ESTERDAY, the Church celebrated the feast of Saint Athanasius (c. 296-298 to 373), the exemplary bishop of Alexandria who proved himself not only a faithful and long-suffering shepherd to his people, but also a distinguished theologian.
He authored the remarkable “festal letters,” which make for good reading during Paschaltide.
The title of this post, however, is drawn from his treatise De incarnatione Verbi (“On the Incarnation of the Word,” PG 25:95-198), which might first seem a better fit for Christmastide. I would nevertheless like to reflect on this striking turn of phrase, which caught my attention because of its reference to beauty.
Athanasius begins this work (available here) with a defense of Christian belief in creation ex nihilo. Against the teachings of the Epicureans and Plato and the Gnostics, he argues that the infinite God created the universe not from pre-existent matter, but rather brought it into being “out of nothing and out of non-existence absolute and utter.” 1
He goes on to describe God’s intention in placing Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Still in chapter one of the treatise, Athanasius writes this:
He set them in His own paradise, and laid upon them a single prohibition. If they guarded the grace and retained the loveliness of their original innocence, then the life of paradise should be theirs, without sorrow, pain or care, and after it the assurance of immortality in heaven. But if they went astray and became vile, throwing away their birthright of beauty, then they would come under the natural law of death and live no longer in paradise, but, dying outside of it, continue in death and in corruption. 2
Notice first that, for Athanasius, the “life of paradise” is not some life hereafter, but rather life on earth in perfect accord with God’s will. Note, also, that this ideal life is what he characterizes as humanity’s “birthright of beauty.” We “throw away” this birthright by sin.
Later in the chapter, Athanasius writes that, by turning from eternal things to corruptible things, our first parents surrendered “the beauty of innocence with which they were created.” 3
What first struck me about these texts is the correspondence Athanasius sees between beauty and holiness of life. We have often written about beauty on Views from the Choir Loft, mostly from an artistic or aesthetic perspective. This great fourth-century bishop invites us to contemplate beauty from different angles, as 1) one of God’s original gifts, 2) the state of harmony with God, and 3) a quality of life in paradise.
May all Christians, during this Paschaltide, resolve not to throw away this birthright, but rather live in the beauty of innocence for which we were created!
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 Saint Athanasius, De incarnatione Verbi, no. 3, available from Christian Classics Ethereal Library online: https://www.ccel.org/ccel/athanasius/incarnation.ii.html.
2 Saint Athanasius, De incarnatione Verbi, no. 3, available from Christian Classics Ethereal Library online: https://www.ccel.org/ccel/athanasius/incarnation.ii.html.
3 Saint Athanasius, De incarnatione Verbi, no. 5, available from Christian Classics Ethereal Library online: https://www.ccel.org/ccel/athanasius/incarnation.ii.html.