Friday, July 30, 2010

Athanasius on the death of death

Reading On the Incarnation has been a wonderful way for me to dip my toes into the writings of the Patristics. There's great inspirational and intellectual value in reading these saints of old. I hope to do more. I did find parts of this book a bit tedious (Athanasius tends to plow the same ground over and over) but overall it was a great read.

If you're not familiar with On the Incarnation it's written in the form of a letter from Athansius to a Macarius, described as a "true lover of Christ." Reading between the lines it seems like Macarius was a youngish convert to Christianity, perhaps converted under the teaching of the bishop. Essentially it's a treatise on apologetics, as Athanasius gives the younger man ammunition with which to defend the orthodox teaching concerning the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Though the Incarnation is the main focus Athanasius begins with the doctrines of creation and fall, moving on to the problem of sin and how a just and holy God could redeem/recreate his fallen creation.

One of the most stirring sections of the book is when Athanasius points to the example of Christian martyrs, abundant in those days, as evidence for Christ's victory over death at the cross.

A very strong proof of this destruction of death and its conquest by the cross is supplied by a present fact, namely this. All the disciples of Christ despise death; they take the offensive against it and, instead of fearing it, by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ trample on it as something dead.

. . . men who, before they believe in Christ, think death horrible and are afraid of it, once they are converted despise it so completely that they go eagerly to meet it, and themselves become witnesses of the Saviour's resurrection from it. Even children hasten thus to die, and not men only, but women train themselves by bodily discipline to meet it. . . . Death has become like a tyrant who has been completely conquered by the legitimate monarch; bound hand and foot as he now is, the passers-by jeer at him, hitting him and abusing him, no longer afraid of his cruelty and rage, because of the king who conquered him. So has death been conquered and branded for what it is by the Saviour on the cross. It is bound hand and foot, all who are in Christ trample it as they pass and as witnesses to Him deride it, scoffing and saying, "O Death, where is thy victory? O Grave, where is thy sting?"

Quotes from pp. 57-8 of this edition

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