Saturday, May 30, 2020

The Vigil of Pentecost

Pentecost is too big, too vast, too intimidating for any singular explanation, but the Roman liturgy's rich vigil for this feast nurtures the faithful with some food for thought. Let us consider the liturgy of the Roman rite for this great feast, second only to the Sunday of the Resurrection in importance.

The vigil commences with the celebrant—vested in a violet chasuble—kissing the altar and following the lectors, who read six prophecies from the Old Testament, interspersed with collects sung by the celebrant. The first lesson is the familiar story of Abraham ascending a mountain with his son Isaac, prepared to sacrifice his only child in obedience to God. An angel intervenes and tells a relieved Abraham that God would never really do such a thing. All of this was proclaimed on Holy Saturday, prefiguring Christ's willingness to sacrifice everything to the Father on behalf of the world. Pentecost enters this passage late at the point when God rewards Abraham's fidelity by promising "I will bless thee and multiply thy seed as the stars of heaven, and as the sand that is by the seashore.... and in thy seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed because thou hast obeyed My voice."

The second prophecy is an extraction from Exodus 14, wherein the Pharaoh's forces chase the Israelites through the desert and into the Red Sea, which St. Moses has just parted by the Lord's command. The Lord then tells Moses to close the Sea and drown the Egyptians, which he does. The tract continues the passage:
"Let us sing to the Lord, for He is gloriously magnified: the horse and the rider He hath thrown into the sea: He is become my helper and protector unto salvation...."
These two prophecies speak of the same thing, Baptism. Water is a symbol of creation and the essential ingredient of all that lives. Yet water is also uncertain, difficult to control. Genesis chapter 1 speaks of water roaming the earth before it had form. God used water to protect the Israelites from the Egyptians. Egypt itself is a type, a parallel, an example of sin and loss and here God saves His people—fulfilled and most perfectly expressed in the Church—through water. Through water He will "multiply thy seed as the stars of heaven," only He will no longer multiply Abraham's progeny through obedience, but Christ's Church through Sacrament. The second collect of the vigil demands this interpretation:
"O God, who by the light of the New Testament hast made clear to us the miracles wrought in earliest times, prefiguring unto us the Red Sea as an image of the sacred font, and Who in the deliverance of Thy people from the bondage of Egypt, hast foreshadowed the sacraments of the Christian dispensation; grant that all nations who have merited by faith the privilege of the children of Israel, may be born again by partaking of Thy holy Spirit."
The third prophecy, take from Deuteronomy 31, compares and contrasts closely with the Ascension of Christ. Moses, nearing death, has taken care to write down his encounters and history with God. He abjures and confronts his fellows Israelites for their infidelity to God, "For I know that, after my death, you will do wickedly, and will quickly turn aside from the way that I have commanded you." The scripture, excluded from this passage, goes on to tell us that his bones were never found. This is extraordinary. Moses joins Elijah, Enoch, and the Blessed Mother among those whose bones have not been found and the others were taken bodily by the Lord, Elijah in a chariot of fire and our Lady after her death in Jerusalem. Moses, a prefigurement of Christ who leads God's people out of bondage, many believe, Jews included, was also taken up by God. Should he have been assumed by God then an strong parallel with the Ascension presents itself. Christ of course was not assumed into heaven, but rather ascended through His own power as God. Moses brought people forth from human bondage and Christ from spiritual bondage. Both died and were raised, so to speak, and rebuked their followers for their lack of faith. Moses's followers would continue to fail God, even if they would eventually reach the promised land and create a kingdom of Israel. Christ, in a marked contrast, promises something perfect that will never be lost, a "Helper" (meaning of the word Paraclete) to preserve the faithful "in all truth." He ascends telling the Apostles to "baptize all nations in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.... For I am with you always, even until the end of the world." Moses's deliverance from slavery is made perfect in Christ's words.

The fourth prophecy again anticipates the inception of the Church in the Baptism of its members, "the Lord shall wash away the filth of the daughters of Sion, and shall wash away the blood of Jerusalem out of the midst thereof, by the spirit of judgment, and by the spirit of burning" (Isaiah chapter 4). At this point perhaps the faithful should consider what Baptism is. It is the movement of water over a person's skin with a Trinitarian formula, yes, but it is so much more, too. "Baptism" derives from a similar Greek word meaning "to immerse" or "to plunge." To be "plunged" into Christ and in the name of the Trinity is more than to enter a visible community or lose a sentence of punishments condine to one's sins. To be "plunged" into Christ is to be immersed and filled with the very life of Christ given by the Holy Spirit, Who, St. Gregory reminds the Church of Rome during Mattins of the feast, is the love of God Himself. The Holy Spirit, to be simplistic, is God's love working and doing something, creating or renewing. The Holy Spirit accomplishes this rebirth in Baptism through water, the physical essential in life and the material, again referencing Genesis chapter 1, which formlessly covered the earth before creation. Water is also like the Holy Spirit, or "Holy Wind" to take a very literal translation, in that water is not easily contained, limited, narrowed, or defined. It enters through crevices unseen and can also be lost by poor care through other unanticipated openings. It is this in water that Christ, through the Holy Spirit, renews His creation. It is for this reason so many commentators have adduced the psalm from the Vidi aquam "I saw water flowing from the right side of the Temple, alleluia; and all to whom this water came were saved...." Therefore the Church uses as her last prophecy in the vigil Ezekiel 37:1-14:
"Thus saith the Lord God, Come, spirit, from the four winds, and blow upon these slain, and let them live again. And I prophesied as He had commanded me; and the spirit came unto them; and they lived; and they stood upon their feet, an exceeding great army.... Thus saith the Lord, I will open your graves, and will bring you out of your sepulchres, O My people, and will bring you into the land of Israel.... and you shall have put My spirit in you, and you shall live, and I shall make you rest upon your own land; saith the Lord almighty."
A procession then brings the sacred ministers to the baptistry where the font's waters are again blessed and infused with chrism, itself a priestly thing, as on Holy Saturday. The Paschal candle, extinguished on Ascension Thursday after the Gospel, reappears. Let not the importance of its reappearance be lost. As Dr. Laurence Hemming adumbrates in his Worship as Revelation, all the fires in a church are to be lit from the Paschal fire much as the Presence of Christ in the Sacraments comes from Christ's Incarnation and work on earth. The Paschal candle is extinguished at the end of forty days because, as with Christ and the Sacraments, its purpose, to diffuse holy fire, is accomplished. The fire remains without the candle's use just as Christ remains in the Church without a bodily physical presence. The candle returns because it symbolizes the Resurrection, the event which made this new life in the Holy Spirit possible. The celebrant plunges the candle into the font, almost baptizing the font with the candle rather the other way around. The celebrant sparges the faithful with the blessed water, infuses the chrism, and baptizes catechumens into Christ and His Resurrection. More adept parishes will also have the good sense to administer confirmation at this time, giving the neophytes the Holy Spirit and His "sevenfold gifts."

After the baptisms all who have been "baptized into Christ" on earth sing the Litanies of Saints, imploring the intercession of those in heaven who are the perfection of God's promise to Abraham, "multipl[ied] as stars of heaven." The saints, together with those on earth baptized into Christ, form the Church and carry that same Spirit and fire found on Holy Saturday. Pentecost makes the Resurrection permanent on earth, preserved in the Church unto ages of ages.

Mass follows immediately during the vigil. The lesson, taken from Acts of the Apostles, recounts Paul's preaching of the Baptism of Christ, or into Christ, to the Ephesians, hitherto only aware of St. John the Baptist's baptism of repentance. The alleluia is the same as on Holy Saturday. And in the Gospel St. John tells of Jesus saying "If you love me, keep my commandments." What is the Holy Spirit other than the strength to do this? This simple, demanding sentence of Christ calls to mind James 2:18, "I will show you my faith by my works." The Holy Spirit creates, re-creates, renews, strengthens, and preserves the Church in Christ, of Christ, and for Christ, as foretold to the prophets long ago. He makes all things anew, fashioning a new, holier creation out of the materials and persons of the existing, fallen creation. And He will remain with us until the very end.

In a rare moment the Byzantine tradition has a far simpler and more understated take than the Roman Church. The Greek theology of this feast can be found in the troparion of Penteost, which I heard today at Divine Liturgy and last evening at Vespers:
"Blessed are You, O Christ our God, You have filled the fishermen with wisdom by sending down the Holy Spirit upon them, and Who through them have caught in Your net the whole world. O Lover of mankind, glory to You!"

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Taking Leave

Holy Week occupies a place of supreme importance in the Christian life, even if it is but seven days of 365 in one year. Similarly, the first week of May, also a victim of the machinators and pseudo- reformers of the mid-20th century. Amidst Good Friday and Joe the Communist day the more prevalent losses to the kalendar felt throughout the year are less apparent until days like today.

Octaves are a Latin observance, but the idea behind them is common to some Eastern Churches, too. In my Byzantine parish we were blessed to resume Vespers yesterday, a complicated affair that involved pooling the texts of the after-feast of the Ascension, the after-feast of the Fathers of the Nicene Council, of Saint Nicetas, and plain Wednesday.

Much like the old Roman rite, the Byzantine Horologion observes the great feasts for more than just the day of the feast itself. Again, like the Roman rite, the texts are usually only proper on the greatest of the great of feasts, like Pascha. For our recent liturgical service, we were often repeating the texts and chants of the feast itself, much as the Roman Mass and Office do for the Ascension and unlike the octave of Pentecost.

Great feasts of the Byzantine rite last a full week in the case of Candlemas, the Dormition, and the Transfiguration. They count the entirety of Paschaltide, from the Sunday of the Resurrection until the vigil of the Ascension, as one long observance of the feast. Some are shorter, lasting only four days in the case of Our Lady's Presentation.

The Ascension is unusually a day longer than most, its "leave taking" falling on the second Friday after the feast. This puts the Byzantine practice in accord with the pre-Pian Roman liturgy, which observed the Ascension as a feast for an octave, but repeated the Office on the open Friday after the Ascension (provided no feast of nine lessons fell on that day) and Saturday morning, changing the texts and colors at None for the Pentecost vigil.

All the more reason to "take leave" of the 1962 books for the entirety of the year.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Looking for Perspective III: A Church or The Church?

In our last look on the crisis of confidence orthodox Catholics face we looked at the "chatter machine", the religious bad news industry which makes writers' livings by stirring up the mixed emotions of the faithful and, inadvertently, weakening their resolve. That is the media creating side of this equation, but what about the media consuming side?

For those of us who neither make the news nor filter it for benighted readers we are left to take whatever is out there and let it take hold over us. Even if the news is untrue it influences public prejudices and sentiments, which are very hard to break even after reality is exposed (cf. Russiagate). It is for this reason that we Catholics struggle against the chatter machine.

We endure bad news, but we will keep our faith. Or will we?

In our post-Modern, post-Enlightenment world we perceive truth to be a relative thing, even if we profess Truth, the person of Jesus Christ, to be an absolute reality upon which every human person depends for salvation. So when the chatter machine finally gets to Mrs. Dithers or young Jack, both are left with a variety of options as to where they can pursue that absolute Truth.

Our infinite optionitis abounds. I once met an Anglican after Lessons & Carols at the Church of the Incarnation (Anglican) in Dallas who professed that the Catholic Church was the true Church of Christ and that she had maintained the integrity of Apostolic teaching. What was stopping him from making a change? "You guys gotta get rid of that Novus Ordo Mass." Yes, we do, but your parish offers a "modern" and "relevant" rock and roll service in a function room led by a clergyman wearing black trousers and a clerical collar rather vestments. "Yes, but I don't have to go to that, whereas if I was a Catholic I might have to go to a new rite Mass at some point."

Lapsed Catholics abound. While most fall away as the remnants of the Christian culture fade into history some leave fairly good situations. A fellow I knew during my post-university years left the Church to become Greek Orthodox, convinced that liberalism would never take hold there. After a year he was disillusioned, hopped through progressively more reactionary Orthodox settings until landing in ROCOR, and attends a parish where the women dress like 19th century Russian peasants while the men pretend they want to be there.

All of this betrays the underlying relativism available to us today. To one shaken by current affairs, especially as given to us by the chatter machine, the Church becomes a Church, something the great reforming saints of the past would never consider nor would the rich and the poor, the educated and the simple who supported their efforts. Saint Francis de Sales did not believe he had the moral option to become a Calvinist, or a secularist, or an Old Believer, or a night-club patron even if he did in fact have the social ability to become at least two of those choices.

We can be anything—quite literally—imaginable except a confident, stable person who adheres to sure ideas. Confidence is not the same as close mindedness, a reactionary attitude nor is openness an amenability to any and every possibility. Never before have we had so many options to determine what "I am the way, the truth, and the life" means for us, because what it means is actuality is less important to most of us than it ought to be.

Christ gave each and every human person a conscience and He gave to the Church His own authority through the succession of Apostles. One thinks of the example of Newman, who first came to dissent from prevailing Anglican teaching after years of study, but upon being received by Dominic Barberi into "the one true fold" looked upon the Church as his teacher rather than as the place where similar opinions were held.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Ascension of the Lord

Mosaic of the Ascension of the Cathedral of Monreale
From the first sermon on the Ascension of Pope St. Leo the Great:
"After the blessed and glorious Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, wherein the Divine Power raised up in three days the true Temple of God Which the iniquity of the Jews had destroyed, God was pleased to ordain, by His Most Sacred Will, and in His Providence for our instruction and the profit of our souls, a season of forty days which season, dearly beloved brethren, doth end on this day. During that season the bodily Presence of the Lord still lingered on earth, that the reality of the fact of His having risen again from the dead might be armed with all needful proofs. The death of Christ had troubled the hearts of many of His disciples their thoughts were sad when they remembered His agony upon the Cross, His giving up of the Ghost, and the laying in the grave of His lifeless Body, and a sort of hesitation had begun to weigh on them.
"Hence the most blessed Apostles and all the disciples, who had been fearful at the finishing on the Cross, and doubtful of the trustworthiness of the rising again, were so strengthened by the clear demonstration of the fact, that, when they saw the Lord going up into the height of heaven, they sorrowed not, nay they were even filled with great joy And, in all verity, it was a great an unspeakable cause for joy to see the Manhood, in the presence of that the multitude of believers, exalted above all creatures even heavenly, rising above the ranks of the angelic armies and speeding Its glorious way where the most noble of the Archangels lie far behind, to rest no lower than that place where high above all principality and power, It taketh Its seat at the right hand of the Eternal Father, Sharer of His throne, and Partaker of His glory, and still of the very man's nature which the Son hath taken upon Him.
"Therefore, dearly beloved brethren, let us also rejoice with worthy joy, for the Ascension of Christ is exaltation for us, and whither the glory of the Head of the Church is passed in, thither is the hope of the body of the Church called on to follow. Let us rejoice with exceeding great joy, and give God glad thanks. This day is not only the possession of Paradise made sure unto us, but in the Person of our Head we are actually begun to enter into the heavenly mansions above. Through the unspeakable goodness of Christ we have gained more than ever we lost by the envy of the devil. We, whom our venomous enemy thrust from our first happy home, we, being made of one body with the Son of God, have by Him been given a place at the right hand of the Father with Whom He liveth and reigneth, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen."

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Ancient Initiation

Holy Saturday has passed. If you followed it as I did, you watched the blessing of the fire and Exultet, left for two hours, and returned to a live stream during the Litanies of the Saints. Very few Christians were initiated into the Church's Sacraments this year.

In prior years, and Deo volens in the future, catechumens would be cleansed in the healing waters of Baptism after the celebrant exorcised and blessed those waters. While the history of the Roman Mass and Office are well documented other facets are not. The inversion of Confirmation and Communion ages in most countries is recent enough that it requires little research. However, changes to the rites of those Sacraments themselves are more obscure.

Baptism, Confirmation, and Confession as they are given in the Rituale Romanum and Pontificale Romanum reflect the administration of those Sacraments for other a thousand years. Indeed, all the antiquarianism of the Consilium did not yield a return to public penance and public absolution. Nor did it effect a return to the passive form of Baptism given in the older books.

The Gelasian Sacramentary is an 8th century Frankish recension of the Roman orations and feasts c.700 AD. It probably reflects the practice of the Roman Church at that time, but separating what was Roman and what was local is not that straight forward. All the same, its texts for Holy Saturday are very near what comes to us in the Curial Missal published by S Pius V and which happily continues to this day. The ceremony in both the Frankish-Roman Sacramentary and the Roman Missal concludes the pre-Mass ceremonies with the initiation of candidates into the Church.

In the Gelasian book, after the blessing of the font and waters the "celebrant"* baptizes using this ritual.

C: Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?
R: I do believe.
C: And do you believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son Our Lord, Who was born and suffered?
R: I do believe.
C: And do you believe in the Holy Ghost, the Holy Church, the remission of sins, and the resurrection of the flesh?
R: I do believe.

After each "I do believe" the celebrant immerses the candidate in the holy water thrice. Most ancient sources describe full submersion, which was most likely here given that the neophytes were almost always children by 700 AD, but sprinkling, splashing, and pouring are all attested as methods, too.

The celebrant then, as retained in the traditional Rituale Romanum, anoints the neophyte with sacred Chrism saying these words:

"The almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, has caused you to be born over again of water and the Holy Spirit and pardoned you all your sins. May He now anoint you with the chrism that sanctifies in Christ Jesus our Lord, and bring you to everlasting life."

Then follows a very familiar Confirmation. The Sacramentary does not use the term "Confirmation" anywhere, since Baptism and Confirmation were part of the same ritual at this point and initiation was almost always performed by the bishop, but the text does state "Therefor, they are given the seven gifts of the Spirit by the bishop by placing his hands over them with these words." The words given are the same as in the Pontificale and Rituale of S Pius V without the interpolated "Amen" between the seven spiritual gifts:

"Almighty everlasting God, who once gave new life to these servants of yours by water and the Holy Spirit, forgiving them all their sins; send forth on them from heaven your Holy Spirit, the Advocate, along with His sevenfold gifts, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and fortitude, the Spirit of knowledge and piety, fill them with the Spirit of holy fear. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, forever and ever."

The only addition in the post-Tridentine books is the accretion of "and seal them with the sign of the cross of Christ, in token of everlasting life" before "We ask this...."

As with Baptism, the form of Confirmation is very different from either the more recent Roman books or traditions of the Eastern Churches. The bishop merely anoints the "front" of the neophyte with the words "The sign of Christ unto life ever lasting." The neophyte responds "Amen." The bishop greets him as a Christian: "Peace be with you" and receives the reply "And with your spirit."

Without a break the Litanies (of Saints) begin immediately followed by the Gloria in excelsis and the Mass starts.

* = "Celebrant" is an ambiguous term here given that a bishop would normally be the celebrant in a ceremony such as this and he is referenced separately. It may refer to this service when a bishop is not present, in which case Baptism could be given, but Confirmation reserved to the bishop.

It may also mean specifically the celebrant of the Sacrament of Baptism. A few odd sources suggest that the bishop would baptize the first few candidates and a deacon would complete the rest.

Monday, May 4, 2020

The Extent of the Epiclesis

Dr. K's discussion of the East-West divide on the theology of how and when the consecration happens during the anaphora immediately brought to mind Kallistos Ware's wise question on this subject: "Where you planning on leaving some of the words out?"

All things being equal, there are short forms of all Sacraments, East and West, for emergency use, except for the Eucharist and Ordination. Those must always be done within the context of the Divine Liturgy or the Mass. As such, the additional prayers create the context and construe the intention of the Sacrament.

I tend to agree with Dr. Kwasniewski's interpretation of Patristic references to the "words of the Lord" as meaning the Institution words that come to us in today's received Eucharistic rites. However, I do not see why the Words of Institution are the only acceptable form of consecration. The Greek rite Churches use a very different, albeit still Trinitarian, formula for Baptism than the current Latin Church, which in turn uses a very different formula than it did c.700, as is shown in the Gelasian Sacramentary, which gives the Apostles' Creed as the form.

Saint Nicholas Cabasilas, a late medieval Greek layman and liturgical writer, supported the Greek view that the epiclesis—the invocation of the Holy Spirit—is necessary for the Eucharist and  wondered if the Supplices te rogamus of the Roman Canon is such a prayer. A Ukrainian friend believes the Unde et memores is a Latin epiclesis.

In the modest opinion of this blogger, that reads one tradition's unique framework into another tradition's in a way that does not quite work. The Holy Spirit is mentioned many times in the old Roman Mass and hardly ever in the new (ironic), but never directly in the Canon. The "Sanctifier" is invoked midway through the offertory and after the dismissal, but the actual Eucharistic Sacrifice is directed toward the Father through the Son. The Canon has a fascinating chiastic structure that deserves attention, but it suffices to say that the Roman anaphora is mainly concerned with supplication, presentation of the Sacrifice, prayers for the living and dead, and ensuring that the Sacrifice is pleasingly received; the whole thing reflected an Old Testament Temple theology illumined by the Sacrifice of the Cross. One could reasonably venture to say that the prayers, even if out of order, of the Roman Canon predate the field of Pneumatology.

The Eastern Churches, all of them, not just the Greek ones, all include an epiclesis in their anahorae. While Greek theologians generally assign a high importance to this moment in their own rite, it becomes a little difficult to use other Eastern traditions in total support of this point. The epiclesis in the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom is of the "descending" nature expounded by the writers available to us in English:
"Send down Your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts here offered and make this bread the previous Body of Your Christ + and make that which is in this chalice the precious Blood of Your Christ + changing them by Your holy Spirit."
The Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great, formerly used most Sundays of the Byzantine year and now mainly during Lent, asks the same thing with "reveal" instead of "make" being the operative verb.

The Anaphora of Saint Cyril in the Alexandrian tradition has two epiclesis prayers, one before the Institution narrative and a more familiar (to non-Copts) one afterward. Perhaps the most obvious question comes from the anaphora of Addai and Mari, a prayer of the Church of the East. It contains no Institution narrative and while it does have an epiclesis in the sense of the invocation of the Holy Spirit, it does not ask the Paraclete to perform the act of change as it does in the Byzantine, Coptic, Armenian, and Ethiopian rites:
"And let thy Holy Spirit come, o my Lord,
and rest upon this offering of thy servants,
and bless it and sanctify it
that it may be to us, o my Lord,
for the pardon of sins and for the forgiveness of shortcomings,
and for the great hope of the resurrection from the dead,
and for new life in the kingdom of heaven
with all who have been pleasing before thee."
To what extent can the epiclesis be applied to liturgical theology? To the extent that a rite has it.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

God Became Man So That Man Might Become God

In honor and memory of Saint Athanasius, the "greatest soldier the Catholic faith had", I am reprinting an old summation of his De Incarnatione.

*          *          *

"God became man so that man might become God" the saintly patriarch of Alexandria writes in section 54 of his treatment of the Incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the central point of the Incarnation of Christ, lifting man from his fallen state and elevating him to intimate confidence and knowledge (understood personally, not intellectually) in the Divine. Why would God do such a thing? Would not such a condescension mean a lessening of the Holy Trinity? Would the Son of God not suffer merely by taking on the human nature?

Not at all. Athanasius shares St. Augustine of Hippo's view of evil: that evil is the absence, deterioration, or destruction of something good. Through the Fall of Adam and Eve evil came into the human experience. Man, created in the image of God, received from God, Who is life, his life. What is death other than the absence of life? The introduction of evil to the human person is the loss of the Divine life, hence death. By taking on human flesh and dying as a man, God the Son restored and further sanctified the human person: "by offering His own body He abolished the death [man] had incurred, and corrected [man] by His own teaching" (section 10). Again, we ask why God would do this? We can go on and on—as many have—about justification and penal substitution, but why would God even care?
Because man, the Saint reiterates, was made in God's own image. Death means the image of God evanesces from existence, a consequence antipodal to God's very nature. This corruption of man could only be solved through God becoming man and living the same life and dying the same death as man (section 9). The Saint calls the status of man at the time of the Incarnation "dehumanizing:" man had fallen so far from his original state and become so alien to the Divine nature that he had concocted idols, false gods, and magical incantations for himself as substitutes and superstitions (section 13). God could not allow His image to follow on this slow and painful suicide.
Still, could God not restore man to his original state remotely? We often ask this question concerning Our Lord's miracles. Why did He scrub the blind man's eyes with dirt rather than just give the word so that he might be healed? Man could have been fixed from a distance, but he would not have actually learned anything or made a choice for God in such a restoration. "In order to effect this re-creation, however, He had first to do away with death and corruption. Therefore He assumed a human body, in order that in it death might once and for all be destroyed, and that men might be renewed according to the Image. The Image of the Father only was sufficient for this need" (section 13).
The Son of God did not sacrifice Himself immediately for our salvation after His Incarnation. First He had to give His presence in our nature a point and presence that could be passed on through action, and that action is love: "That ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be strong to apprehend with all the saints what is the length and breadth and height and depth, and to know the love of God that surpasses knowledge, so that ye may be filled unto all the fullness of God" (Ephesians 3:17). Love is inter-personal, including God's love. Indeed, God is a Trinity because God is love! So God remained among men for many years doing good and showing to man what love is and how to love one another (section 16). His works revealed Him to be God.
Just as His love was inter-personal, so was His death. He died on a Cross for all the people of Jerusalem and other passersby to see (section 21). The same goes for His glorious Resurrection from death and His changing of water into wine and His casting out of demons. All these things He did in public not only so that they might be of benefit, but so that people might know them and by knowing them know Him (section 23).
Finally, in the Resurrection death, the decay and disappearance of God's image, is no more (section 26). Indeed the Apostles in their own ministries "trample upon death as something dead" (section 27). Death is crushed and is no longer of consequence to us; the death of a martyr or believer is utterly powerless to those who hold to the sign of the Cross (section 29). Those who do not believe have no facts, but instead are convicted by Christ in the death and transitory nature of their substitute gods and idols (section 31)—how true this still is today.
Athanasius gives a chapter to refuting the objections of the Jews to Jesus by examining the story of salvation in the Old Testament and specific prophecies from Osee, Isaiah, and others concerning suffering, the Annointed One, death, and rising again.
More interesting, and pertinent to today's laxity of belief, is the Saint's refutation of the gentiles and pagans. The pagans, and the Greeks in particular, object to the Incarnation's restriction of God to a particular place and His binding in terrestrial nature. St. Athanasius begins answering this common objection by first mocking the mythical and ineffective stories of the pagan gods, how stupid they are and how they succeed not in bettering human beings (section 41). The gentiles object, why did God not make Himself known to us by nobler methods, in the mountains and waters rather than in mere flesh? (section 43) Because "For, being men, they would naturally learn to know His Father more quickly and directly by means of a body that corresponded to their own and by the Divine works done through it (ibid). "The whole of the universe was filled with the knowledge of the Lord," writes Isaiah (11:9). The Lord's influence and presence can be found everywhere which, contrary to the objections of the pagans, is precisely why He could take human flesh. Far from a redundant act, the Lord's presence, already ubiquitous, is felt more fully by material beings now that the Lord has taken physical form (section 45).

St. Athanasius' last full chapter is a series of common sense refutations of pagan religion in action. Have the pagan gods ever really done anyone any good? Have they increased the virtue of chastity and virginity? Have they effected peace among bellicose peoples like the Chaldeans and Ethiopians, or decreased the superstition latent in those cultures (section 50)? A resounding "no." The ability of Christ to do all of this sufficiently proves His Godhead to Athanasius (section 53). The "darkness of idols prevails no more" (section 55).

Despite his times, St. Athanasius' tone throughout the work is very positive and optimistic about the power of the truth of the Trinity and it inevitable triumph in the hearts of men. Paganism would recede as man became more aware of the omnipotent God Who has dwelt with him.

This short book is an excellent case study in the relevance of the Fathers to us today. The Fathers wrote in literary terms less bound in theological terminology than the Scholastics or other later thinkers. As a result their writings manage to explain concepts to us without being doctrinaire. In spite of the Latin Fathers', particularly St. Augustine, leaning on the Roman legal tradition and the Greek Fathers' dependence on [neo-]Platonism, their examination of Christian teaching is very humane and intuitive, often based on human experience with some common sense and rationality rather than harsh reason.

Why does this matter today? Because we are not living in the thirteenth century, when our neck of the world was Catholic and people had the luxury to ask if the Virgin Mary was conceived under time-exempt privilege per Scotus or protected from sin per the Greeks. They are asking more basic questions like "Does God exist" or "Who was Jesus really" or "Does God actually care about us?"—all questions which, for the mass of people, will need simpler answers.

I highly recommend De Incarnatione for some quick and light reading. You can skip the three chapters dedicated to Jews and pagans if you wish, they do not add anything to St. Athanasius' general argument.