On The Incarnation (1:3b) Animated Dirt-Clumps, Shards of Eternity

Upon them, therefore, upon men who, as animals, were essentially impermanent, He bestowed a grace which other creatures lacked—namely the impress of His own Image, a share in the reasonable being of the very Word Himself, so that, reflecting Him and themselves becoming reasonable and expressing the Mind of God even as He does, though in limited degree they might continue forever in the blessed and only true life of the saints in paradise. But since the will of man could turn either way, God secured this grace that He had given by making it conditional from the first upon two things—namely, a law and a place. He set them in His own paradise, and laid upon them a single prohibition.

Athanasius is painting a picture here: humans are not animals, nor are we angels. In some sense, humanity is an animal; if you look at things in a strictly biological way. We are mammals or “featherless bipeds” as Plato put it. There is an impermanence to animals – they do not think, or conceptualize. They do not reason. They have no understanding of eternity or their own mortality. They are born, they eat, sleep, mate, survive and die. Athanasius locates humanity in the progression of Genesis 1 – after the animals. Humanity is the apex of creation. There is something different about how God created humans when compared to the rest of creation.

God imbued upon humanity the strange gift of His own Image. I say “strange gift” because it proved to be more than we could handle, and yet it was better than being created a mere brute. God made Adam from the dirt and breathed into him the “breath of life” which made him a “living soul.” As Athanasius puts it, God bestowed a grace upon humanity which other creatures lacked, “the impress of His own Image.” The phrase Athanasius uses afterward to further explain what this grace was is fascinating: “A share in the reasonable being of the very Word himself.” It seems that A. is painting a picture of “temporal” mud being dug out of the ground, formed, animated and given a “shard of eternity.” This gift is meant to bring us meaning, love, truth, beauty and exhilarating freedom. What we see in Genesis is that this can also be an infuriatingly difficult gift to come to terms with. It can be exploited and misused so that we hide behind it and fall backwards when God intends us to go forward in it and thrive.

It’s difficult to describe this gift, because it covers so much; basically it is what separates us from animals. Try putting THAT into a succinct definition. We can come up with words like rationality and creativity. We can point to the fact that all human cultures came up with elaborate mythologies to explain the world around them, independent of each other. We need stories to make sense of things. We are not simply content with mere survival; we need something more. So the ability to reason – that’s a huge piece of this, but what God seems to be after is a creation that He can RELATE to. The Image of God in us makes us relational beings. It is when God brings up the subject of the Image in Gen. 1 that we glimpse a plurality in God (“Let US make man in OUR Image”) so this is a big part of what the Image is all about – it encodes within each of us a relational nature. We are not created to be Lone Wolves; remember the first thing God notices in His creation that ISN’T good – that the man was alone. Humans are also creative because of the Image of God in us. We can observe the world around us and take notes. We feel the desire to express ourselves; to tell our stories. We laugh and we sigh. The Image of God is a bewildering gift. It can be used rightly and it can be misused.

Notice that God does not simply give this puzzling gift and leave humans to figure it out by themselves. God desired that we would use this gift to its fullest and go bravely into all the world, “subduing it.” But He gave us very definite boundaries and instruction for “going forward” into the fullness of this gift. God doesn’t seem to like stagnation. He wasn’t content to give us this gift and watch us bury it for safe-keeping. He placed humans in a garden (Eden) and gave them a very simple test. Do not eat from this tree. Eat from ANY other tree but this one.

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. This is what Holy Scripture tells us, proclaiming the command of God, “Of every tree that is in the garden thou shalt surely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil ye shall not eat, but in the day that ye do eat, ye shall surely die.” (Gen. ii. 16 f.) “Ye shall surely die”—not just die only, but remain in the state of death and of corruption.

What is paradise? We in our fallen state try to recreate our own paradise here and now, but what was it then? Was it a couple of hammocks on the beach and bottomless margaritas? According to our paradise-themed resorts, yes. Paradise is being pampered, because after all, we deserve it. Our idea of paradise comes from a self-centered fantasy and a general misplaced desire to be lazy. But God didn’t create us to lay around and be pampered. God created us to explore His vast creation, to make discoveries, to interact with Him and live in this world in relationship with Him and each other. Paradise is a vibrant, dynamic place. It is a place where we named the animals; co-creating with God. It is a place of deep interaction with God and each other. The fact that it was “pleasing to the eye” is a testimony to the generosity and overflowing creativity of God.

So A. shows us that this choice or “test” given was between guarding this grace (God’s Image in us) and “retaining the loveliness of their original innocence” and “going astray and becoming vile” and continuing in death and corruption. Going forward in His grace (“growing in grace”) or falling backwards, misusing the gift and becoming agents of death and corruption in God’s good creation. We’ll see in the next installment how the choice went and the ramifications of it for us.

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~ by shardsofeternity on December 6, 2011.

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