I'm not usually one for using that phrase "a must read." But sometimes, hyperbole is valuable.
If you are looking for a good read at Christmas time, don't neglect Athanasius's On the Incarnation. It is a short, but profound look at the implications of the virgin birth of Christ. Yes, it's hundreds of years old, and maybe we would prefer a newer book, but as C.S. Lewis points out in the introduction, by comparison, new books still have something to prove:
A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light.
Lewis recommends that for every one new book, we follow that with an older one. I like that advice.
Athanasius covers the Incarnation not only from the birth of the Christ child, but he delves deeply into the impact of the virgin birth, his humanity, the death of Christ, and his resurrection. This is a book to point one to a solid Christology. There are so many little quotables I could share. One of my favourites was a reflection on why Christ had to be more than man. Early in Church history, there were heated debates about how Christ could be both man and God. Many leaned toward him being only the appearance of man (a belief called Docetism), and others leaned toward him being merely a man (the Arians). Athanasius explains why even though Jesus was a man, a mere man was not sufficient to save:
When the madness of idolatry and irreligion filled the world and the knowlege of God was hidden, whose part was it to teach the world about the Father? Man's, would you say? But men cannot run everywhere over the world, nor would their words carry sufficient weight if they did nor would they be, unaided, a match for the evil spirits. Moreover, since even the best of men were confused and blinded by evil, how could they convert the souls and minds of others? You cannot put straight in others what is warped in yourself.
I love that last line. It is so true.
Athanasius emphasizes often that Christ came to die. There was purpose in the Incarnation. It was not random. It was deliberate. And part of the means of Incarnation was to testify to who God is. Athanasius points out more than once that the things Christ did in his humanity was to point to God.
The book is available as a pdf here if you want it for free.
Lewis's introduction is worth the read. I loved his comment about the value of working our way through difficult theology:
For my own part I tend to find the doctrinal books more often elpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that "nothing happens" when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tought bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.
I would substitute the pipe for a cup of tea.
Reading Athanasius is going to be a regular tradition for me at Christmas. I can't believe I waited so long to read it.