One way or another, Christ will find us.
So, St. Athanasius seems to suggest in an intriguing passage near the end of the classic On the Incarnation, written in the fourth century to defend the orthodox teachings on Christ against heretics like Arius.
In a way, this was the whole point of the Incarnation, according to Athanasius. He writes:
The Word of God thus acted consistently in assuming a body and using a human instrument to vitalize the body. He was consistent in working through man to reveal Himself everywhere, as well as through the other parts of His creation, so that nothing was left void of His Divinity and knowledge. For I take up now the point I made before, namely that the Savior did this in order that He might fill all things everywhere with the knowledge of Himself, just as they are already filled with His presence (Chapter 45).
For Athanasius this fulfills Scripture, particularly Isaiah 11:9, which tells us that the “earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord, as water covers the sea.”
Athanasius offers several examples of what he means. To paraphrase them here: Do you admire the heavens? Their order reflects the wisdom of the Word of God. Do you respect only the power of fellow human beings? No one’s power can be compared to Christ’s. Do you fear demons? Christ casts them out. Do you worship the waters (as some in the ancient world did)? Christ walks on the water. Even in hell, an ancient Greek or Roman could not avoid running into Christ, according to Athanasius. As he puts it:
[I]f he has descended to Hades, and gazes in awe at the heroes who have descended there as if they were gods, yet he sees the fact of his resurrection and the victory over death, and concludes that even among them Christ alone is the true Lord and God (Chapter 45.)
Here again we find the Scriptures being fulfilled. Psalm 139:8 declares, “If I ascend into heaven, thou art there: if I descend into hell, thou art present.” If Christ can be found in the extreme poles of the created world, He can meet us anywhere in between. Athanasius concludes:
For the Lord touched all parts of creation … in order that no one might be any longer deceived, but might find everywhere the true Word of God. So the human being, henceforth closed in on every side and seeing everywhere, that is in heaven, in hell, in the human being, the divinity of the Word unfolded over the earth, is no longer deceived concerning God, but reveres him alone (Chapter 45).
Like the shepherd in the parable of the lost sheep, Christ will find us. No matter what error you might find yourself in, whatever you idolize or idealize, there Christ will meet you and show Himself to be greater than the false image or ideal that you worship.
Athanasius’ list of examples might seem a bit antiquated today. Astrology isn’t quite the religion it once was and there seem to be few water-worshippers in the West today. But we can easily apply his approach to contemporary times.
Here are just a few examples:
■ Do you respect only human wisdom? It’s hard to think of a greater philosopher (which literally means lover of wisdom), than Plato or Aristotle, but how many Platonists or Aristotelians are around today? (Chances are most of them are probably Christian academics anyway.) The works of Plato and Aristotle no doubt shined with a rare brilliance, but the simple sayings of a Jewish carpenter from a tiny town in a backwater Roman province have transformed more lives and inspired more minds over the centuries.
■ Do you put your faith in politics? In the time of Jesus the Roman Empire arguably represented the greatest political achievement of the ancient world. The gospels tell us that Jesus came to bring a kingdom, one not of this world but one that would be as far more sweeping in its scope than the Roman one. Indeed, the Greek word for kingdom could also be translated as empire. And the word gospel, by the way, was also the term for annual newsletters the emperor would send out to his subjects, boasting of his latest achievements. The Roman Empire would breathe its last a little over four hundred years after Christ, but the true gospel lives on.
In On the Incarnation, Athanasius states that Christ is more powerful and more worthy of worship than the powers and false gods of the ancient world. In other words, He was an infinitely greater good than whatever finite goods might have fired the minds of someone in the ancient world—or today, for that matter. But this principle can also be applied to the things that torment or enslave us. For there is no weakness, evil, or suffering that we can experience that Christ did not experience to a greater extent.
Put another way, Christ not only shows us a heaven more excellent than any we might have dreamt up for ourselves, there is no hell we can conceive of where Christ cannot find us and meet us in our suffering.
Here are further examples of how Christ meets us, using this modified approach:
■ Does God seem absent from our lives? Does it feel like He has abandoned us? No one in history felt the abandonment of God like the man on the Cross who cried out, My God, My God, why have You forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46)
■ Does your life or the lives of those around you seem overwhelmed with suffering? No one suffered more than Christ on the cross. It was not only the manner of His death—certainly among the most tortuous and painful known to human history—but Christ suffered more than any other human being in history, because of Who He was, the circumstances of His death, and the fact that He bore the grief of all sins at one time, as Aquinas says. (For more on this read Aquinas’ explanation in the Third Part of the Summa, Question 46, Article 6, on the Passion of Christ.)
■ Do you feel alienated by the world you live in? By a society that is increasingly disordered and individualistic? By a political process that has turned more spectator sport than robust democracy? Or by a global economy where seemingly impersonal forces of the market threaten to wipe out your savings and ship your job overseas?
This sense that we are not at home in our world is a distinct phenomenon of modern society but it’s hard to think of a man more alienated from his society than Jesus: His hometown disowned him, His own people rejected him, and what passed for the global government of His time—the Roman Empire—sentenced Him to death. Even His closest confidantes abandoned Him in the end. As Christ put it, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head” (Matthew 8:20).
An old saying has it that all roads lead to Rome. How much more do all ways lead to Christ? As Christ Himself said, I am the way, the truth, and the life. One way or another, in our brightest moments or our darkest hours, Christ will find us. The only question is whether we will be ready to receive Him.
Postscript: In the comments section, I invite readers to post their reflections on how Christ has met them where they are, or ways they think He can meet those in our society who do not yet know Him.