I’m not really a “life verse” kind of person. Years ago, when I was going through a period of severe depression, I held pretty tightly to Romans 12:12: “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” It helped me immensely to have a bite size reminder that I could repeat in my mind, calling me to the fact that joy is an action, not a feeling. In the last few years I have found similar help from the last line of one of my favorite poems, one I’ve shared here at least once--another short snatch of a thought that I can cling to. Still, the idea that one could choose a single verse from scripture and have it speak to them throughout their entire life in a more meaningful way than any other verse seems improper to me.
And yet, I’ve been struck this week in a very particular way by Galatians 2:20:
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.
And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
I used to sing this verse almost weekly, back when I attended Resurrection Williamsburg. The pastor of that church has a band called The Welcome Wagon, and for years we sang that short refrain during services on Sundays, only to have it be included on their most recent album (and it’s a really good album.) I enjoyed singing the song, but I don’t know that I ever truly thought through the full meaning of that verse.
This week I found myself in the right place to hear it fully for the first time. Prompted to dig deeper into the topic of Christology by an episode of the podcast Knowing Faith, I began reading On the Incarnation, the seminal work of Athanasius of Alexandria, who was an Egyptian bishop c. 350 AD. For an ancient text, it’s surprisingly readable (I have the excellent translation by Sister Penelope Lawson) and it’s been beyond groundbreaking for me. God reveals himself in different ways through different seasons of the Christian walk, but I can say with certainty that he is revealing himself to me through this short book.
For starters, Athanasius begins by discussing who God the Son is from the beginning. Before getting into the Son’s embodiment as the man Jesus, Athanasius spends time talking about the Trinity and the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I know for sure that this is a result of me not spending enough time contemplating it, because I have definitely heard this before, but my mind lit up when I read:
Now in dealing with these matters it is necessary first to recall what has already been
said. You must understand why it is that the Word of the Father, so great and so high, has been made manifest in bodily form. He has not assumed a body as proper to His own nature, far from it, for as the Word He is without body. He has been manifested in a human body for this reason only, out of the love and goodness of His Father, for the salvation of us men. We will begin, then, with the creation of the world and with God its Maker, for the first fact that you must grasp is this: the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it in the beginning.
For the first time I found myself understanding that when Genesis 1 speaks of God speaking creation into existence, and John 1 speaks of Jesus as the Word, they are both referring to God the Son. The reason Jesus is called the Word of God is because it was through him that creation was made and it is through him that it is upheld. (Nerdy side note: I also learned recently of the doctrine of aseity, which basically says that God’s existence is what allows creation to continue, and we do not exist outside of God, and were he to stop upholding us for even a moment we would instantly vanish. Check it out. It’s mind bending.)
It’s difficult to describe what happened inside me when I finally made this connection about Christ being the Word. First of all, the level of intimacy I felt with God the Son skyrocketed (to quote Jen Wilkin: “The heart cannot love what the mind does not know.”) For Jesus Christ to be not only the man who physically helped up the woman caught in adultery, not only a mysterious part of the Godhead, but also to be the power and the means through which everything I see and touch was not only created but is currently sustained pierced me to the heart. For him to be sustaining creation means that he is in and through it all, and even now when I think about it, I feel like I am in possession of a magical secret.
This revelation also clarified a point about the gospel that has always been a little confusing to me. When Christ died on the cross, we are told that his death was transferred to all who put their hope in him--that his one death covered the sins of everyone. And while I’ve always believe this, and trusted in this, something mysterious and primal clicked in my mind when I grasped the concept of Christ upholding creation within himself. If he is upholding creation and is in all of creation, then his death would naturally flow through all things and reorient the foundations of the earth, freeing us from the clutches of sin. Even now I keep second-guessing myself, not because I think this might be untrue, but because it seems like knowledge that is too deep and rich for me to have access to. And at the same time it seems too easy--too perfectly holistic.
In another episode of Knowing Faith on the topic of our union with Christ, this point was driven home more completely to me by the speakers’ focus on the fact that our justification (the process by which God says that we are forgiven and justified in his sight) and our sanctification (the process by which God continually makes us more holy and more like himself) are not dependent on our own selves in any way, but rest solely in our union with Christ. Again, this is a truth I have known my whole life, but one that is easy to confuse or forget. If I am in Christ, whatever I feel about myself or my walk with God is not the basis on which I am judged. My salvation does not depend on whether I feel like I’m growing closer or further from God--if I have accepted what Christ did on the cross, I am united to him. End of story. Cue tears of relief.
And here is where Galatians 2:20 comes in. With this fresh understanding of my union with Christ and his status as the Word that created all things, the idea that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” is both sobering and probably the best thing I’ve ever heard in my entire life. I am literally no longer alive. Christ is alive in me, but I have died, and am no more.
I’ve been pondering my way through this for about 48 hours now, and I think it will be something I continue to ponder always. There’s a strange sense of loss, and a sharp flicker of joyous relief, but mostly the feeling that I’m standing in the shallows of the ocean, letting it wash around my ankles, with the knowledge that I’m going to keep walking into the water until it’s above my hips and shoulders and head; until I am submerged, whether in this life or (more likely) in the next. It’s truly terrifying, but I am filled with the unshakable knowledge that this is the safest place I could be. How can it be that all we must do to be given knowledge of God is to humbly ask?
In his fourth chapter, Athanasius gives a beautiful defense of why it was necessary for Christ to be killed, and to be killed on the cross. He writes:
Again, the death of the Lord is the ransom of all, and by it the “middle wall of partition” is
broken down and the call of the Gentiles comes about. How could He have called us if He had not been crucified, for it is only on the cross that a man dies with arms outstretched? Here, again, we see the fitness of His death and of those outstretched arms: it was that He might draw His ancient people with the one and the Gentiles with the other, and join both together in himself. Even so, He foretold the manner of His redeeming death: “I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto myself.”
Athanasius suggests that Christ died with arms outstretched as a symbol of how he drew his two peoples--the Jews and the Gentiles--together in his death, but I find the manner of his death a powerful symbol also of his union with each believer. This is the God we serve--a God who does not neglect the smallest detail, who created us to appreciate physical representations of unspeakably mysterious truths. Who unites himself to us, sustains us, and draws near to us, both physically and spiritually. All of this is overwhelming, and all of this is absurdly accessible to those who humbly seek the face of God.
Photo: "Homeless Jesus," by Timothy Schmalz.
~ He Held Radical Light, Christian Wiman
~ An American Childhood, Annie Dillard