This is the third article in our On the Incarnation series for the Nativity Fast.
When St. Athanasius in the 4th century addressed the centrality of the incarnation of Christ and His subsequent redemption of all creation via His death on the cross, he also justified the use of icons in Christian worship. (See Athanasius, On the Incarnation.) His appeal wasn’t aesthetic or moral, but theological, albeit a theology rooted in the Gospel. The denial of iconography vis à vis honoring the cross, he claimed, was a denial of the intrinsic goodness of creation, and thereby also a denial of the incarnation. Denying the incarnation, he said, was of the spirit of the antichrist (1 Jn 4:2).
We often do not think about iconography in such ultimate terms, and it may even sound somewhat harsh. But for Athanasius, icons such as the cross are significant on a deep level precisely because they are material objects, not despite that fact. Matter is not primarily a hindrance or a difficulty with which we must contend, but it is salvific; matter saves us.
The Gospel story emphatically declares: Christ, who as the discarnate Logos is the second Person of the Triune God, was made flesh, a fully material human being, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Through this act alone, all matter becomes subject to redemption and is now not only good because God declared all of creation to be good, but all matter carries the potential for purity, or holiness. The wood of the cross of Christ, Athanasius argues, is transformed from mere wood into the vehicle of redemption for the entire cosmos; it is therefore legitimate to value matter because it is through matter that we are redeemed.
As St. John of Damascus in the 8th century also affirms,
I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honoring that matter which works my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God. (“Apologia of St. John of Damascus Against Those who Decry Holy Images”)
These kinds of statements do not sound totally surprising to most Orthodox Christians until we consider them in the context of culture and compare them to attitudes all of us often share regarding matter, particularly in Western culture, where advertising props up an economy heavily reliant upon consumerism. Rather than resulting in an identity of stewardship, one is encouraged to more often identify as a consumer.
Focused on material security, one identifies with the assumption that things will make me happy, or that things will give life meaning, that to be entertained and to be rich and comfortable are valid personal goals. Yet, such an emphasis finally denigrates the very objects one seeks; ironically, consumerism denies and devalues the material substance over which it obsesses, and the obsession itself becomes a form of blind and empty worship, which is idolatry.
Our lack of appropriately approximating the redemptive and sacred potential and worth of matter itself can be seen in the way we understand our own bodies and the bodies of others, the way we treat the sick and the infirm. We celebrate youth and block out aging and inevitable death. Elderly people are considered as less utilitarian and less valuable, forced to retire, carted off into homes, marginalized and ignored.
We ironically seek things for our own comfort, but we do not value the things we have. We do not honor the matter from which things are made. All matter is expendable. We throw possessions away almost as quickly as we acquire them. We value how they make us feel, or are supposed to make us feel, and when they do not meet our expectations, we go on to something else. We do not value things, and our intoxication with things ultimately leads to deforestation, toxic pollution, and catastrophic oil spills—results we detest because they threaten our insane, civilized way of life. The matter that carries the potential to be holy and transformative transmutes instead into piles of junk, trash, landfills, and pollution which threaten the ecological health of the entire planet.
The incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ strongly signifies a different approach, one of meekness rather than consumption. The meek, according to Jesus when He speaks in the sermon on the mount, will inherit the earth, and what better sign of this reconciliation is there than one in which we learn how to value matter for its own sake, not for how it makes us feel or just because of a beautiful moment, or more commonly, matter valued solely for its usefulness, a temporary and fleeting approximation of worth?
Christianity does not promote an asceticism that denies the worth of matter or the body, but rather seeks to value matter and the body for the project of offering all things back to God, who is the Source of being for all that exists, in a sacralizing act of worship. It isn’t a matter of self-denial as much as it is an orientation, a discovery of the worth of the earth and of all that subsists within the universe, and one’s reconciliation with it. The incarnation of Jesus Christ, God made fully human, a man made of matter—of flesh and blood and bone—while remaining fully God, is an affirmation of that intrinsic, non-utilitarian value.
The meek person knows what she can do without and has no need of anything beyond necessity precisely because everything—all matter, the whole cosmos—subsists in a harmonious relationship with her. This directly contradicts popular quasi-Christian scenarios which promote “human exceptionalism” and other dangerous nonsense.
See our call for articles if you would like to write for our On the Incarnation series.
Eric Simpson has studied Slavic languages and literature, English, psychology, and theology at various universities and colleges. In June 2015 he received the Art Kreisman Award for Creative Writing from the Oregon Center for the Arts at Southern Oregon University. His writing has appeared in The Huffington Post, In Communion, St. Katherine Review, Orthodoxy in Dialogue, and other publications. He is an Orthodox Christian and resides in southern Oregon.