Why do you, being God, make yourself man?

Athanasius turns around the charge the religious experts level at Jesus in John 10:33. They say to him “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.” Why does Jesus, a man, make himself God? Rather, Athanasius says, in De Decretis 1, they should have put it: “Why do you, being God, make yourself man?” (διατὶ σὺ θεὸς ὤν ἄνθρωπος γέγονας;)

Why indeed? This is the surprise, the twist, in the Christmas narrative. Why is it that one of the Trinity has taken on humanity? Why has God become human – and a baby at that? Why has “he who was rich beyond all splendour” become so poor?

Christians have always marvelled at this – and spoken their answer in reverent awe. They take their cue from the Scriptures – for example, in Paul’s claim that Jesus came “in the fulness of time” to redeem us (Galatians 4:4), and John’s claim that he came to bring light, life, truth and grace (John 1), and in the “trustworthy saying” of 1Timothy 1:15: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”. God became man to save humanity.

Reflecting on this, Athanasius writes in his On the Incarnation that it was indeed necessary for God to become human to save humanity from sin, and the conseqences of sin – “death and corruption”. In words which resonate with such later writers as Augustine, Anselm and Calvin, and draw upon Paul’s language of “union with Christ”, he says:

“taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father. This he did out of sheer love for us, so that in his death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men” (2.8)

Christmas and Easter are bound together. As God became human, he became able to suffer the death and corruption that came about as a result of humanity’s sin. Truly becoming man, he was truly able to die, and in dying, “abolish” the punishment of death and corruption for all those united to him. Because he was, is and remains also God, death could have no hold on him, and was itself defeated – setting us free:

For by the sacrifice of His own body He did two things: He put an end to the law of death which barred our way; and He made a new beginning of life for us, by giving us the hope of resurrection. By man death has gained its power over men; by the Word made Man death has been destroyed and life raised up anew. (2.10)

Athanasius points us beyond a pretty Nativity scene and gifts and goodwill to the mind-changing truth behind Christmas. That child in the manger is also God. “He who made the world lies in Mary’s arms”, in the words of a modern Christmas song. Why has he come? To reveal, to heal, to rescue… by his death. Easter cannot but follow Christmas, and that child cannot but one day be rejected and crucified – and in dying, paradoxically defeat death and sin and corruption for those he calls to be united with him. It’s powerful. It’s not what we expect. And if it’s true, it changes everything.

And all this, to use Athanasius’ phrase, is done “out of sheer love for us”.

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One Response to “Why do you, being God, make yourself man?”

  1. Tweets that mention Why do you, being God, make yourself man? « Phil Whitehead -- Topsy.com Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Dave Bish, Matthew Weston. Matthew Weston said: RT @bluefishproject: God, why did you become man? Out of sheer love https://agyapw.wordpress.com/2009/12/24/why-do-you-being-god-make-you … […]

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