Monday, May 2, 2011

C.S. Lewis on St. Athanasius

Would that more churches remembered (or even bore the name) of St. Athanasius.  Today marks the commemoration of St. Athanasius of Alexandria, Pastor and Confessor.  He stood firmly against the hordes of Arians (no, not the wrist-raising types, the anti-christ types) at Nicaea and continued to defend Christian orthodoxy through his preaching, teaching and writing, none perhaps more famous - and quite deservedly so - than his Treatise De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, or simply, On the Incarnation.  His life, marked by attempted murder and continuous exile, is a reminder that the Church of Christ and her saints, are never promised "your best life now" in this life.  In spite of this, Athanasius stands as a pillar of the faith precisely because it was Christ that upheld him and Christ whom he pointed to.

How should we commemorate this faithful saint? You can learn more about St. Athanasius here. You can read and confess the creed that bears his name, although it was not written by him, but echoes in the same refrain of Christian orthodoxy. And, for the record, the Athanasian Creed should be said, read, marked and inwardly digested more than one day a year by the Christian Church.  You can, in the words of C.S. Lewis, sit back with a pencil and a pipe in hand and enjoy a good old book (and to that I would add your particular choice of tasty beverage from the vine or field, hops or wheat and so forth).  Or you could pick up the book itself and check out the words of Athanasius.  On the Incarnation is exquisite, sublime and yet simply lucid - not to mention brief, which is one of its strengths.  As Lewis points out, "the layman and the amateur [as well as the instructor, etc.] needs to be instructed as well as to be exhorted.  In this age his need for knowledge is particularly pressing.  Nor would I admit any sharp division between the two kinds of books.  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."

If you don't have a copy of the book with Lewis' introduction, find one and fast.  It's one of the best introductions you'll read.  Lewis' words still ring true more than 50 years later.  He's right, doctrinal books are devotional precisely because good theology (as is true of good old books) are always practical, always relevant and always pointing us to Christ and Him Crucified in Word and Sacrament.  Without further commentary, here are some Lewis highlights for the commemoration of Athanasius:

His epitaph is Athanasius contra mundum, "Athanasius against the world."  We are proud that our own country has more than once stood against the world.  Athanasius did the same.  He stood for the Trinitarian doctrine, "whole and undefiled," when it looked as if all the civilized world was slipping back from Christianity into the religion of Arius - into one of those "sensible" synthetic religions which are so strongly recommended today and which, then as now, included among their devotees many highly cultivated clergy.  It is his glory that he did not move with the times; it is his reward that he now remains when those times, as all times do, have moved away.

When I first opened his De Incarnatione I soon discovered by a very simple test that I was reading a masterpiece.  I knew very little Christian Greek except that of the New Testament and I had expected difficulties.  To my astonishment I found it almost as easy as Xenophon; and only a master mind could, in the 4th century, have written so deeply on such a subject with such classical simplicity.  Every page I read confirmed this impression.  His approach to miracles is badly needed today, for it is the final answer to those who object to them as "arbitrary and meaningless violations of the laws of Nature."  They are here shown to be rather the re-telling in capital letters of the same message which Nature writes in her crabbed cursive hand; the very operations one would expect of Him who was so full of life that when He wished to doe He had to "borrow death from others."  The whole book, indeed, is a picture of the Tree of Life - a sappy and golden book, full of buoyancy and confidence.

- C.S. Lewis, Introduction to On the Incarnation, MacMillan, 1949.

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