Spoiler Alert: It has nothing to do with the big guy in the red suit.
“The things which they, as men, rule out as impossible, He plainly shows to be possible; that which they deride as unfitting, His goodness makes most fit; and things which these wiseacres laugh at as ‘human’ He by His inherent might declares divine. Thus by what seems His utter poverty and weakness on the cross He overturns the pomp and parade of idols, and quietly and hiddenly wins over the mockers and unbelievers to recognize Him as God.”
St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, Accordance location: accord://read/Athanasius#3
Back in the late eighties, I worked in a religious bookstore. Back then stores like ours still put emphasis on the books themselves over all the ancillary gift items which seem to be the main focus of many such stores these days. Our store did sell a few gift items, though, and around the Christmas season, we couldn’t keep enough of those little “Jesus is the reason for the season” pins in stock.
I suppose in its day, these pins were a volley against the increasing commercialization of Christmas, a celebration that began as a true “holy day” in every sense of the word but eventually became distorted through the addition of a mythologized St. Nicholas, decorated trees, and flying reindeer. I eventually figured out that it was going to take much more than a lapel pin slogan to get the point across, and fully realized this on the day that I actually saw a custom-made, diamond studded (I kid you not) version of the “Jesus is the reason for the season” pin.
Most would agree that the Christmas popularized today is a far cry from the roots of the first advent and nativity of Jesus Christ. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t mind the Christmas trees and lights, and I suppose I’ve yet to turn down a Christmas gift offered to me. I realize that the kind of corrective-message pin that I described above meant little more than “Hey, let’s try to emphasize Jesus more than Santa Claus this year” regardless of how successful that message ever actually was. Setting aside cultural expressions of the Christmas holiday, I’d like to encourage the person who truly wants to embrace the idea that “Jesus is the reason for the season” (outward lapel pin or not) reflect not upon just the what or who of the nativity but also the why. And who better to help us do that than St. Athanasius of Alexandria.
St. Athanasius was born near the end of the third century and served as bishop of Alexandria--although often serving from exile--for 45 years. Most of Athanasius’ life and career (he probably would not have made such a distinction) was in reaction to the growing heretical movement known as Arianism.
Arius, an Alexandrian priest, "denied that the preincarnate Christ (the Logos) was co-equal and co-eternal with God the Father. Arius ... argued that Christ was created by God out of nothing and was therefore a creature" (Pocket Dictionary of Church History, Accordance location: accord://read/Pocket_Church_History#74). As the teachings of Arius gained in popularity and influence, Athanasius took on the title Athanasius Contra Mundum (“Athanasius Against the World”).
Side note: For a thorough but concise overview of the life and works of St. Athanasius, I would encourage Accordance users to check out William Wright's excellent entry on Athanasius in The Dictionary of Early Christian Biography from Hendrickson.
One of St. Athanasius’ most famous works in this regard is known as De Incarnatione (On the Incarnation). Our English word incarnation comes from the Latin, incarno, which means “to be made flesh.”
Interestingly, though, most historians of the early church agree that St. Athanasius wrote On the Incarnation before the rise of the Arian controversy. However, it was this work by Athanasius that created an apologetic and theological foundation from which to defend orthodox Christian teaching against the claims of Arius as the heretical movement gained momentum.
As might be expected, St. Athanasius pointed to the Fall in Genesis 3 as a cause for a growing corruption in humanity and in the world that God had prepared for his creation. In order for this to be corrected, the Incorruptible One had to enter into what had been corrupted. St. Athanasius writes,
"…it was our sorry case that caused the Word to come down, our transgression that called out His love for us, so that He made haste to help us and to appear among us. It is we who were the cause of His taking human form, and for our salvation that in His great love He was both born and manifested in a human body. For God had made man thus (that is, as an embodied spirit), and had willed that he should remain in incorruption. But men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death. Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion. For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good. By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing; but he bears also the Likeness of Him Who is, and if he preserves that Likeness through constant contemplation, then his nature is deprived of its power and he remains incorrupt." (Accordance location: accord://read/Athanasius#21)
St. Athanasius explains further,
"For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world … This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection. Thus He would make death to disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire." (Accordance location: accord://read/Athanasius#43)
I would commend St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation to Accordance users who want to gain a better understanding of why the First Advent took place. By today’s standards, Athanasius may not be an easy read. I would not recommend trying to rush through his thought process, but rather take him in small doses, allowing time for reflection.
Click/tap the image above for a larger view.
Fortunately, Accordance users have a few options when it comes to Athanasius. First, we have two English translations. I prefer the translation by Penelope Lawson, which is the translation from which I have quoted in the excerpts above, and available for the Accordance Library by itself (On the Incarnation of the Word by Athanasius). However, if you want to read Athanasius in the original Greek, a complete morphologically tagged edition is available that is designed to be read in parallel with the Schaff/Wace translation from the fourth volume of Nice and Post Nicene Fathers 2. This bundle includes a number of other works by Anathasius, all with both morphologically-tagged Greek, English translation, and notes (Works of Athanasius: Greek and English). And, speaking of the Schaff/Wace translation, if you read the text in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 2, you have the benefit of full descriptive headers for each section.
Although Arius may be no more, elements of Arianism are alive and well in our world today. Therefore, consider equipping yourself with the words of St. Athanasius, who wrote, “…wherever a man turns his gaze he sees the Godhead of the Word and is smitten with awe.”
This past Sunday, I taught my Sunday School class about the prophecy of Immanuel in Isaiah 7:14 and how Matthew applied that prophecy to the birth of Jesus in Matthew 1:22–23. That's not as easy as it sounds if you're trying to deal responsibly with Isaiah 7:14 in its original context.
All too often, Christians have read Isaiah 7 like this:
"Uh, ok … Isaiah is talking to some guy named Ahaz … umm, something about Aram and Ephraim and Rezin and some son of Remaliah … hmmm, when do we get to the part about Jesus?"
When they finally do get to the verse which speaks of a virgin conceiving, they forget about all those strange names and details and think Isaiah is suddenly shifting his attention to events which would not take place for another 700 years.
I wanted to correct this approach by teaching my class about the original context of Isaiah 7. That of course, means explaining that the Syrian kingdom of Aram and the northern Israelite kingdom of Ephraim had formed an alliance against the southern Israelite kingdom of Judah, whose king Isaiah was telling to trust God for deliverance. A map of these kingdoms is easily worth a thousand words, so I opened a Map in Accordance and chose Divided Kingdoms from the Region Layers pop-up menu.
After I had oriented them, we looked at the nature of the "sign" of the child named Immanuel, and I explained that this was a sign that God would deliver the people of Judah quickly. If they had to wait 700 years just to receive the sign, that would kind of defeat the purpose of Isaiah's prophecy of deliverance! We then looked at the birth of this child and the fulfillment of the prophecy, which happens almost immediately in Isaiah chapter 8!
If all of this sounds confusing or is new to you, you'll find a good explanation of what is going on in this passage in most commentaries or study Bibles. The NET Notes, which almost every Accordance user should have, does an excellent job with this, and Beale and Carson's Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament is specifically designed to focus on these kinds of interpretive issues. My point here is not to get too embroiled in the details, but to show how Accordance makes teaching this kind of thing to an adult Sunday School class much, much easier.
By the time I had finished explaining the original context of Isaiah's prophecy and had discussed the way Matthew applied this prophecy to the birth of Jesus, the folks in my Sunday School class were pretty excited. Most of them had never heard these things before, and far from being bewildered by a more complete reading of these passages, they were actually encouraged by it. One gentleman then asked me, "Is this taught in seminaries?" I think he was trying to figure out why he had never previously heard these things taught.
I answered that I think sometimes preachers and teachers are reluctant to correct our overly simplistic and out-of-context readings of well-known passages because they're afraid they might upset people. Yet my Sunday School class was perfectly capable of accepting these things without any protest. I wonder if we aren't sometimes selling our people short by assuming they're not ready for more than a Christmas card-level interpretation of a passage.
Personally, I find that presenting my lessons using Accordance is always helpful when I'm challenging people to move beyond the shallow end of the interpretive pool. By showing them maps and passages on a projector screen, I give them something they can clearly focus on, which cuts down on the confusion that naturally accompanies having to unlearn long-held assumptions. I'd encourage any pastors and teachers out there not to be afraid to teach a deeper understanding of the Bible. Your people can handle it, and Accordance can help.
Do you find yourself producing more visuals than usual during Advent? Is your church producing slide presentations, bulletins, flyers advertising a Christmas program, and the like? Are you sending out Christmas cards and letters? Do you ever find yourself looking for unique Christmas images to include in all these documents and presentations?
You can do a Google image search and find some nice images, but it can be a lot of work separating the wheat from the chaff. When you do manage to find the perfect image, it is often too small and low-resolution to be usable.
For that reason, I have long relied on Accordance resources like Bible Art for high-quality Christmas images. If you were to look back at my family Christmas letters over the past several years, you would see them adorned with quite a few images from that one module. Last year we added the Christmas Classics module with some additional Christmas images. And of course, an image search of your entire Accordance library can turn up additional images in unexpected places.
One relatively new resource which I plan to mine for images in upcoming years is Historic Views of the Holy Land: The American Colony and Eric Matson Collection. This massive collection of photographs from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries offers views of Israel that you just don't see today, and many of those photographs actually reenact biblical scenes. For example, a simple search for Bethlehem turned up the following images reminiscent of the shepherds:
…and the magi:
…and the birth of Jesus:
How cool are those? There are many more images which illustrate the Christmas story, and countless others which illustrate other biblical narratives. It's really an incredible resource.
If you're looking for unique and high-quality images to adorn your various projects this Advent, you'll find Bible Art, Christmas Classics, and especially the Historic Views of the Holy Land collection extremely helpful.
Christmas is a season of story, song, artistry, and devotion. At its heart is the story of Jesus' birth, narrated in the Gospels and linked with a rich web of Old Testament prophecies and later New Testament reflections. Over the centuries, Christian preachers, poets, storytellers, and artists have reflected on the significance of the Christmas story in their own way, so that a rich body of Christmas literature and art now exists. We're excited to bring some of the best of that material together in a new Accordance module of Christmas Classics.
Christmas Classics begins with the Christmas story itself by providing Scripture readings for each day of Advent. These are followed by a selection of Christmas sermons by great preachers like Leo the Great, Martin Luther, George Whitefield, and Charles Spurgeon. Those who own John Piper's Sermon Manuscript Library can also follow links to his various Christmas sermons.
The next two sections include Christmas Carols and Christmas Poetry. The Carols section includes the lyrics to each carol along with a link to the iTunes store. Looking for just the right version of Silent Night to play this Christmas? Just click the link to sample recordings by Faith Hill, Johnny Mathis, Andy Williams, Ray Coniff, even Willie Nelson!
The next section of Christmas Classics is called "Stories and Legends." It includes richly illustrated versions of Clement Moore's 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Match Girl, and O. Henry's The Gift of the Magi. You'll also find the famous newspaper column, "Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus."
The final section of Christmas Classics contains images of the birth of Jesus by great artists like Rembrandt, Rubens, and Doré, along with an index to the illustrations from 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, A Christmas Carol, and The Gift of the Magi. If you're looking for the right image to include in a Keynote slide show or Christmas letter, Christmas Classics is a rich source to mine.
In addition to mining this module for images, you can also use Accordance's search capabilities to find quotations and excerpts with which to illustrate your own sermons and lessons. Search for a word or phrase like "peace on earth" or "Christ is born," and you may find a useful illustration from a lesser known verse of a carol or a bit of dialogue in the middle of a story.
This treasure trove of Christmas literature and art is on sale through December 24 for just ten dollars—a savings of 66% off the list price. Best of all, you can download and install Christmas Classics right away through Easy Install.