“You must know, moreover, that the corruption which had set in was not external to the body but established within it. The need, therefore, was that life should cleave to it in corruption’s place, so that, just as death was brought into being in the body, life might also be engendered in it. But if death was within the body, woven into its very substance and dominating it as though completely one with it, the need was for Life to be woven into it instead, so that the body by thus enduing itself with life might cast corruption off” (Athanasius,. St. Athanasius On The Incarnation. 1st ed. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, 1953, 80-81.).
Christmas may be many things; simple is not one of them. In preparing for preaching this season, I’ve some across so much advice to just “keep it simple” and to “let the story tell itself.” Perhaps that might be good advice for the sermon; simplicity in preaching is certainly a virtue to be cultivated. But the incarnation as a choice of God is not simple. Nor is it easy.
Athanasius reminds us that the enfleshment of God is not a simple matter of God becoming one of us; the point of this move by God is not to simply give us a way to become more like God. No easy equivalence is reached in the manger. What God is doing at Christmas is simple as reversing corruption, unrotting the meaty heart of humanity. Have you ever un-turned spoiled flesh? Simple, right?
Christmas is simple like chemo is simple; here is the chair, the needle, the bag. All obvious. But beneath the camouflage of skin real work ensues: “Life..woven” into our flesh. God with us, raging with us against the dying of the light.
For Athanasius, God is incarnate in Christ, and more: God is insinuate, from the latin in + sinuare = to bend, wind, curve into. While he does not use this term, insinuation sounds like a more apt description than incarnation. Tendrils unfurl from the stump of Jesse and wind their sinews into all our foul stuff. And gradually, lovingly, often painfully relieving us of the Death of which our physical death is but one token. The incarnation is not a happy bridge that, once built from God’s side of the chasm, provides the transport that I simply could not build before. No. Christ has insinuated himself into my marrow; I surely did lack the Way. But I lacked so much more than a possible itinerary. I lacked the will to walk it or any desire to greet my Lover on the other side.
For the past several years, life has been engendered in me in rooms of recovery: twelve simple steps. I and my fellows have loved them, hated them, prayed and screamed over them, kicked against their goads, rested our faces against their cool calculus. At times we have left program thinking, there must be another way to sobriety. Many of us have come back to the rooms for the only answer that seemed to both promise and fulfill. We found that the words had insinuated themselves into our flesh: “I can’t. God can. I think I’ll let God.” Simple, right? Simple like surrender is simple. Like casting out the demonic.
The insinuate God is pushing into, twisting through, and climbing over all our preferences for death. This is apparently the incarnation God chooses in Christ. Like when I laid eyes on my children for the first time and many other times. My children crept into me by windings and curvings, then grippings, and then, by God, I was owned and pwned. They insinuated themselves into me. I can barely remember that former man whose corrupt self-focus has now been squeezed nearly to death. Nearly.
What God seems to be about in the incarnation is not just sharing our life or even emptying himself into human form. For Athanasius, the “Magic” of Christmas is simple. Like exorcism is simple.