Slowly Reading St Athanasius: Can you smell that smell?

by John Stamps

My favorite Lynyrd Skynyrd song is “Sweet Home Alabama.” But the Lynyrd Skynyrd song that haunts me every time I hear it is “That Smell.” It’s creepy, it’s morbid, it’s blunt, and every note and word are pitch-perfect. Even so, we don’t believe a word of it.

Whiskey bottles, and brand new cars
Oak tree you’re in my way
There’s too much coke and too much smoke
Look what’s going on inside you
ooooh that smell
Can’t you smell that smell
Ooooh that smell
The smell of death surrounds you
Angel of darkness is upon you
Stuck a needle in your arm
So take another toke, have a blow for your nose
And one more drink fool, will drown you
Ooooh that smell
Can’t you smell that smell
Ooooh that smell
The smell of death surrounds you

America is awash with big pharma, little pharma, designer pharma, and all pharma in-between. It’s tough to be sober and stay sober in the 21st century. Life is pain and pleasure is fleeting. There’s a very good reason we self-medicate and numb our overactive basal ganglia. The only thing that helps many of us get through the horrors of Covid-19 in particular and the pains of modernity in general is the pharmacological effect of C2H5OH1 on the cerebral cortex. But no pharma, no cocktail, no shot of Jack Daniels is going to give us life. Can you smell death now? If not, I’ll help you. Can you smell that smell?

Let me wax philosophical with Martin Heidegger for just a moment. Ronnie Van Zant’s lyrics makes me wonder if he secretly visited Heidegger by night, not unlike Nicodemus with Jesus. The German philosopher and early adopter of National Socialism was famously fascinated with death, what he called Sein-zum-Tode, “Being-towards-Death.” He thought we couldn’t be “authentic” humans until we honestly confronted our impending rendezvous with death. Heidegger doesn’t say too much about the malodorous qualities of death one way or another. But he does say quite a bit about how we evade, elude, and otherwise dodge the reality of our own impending deaths. We all know we’re going to die. Why do we ignore it?2

Death is headed right at us like a runaway freight train. I have a choice here. I can face my death with deep care and concern.3 People I love are dying, my own time on Planet Earth is short, and it’s growing shorter by the minute. Or I can turn my eyes away and look at the pretty flowers growing besides the railway tracks.

Here’s another analogy. The next time I go to a “Celebration of Life” for a family member, friend, coworker, or perfect stranger — the word “funeral” is now too obscene to use in decent polite society — I can monkey chatter4 away like the primate that I am and share funny stories about the newly departed and then stuff my face full of potato salad. I do this of course to avoid the reality of my own death staring me in the face. Pass the Chardonnay, please. Or I can grieve their absence and realize somewhere down the line, I’m next. And people are going to schmooze and chatter about me at my own Celebration of Life gabfest.

Heidegger then tells us that in this cockeyed world we’re riders on the storm.5

Into this house we’re born
Into this world we’re thrown
Like a dog without a bone
An actor out on loan
Riders on the storm

The human condition is absolutely bewildering. I wake up one day and I find myself shipwrecked in this insane existence. When I ponder seriously that death is the final end of my own everyday existence, I break out into a cold anxious sweat. I dread6 death in a way that my house cats Smoky and Zsa-Zsa cannot. They don’t like pain but they don’t fear death. But you and I do indeed fear death. We are thrown into this crazy Kafkaesque world. And right here, right now is where we locate ourselves. So now what? I can ride out this crazy existence in steadfast avoidance of our destiny with death. I can just eat, sleep, purr, and roll over on my back to get my belly scratched, like Smoky and Zsa-Zsa. Or I can strive to live with authenticity7 and courage. I can own my own death.8

But what does all this have to do with St Athanasius?

For starters, St Athanasius would flat-out disagree with Ronnie Van Zant, Martin Heidegger, Jim Morrison, and anybody else who wants to get all chummy, buddy-buddy, and BFF with death. When Athanasius looks at the human race, he doesn’t smell death. He catches a whiff of life. Specifically he senses resurrection life. The sweet smell of resurrection life surrounds us. Athanasius turns his nose to the human race, fills his lungs with the fragrance of resurrection, and all he can smell is incorruption and zoe. The fragrant aroma of the grace of resurrection fills him with hope. Not for one second does he give up hope in the human race, because God did not desert or abandon us. God deeply and truly loves us. He is the true lover of humankind (φιλ-ανθρωπία). God refuses to dance with death. He hates death. Just how much God loves us — and just how much God hates death — will take him this entire book on the incarnation of God the Word to explore.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. St Athanasius makes two startling declarations about death before he tells us about God’s resurrection life. These declarations are the beating heart of the Gospel. Only God can save us. And He can only do it by taking to Himself a body. There was no other way to stop death in its tracks. There was no one else who could possibly do it. St Athanasius has telescoped his entire argument down to these basic points. They cry out for explanation. And so we begin.

We need more than an EMT to patch up our wounds

Listen to how Athanasius diagnoses the human condition and what he prescribes to us for our healing and our salvation:

For the Word, realizing that in no other way would the corruption of human beings be undone except, simply, by dying. (De Incarnatione §9)

Humans are fragile creatures. We break easily. By our very nature we are subject to corruption (§5). But the situation becomes so much worse when we deliberately cut ourselves off from God’s zoe. We come undone and we start to fester in corruption and death. We grieve our condition. Any thinking person mourns the current state of the human race. But our repentance — however heart-felt and sincere — isn’t enough to staunch the bleeding. The pandemic is killing us. Sure, an EMT can mop up the blood. Sure, an EMT can apply a bandage and shoot us full of painkillers. Sure, an EMT can treat the wound as best she can. But she can only treat symptoms. She can’t heal the underlying cause — it’s beyond her scope and beyond her capabilities.

According to St Athanasius, there was no other way to undo our corruption except through the bodily death of the God Word.

Yet being immortal and the Son of the Father the Word was not able to die, for this reason he takes to himself a body capable of death. (§9)

The eternal Son of the eternal Father kicks off the salvation process by taking a human body for His use. After all, it’s our bodies that need redemption and salvation most of all. Our bodies keep the score of every abuse, trauma, and outrageous assault upon us.1 And so the God Word starts by becoming incarnate. “If he is going to overcome death and the infirmity of flesh once and for all, then he must be as we are.”10

There is no other way and there is no one else to do the job

Of course God could just forgive our sins by judicial decree, by divine fiat as it were. Just ask Heinrich Heine, the famous 18th-century German poet (1797–1856). On his deathbed, a concerned priest asked him to make peace with God so that he doesn’t meet his Maker unforgiven. Heine replied with admirable chutzpah, “Dieu me pardonnera — c’est son metier” — “God will pardon me, that’s His job.” Famous last words indeed. Yes, God is full of mercy and grace. That’s not just God’s daytime 9-5 job. Mercy and grace is Who He Is.

But forgiveness of sins by itself — like repentance — once again is EMT work. We needed more than forgiveness. Forgiveness of sins is not God re-creating us in His divine image. Forgiveness of sins is not God infusing us with new life. We need something more. We need God to step in.

And so, in the fullness of time, the God Word enters. St Athanasius insists that conquering death is the “primary cause” of the incarnation.11 Only God could re-infuse us with zoe. But how does God stop death?

For the Word, realizing that in no other way would the corruption of human beings be undone except, simply, by dying, yet being immortal and the Son of the Father the Word was not able to die, for this reason he takes to himself a body capable of death, in order that it, participating in the Word who is above all, might be sufficient for death on behalf of all, and through the indwelling Word would remain incorruptible, and so corruption might henceforth cease from all by the grace of the resurrection. (§9)

Then also he points out the reason why it was necessary that none other than the God Word Himself to become incarnate… it was for none other to bring human beings out from the corruption that had occurred except the God Word who had also created them in the beginning. And that the Word himself also took to Himself a body as a sacrifice for similar bodies. (§10)

The only way to undo corruption at its core was ensuring that death no longer has any hold over us. This is the perfect job description for the Author of Life.

Now we all know a brave martyr can die for a nation. Take Nathan Hale: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” But a single martyr — no matter how brave and no matter how noble — cannot die for all. But God can die for all. The Word above all sufficed on behalf of all. Little ole me cannot satisfy a universal condition. But you don’t get any more universal than God. What I can’t do, God most certainly can. But He does not do it with the wave of a magic wand — Abracadabra! Presto change-o!

God stops death by dying. And if God is going to die, He needs a body. The transaction starts here. “He takes to himself a body capable of death.” He dies in the way that only God can die. He takes a body like ours, a body that is mortal. And He dies — life for life (ἀντί-ψυχον). God accomplishes our salvation by taking a body like our own and dying in our stead to stop death in its tracks.

In His divine nature, of course He cannot die. So He becomes one of us so that He can die. As the immortal Son of the Father, He could not die, unless He takes for himself a genuine human body. The incorporeal and incorruptible Word of God took a human body and made it His very own. His body was not foreign to ours — He was not a space alien. He was one of us. All the properties of the human body, these now belong to Him. The frailty and weakness of the human body, these now belong to Him as well. He owns His own suffering and His own death. “The Son needed this body in order to suffer and die for the human race.”12

C.S. Lewis, that most Athanasian of Christian thinkers, summarizes these deep assumptions about the God Word who became incarnate.

But supposing God became a man — suppose our human nature which can suffer and die was amalgamated with God’s nature in one person — then that person could help us. He could surrender His will, and suffer and die, because He was man; and He could do it perfectly because He was God. You and I can go through this process only if God does it in us; but God can do it only if He becomes man. Our attempts at this dying will succeed only if we men share in God’s dying, just as our thinking can succeed only because it is a drop out of the ocean of His intelligence: but we cannot share God’s dying unless God dies; and he cannot die except by being a man. That is the sense in which He pays our debt, and suffers for us what He Himself need not suffer at all.13

He becomes like us so that we can become like Him. Like Knows Like. The God Word who is with all becomes like us so that we can become like Him. We participate in His benefits. We participate in His trampling down death by death. The God Word takes what is ours so that He can transfer to us what is His.

God the Word trampled down death by His death

Death is the fundamental human problem and death paradoxically ends up being the solution. He took to Himself a body so that He could die. He didn’t need to die. We needed Him to die. We needed Him to die for us, because our own death would only be one more corpse rotting in a tomb. Our death doesn’t accomplish anything. But His death accomplishes everything. His death — the death of the immortal Logos — stops death and defeats death.

We find our new life in Christ’s very own body and nowhere else. We don’t need a theory of at-one-ment when we have a genuine praxis of at-one-ment right under our very nose. But there is a certain christological “logic” involved. Let me explain.

When the immortal Logos dies and He descends into Hades, His body remains incorruptible. His body — His instrument — is not subject to decay like ours because of the Logos dwelling within that body. The God Word uses His body as an instrument to die. It is the only way that God can die. Khaled Anatolios neatly summarizes the christological logic, well part of it anyway:

But just as the invisible God becomes visible through the instrument of the body, so the immortal God is able to undergo death with the same instrument.14

The immortality of the Word is transferred to the body despite death. But we must surely supply two crucial pieces that are missing to completely fill out the christological logic:

But just as the invisible God becomes visible through the instrument of the body, so the immortal God is able to undergo death with the same instrument, and so the incorruptible God is raised from the dead by means of that very same instrument and thus the gift-giving God graces us with newness of life by that very same instrument.

We descended into corruption. And He descended with us with one major qualification — He did not become corrupt. Christ has overcome corruption through the grace of the resurrection.

The fragrance of resurrection life surrounds us

He gifted us a brand new grace — the incorruptible grace of the incorruptible resurrection. He assumes a body capable of death so that He might live, die, and be raised from the dead on the third day. To us, the body of Christ is the medicine of immortality. There is no other. His death stopped the pandemic that plagued the human race. And it was His resurrection that stopped the corruption that had infected us.

As human beings had turned towards corruption He might turn them again to incorruptibility and give them life from death, by making the body His own and by the grace of the resurrection banishing them from them as straw from the fire… And so corruption might henceforth cease from all by the grace of the resurrection. (§8-9)

Death doesn’t negate the incorruptibility of the Word. In the grave, the crucified Lord did not suffer corruption.15 From our very beginning, the early Christian kerygma insisted the crucified Lord did not become corrupt. “He was not abandoned to Hades and His flesh did not see corruption” (Acts 2:31).

The Lord crucified and risen on the third day stopped death in its tracks. The risen Lord is not a resuscitated zombie. He is not a reanimated corpse. Christ truly died in His crucifixion and He is truly risen to new life in His resurrection. He rises incorruptible because His body is the body of the incorruptible Logos. The body that the incorruptible Logos takes to Himself is raised incorruptible. We acquire His incorruption. By becoming mortal, He clothed us with immortality. He becomes like us so that we can become like Him.

Can you smell that smell? I can. It’s the fragrance of Christ’s resurrection, the sweet-smelling aroma of His life transfused into our life (2 Cor 2:14-17). We can pull off our masks and put away the wintergreen oil. We can breathe fully and freely. We can expand our lungs with the sweetness of God’s very own Holy Breath. God’s last and final word to us – His eschatos-logos — is not — “you’re nothing but worm food.”16 In hope against hope, the Lord and Giver of Life proclaims to us, these bones shall live:

Behold, I will cause spirit to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put spirit in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord. (Ezekiel 37:5-6)

Only God being God can do what no single human being can do. By raising the Son of God from the dead, the Father shows us that bodily corruption has been overthrown. His grace has clothed us with His very own garments of incorruption. We shall be like Him.

 

Footnotes

[1] Cheerfully pilfered from Walker Percy’s essay, simply titled “Bourbon:” “The joy of bourbon drinking is not the pharmacological effect of the C2H5OH on the cortex but rather the instant of the whiskey being knocked back and the little explosion of Kentucky U.S.A sunshine in the cavity of the nasopharynx and the hot bosky bite of Tennessee summertime — aesthetic considerations to which the effect of the alcohol is, if not dispensable, at least secondary… Bourbon does for me what the piece of cake did for Proust.”

[2] I’m paraphrasing §49-51 of Being and Time. I like reading the Joan Stambaugh translation, revised by Dennis J. Schmidt. I’m paraphrasing Heidegger’s usual term to describe us human beings — Dasein/being-there — as I, we, or you. “Even “thinking about death” is regarded publicly as cowardly fear, the sign of insecurity on the part of Dasein and a gloomy flight from the world. The they does not permit the courage to have anxiety about death.” (BT, §51, Heidegger’s italics, they’re certainly not mine)

[3] I make no claims to be a fluent speaker in “Heideggerese.” The jargon is daunting. I’ll try to translate as best I can. Sorge means I really do care about my existence in the world. In fact, this deep sense of care makes me deeply anxious. I care about you — well, actually, I care about anybody that I love — and I care about my future. I used Magda King’s A Guide to Heidegger’s Being and Time to decipher Heidegger.

[4] Das Gerede is idle chit chat. “Indeed, the dying of others is seen often as a social inconvenience, if not a downright tactlessness, from which the public should be spared.” (BT, §51)

[5] Geworfenheit. Yes, yes, I know this is actually Jim Morrison. But the Lounge Lizard King had read his Heidegger. And Heidegger is the inspiration behind my favorite Doors song. Poor Jim also had an inordinate interest in death.

[6] Angst is my favorite word ever. Heidegger here pays his intellectual debts to Soren Kierkegaard. Angst is that weird uncanny feeling when I realize this world is not my home. Angst is different from fear. I’m afraid of spiders. But my Angst isn’t directed “at” anything in particular. I’m just angsty. The unknown weirds me out. My Angst is about “nothing and nowhere.” I find myself stuck in this huge gap between Infinity and Nothingness. The dizzying vertigo I experience standing between these two enormities creates in me deep anxiety and existential dread. Angst is a pretty good description of the human condition as we devolve and disintegrate into The Nothingness from whence we came. God ex-nihil-ated us from Nothing and we have chosen to an-nihil-ate ourselves back to the Nothing.

[7] Eigentlichkeit

[8] Sein-zum-Tode

[9] As described in The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel Van Der Kolk (2014).

[10] Leithart, Athanasius, page 128.

[11] John Behr, The Nicene Faith, I:195.

[12] Patrick Reardon, Reclaiming the Atonement, page 121, italics his.

[13] Mere Christianity, page 58.

[14] Khaled Anatolios, Athanasius, page 75.

[15] Behr, I:198.

[16] Memorable allusion to Dead Poets Society.

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7 Responses to Slowly Reading St Athanasius: Can you smell that smell?

  1. 18ellenbla says:

    “And I… I, Antonius Block, am playing chess with Death!”
    Thank you kindly for using that cover image. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Just in case anyone has not heard “That Smell.”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Chris says:

    Enjoyed this. Where footnote reference #1 appears the second time looks like it should have been #9.

    Liked by 1 person

    • johnstamps2020 says:

      You get extra credit for actually reading the footnotes. There are some genuine nuggets there. We’re in the process of fixing them.

      Like

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