When God Waited for Our Salvation: Timing the Resurrection in St. Athanasius’ _On the Incarnation_

As I mentioned the other day, I’m reading St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation during this Nativity season. This time around, I’m listening to the treatise on audiobook while going about other tasks. Since I frequently zone out to concentrate on whatever I’m doing–the dishes, the laundry, cleaning the bathroom–I’m listening to it multiple times and letting my mind rest on whatever strikes it during a given listening.

Which means–to the ire all the textualists out there–the reflections posted here are out of order. I’m writing as thoughts occur to me rather than mapping everything out ahead of time and posting in the order presented in In the Incarnation.

That’s an especially good caveat for today’s post, which dwells on the fifth chapter, “The Resurrection of Christ.”

There’s an interesting point in this chapter where St. Athanasius talks about the timing of the resurrection in proportion to the crucifixion.

On the one hand, St. Athanasius notes that Christ could have been resurrected immediately after His death, perhaps even in the same instant. (“It was, of course, within His power thus to have raised His body and displayed it as alive directly after death.”) For the sake of human perceptions, however, He deigned to wait, “lest some should deny that [Christ] had really or completely died.”

Essentially, He allowed an interval of time to pass between His death and resurrection in order that those around Him could be fully convinced of the totality of His death. And yet, even this interval had to be divinely timed, according to St. Athanasius. Had it been too short, people wouldn’t have grasped the reality of Christ’s death. Too long, and they would have forgotten or “grown doubtful whether it were in truth the same body.” Thus, says St. Athanasius,

He waited one whole day to show that His body was really dead, and then on the third day showed it incorruptible to all. The interval was no longer, lest people should have forgotten about it and grown doubtful whether it were in truth the same body. No, while the affair was still ringing in their ears and their eyes were still straining and their minds in turmoil, and while those who had put Him to death were still on the spot and themselves witnessing to the fact of it, the Son of God after three days showed His once dead body immortal and incorruptible; and it was evident to all that it was from no natural weakness that the body which the Word indwelt had died, but in order that in it by the Savior’s power death might be done away.

In this depiction of the paschal triduum (“three days”), it is clear that St. Athanasius sees the “Artificer” (a term he uses throughout On the Incarnation to refer to the Father/ Creator) as a God who is mindful of time and weaves His salvific plan in and through it.

Thinking back to the “interval” St. Athanasius points out between Christ’s death and resurrection, I can’t help but see it as a sort of meeting place between time and eternity–a kairos moment, as I’m so fond of saying. Essentially what I’m talking about is an interruption in the earthly flow of time, an unseen extension of eternity into the course of our events. In one sense, Christ was in the tomb–harrowing Hades–for a finite duration. In another sense, though, He was and is there for all eternity, trampling down death not just once, but once and for all time.

And somehow, God sought to transmit this to fallible human perceptions via the three days. This interval of time, it seems, signified a duration in which the followers of Christ were able to grasp multiple realities simultaneously. They were able to remember the crucifixion vividly, as opposed to forgetting and doubting, and yet not so vividly as to render them incapable of perceiving the risen Lord–just vividly enough to recognize that in appearing before them, He had conquered death.

What I’m trying to say is that their awareness and perceptions were able to grasp both the crucifixion and resurrection simultaneously–in a sort of cognitive dissonance–without reducing that dissonance to one or the other reality (by believing either that Christ had not fully died or that He had not fully risen, that His risen form was merely an apparition–or a strictly spiritual and unmaterial reality).

In this way, then, the three days represent the interval of time we all must seek to live and perceive within. It is the mode of time in which we learn to see through the eyes of faith, cultivating a vision that can take in both the crucified and risen Lord simultaneously–and that can take in both the crosses and resurrections of our own lives without simplifying things down to one or the other.

Sometimes, to bring about this perception within us, God acts (or refrains from acting) in such a way that forces us to wait. In doing so, He is not trying to tempt our impatience and frailty, but giving us a chance to see and grasp perhaps more than one version of the story at once–to learn to see death and newness of life in conversation with one another. 

Really, faith is the experience of living in cognitive dissonance between the cross, the tomb, and the resurrection–we need to bear all these events in mind for the resurrection to really mean what it does. The human tendency is to reduce or resolve reality–whether the historical reality of the three days, or their ongoing reality in the fallings, dyings, and rising-agains of our very selves–down to mere death or mere life. But we can’t have Life without death, and we can’t have death without Life.

I think back to Christ’s entrance into this world in the form of a baby–the Messiah. At no point in human history had God seemed to tarry so long in His action. And yet somehow, that waiting was necessary for the full weight and significance of the Incarnation to dawn in the human heart, I think. Had He come any sooner, perhaps humanity would have taken the Son of God for granted. Any longer, and perhaps we would have forgotten and doubted whether it was really Him.

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law,  to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” (Galatians 4:4, 5)

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