and dissimilarities.

Metaphors always point to deep truths through their congruities and incongruities. One might almost say that like art (according to Pablo Picasso), metaphors tell us the truth by telling us a lie, or at least only a partial truth. The friction between the metaphor and that of which the metaphor speaks can make the meaning even more intelligible.

In the time and philosophical world of Athanasius, there was a logic at work in his story that does not work with most of us today. And, yet, there is still a wisdom operative in the notion that God has laid claim fully to humanity by becoming fully human. In our own time when the Christian doctrine of atonement is either ignored as altogether irrelevant or is clung to as an appeasement of a blood-thirsty deity by the death of an innocent, Athanasius’ old book breathes new life into the doctrine, reminding us that Jesus Christ is God’s atonement, that God always acts in love for all the world, that God is not a split personality divided between loving and hating, that when we celebrate Christmas, we are celebrating God’s being for us fully and forever.

This is one idea that never gets old, however old the book is that conveys it.

*Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 1-29.
**Lewis’s preface to On the Incarnation was reprinted by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press in 2011 in an edition of the book translated (with an introduction by) John Behr. It provides an excellent and clearly accessible edition of the classic text. For those with more technical interest, I highly recommend the edition edited and translated by Robert W. Thomson, Contra Gentes and De Incarnatione, in the Oxford Early Christian Texts series (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971) which provides both the Greek text and a good English translation.

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