Sermon at Saint Mark’s Church, Borris-in-Ossory on Wednesday, 27th July 2011
Twenty-five years of parish ministry, rural and urban, north and south, have been a lesson that there is no single version of the church and no church that can claim to be the only one. However, while we might acknowledge that there are churches very different from our own, churches which do things in ways very different from those to which we are accustomed, we still tend to assume that are own way of doing things is the best way; the right way even. We are like the old clergyman at an ecumenical gathering who agrees to disagree with someone he meets, ‘Yes’, he says, ‘you worship God in your way and we shall worship Him in His way’.
At the base of our understanding of John of Damascus, our hymn writer this evening, there is a need to understand that there are Christian traditions very different from ours, ways of worshipping very different from the plain low church Protestant tradition to which we are accustomed. There is a need to understand how someone might worship God in ways we might find very strange and very alien.
Born into a leading Arab Christian family in Damascus, the city that is now the capital of the modern Syria in 676, Mansur ibn Sarjun Al-Taghlibi as John was known, lived until 749 when he died near Jerusalem. His Arab origins are a reminder to us that the church was present in Arab countries centuries before its establishment in our corner of Western Europe.
Given the unhappy history of relations between Christians and Muslims in later times, it is worth noting the experience of John’s family. His grandfather Mansur had been responsible for the taxes of the region under the Emperor Heraclius, but in the late 7th century the region had then come under Muslim rule. The Muslim rulers seem to have allowed the court at Damascus to remain full of Christian civil servants, including John’s family.
Gifted with a brilliant mind, John’s expertise covered law, theology, philosophy and music. After his father’s death, John held office under the caliph as chief councillor of Damascus. It was his position in a Muslim court that allowed John to get involved in a controversy for which he became famous.
In 726, the Emperor in Constantinople forbade the veneration of images in churches; in 730 he reinforced this ruling by forbidding images from appearing in public. John led the opposition to the prohibition of the icons which had become part of the spiritual life of the church in East. John was to write in his defence:
“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 honouring that matter which works for my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God.”
The emperor became enraged at John’s defiance, but realized that John was beyond the reach of imperial power. Resorting to subterfuge, the emperor had a letter forged that purported to be from John, it was an offer to betray Damascus to the imperial powers and it reached the caliph. The caliph was understandably furious at the threat of betrayal and ordered taht the hand be cut off from the person who had written such a letter. John’s hand was cut off at the wrist (though a legend later grew up that it was miraculously restored). The caliph later came to realize John’s innocence, but the incident prompted John’s departure from the court to pursue life as a monk at a monastery at Saba, near Jerusalem. It was at the monastery that he gave up his Arabic name and took the religious name of John.
Ordained as a priest in 735, at the age of 59, his writings in defence of the Christian faith gained a wide reputation as the years passed. He wrote exact, carefully phrased works on Christian doctrine, seeking to defend the orthodox faith against the heresies that were common at the time.
It may seem strange to us that someone who championed the faith that we express week by week in the Creed should have been a stern defender of icons, which are very much not part of our Protestant tradition.
In a pre-literary age, icons were important ways of expressing truth. We have become so used to verbal expressions of faith that we forget the possibility of visual expression. Icons were venerated not worshipped, it was not thought that they were a violation of the Commandment against graven images. One writer suggests that as some people might hold in veneration, the Scriptures, the verbal expression of God’s truth, in veneration, so others might hold icons in veneration, as visual expressions of the spiritual truths of our faith.
My colleague, Canon Patrick Comerford from Dublin diocese writes,
‘. . . the theological foundation for the use of icons rests in Scripture: the New Testament describes Christ as the eikon, namely the image and exact representation of God (Hebrews 1: 3). If Christ makes the invisible God visible, then visual theology is as much a requirement for the Church as is verbal theology. And so the Orthodox say that an icon is written rather than painted, and speak of icon writers rather than icon painters. Icons as they are used in Orthodox liturgy and prayer life are no more worshipped than the pages, ink and typeface of a prayer book are worshipped in prayer. The Orthodox believer prays through but not to an icon, and the reverence given to an icon is not worship but the reverence that given to the sacred person depicted or represented in the icon’.
It is a spirituality that is very different from our own, but it is a spirituality that seeks after the same Jesus we worship.
Thirteen centuries after his life, John of Damascus’ hymns are still sung around the world by people of very diverse traditions. Two of his hymns appear in our hymnbook, ‘Come, ye faithful,’ and ‘The Day of Resurrection’. Both are deeply rooted in Scripture and both are Easter hymns, seeing the Resurrection as the Christian Passover. Just as God delivers his people from slavery and death in Egypt, so in a Jerusalem garden, Jesus passes from death to life in order that we might pass from slavery to sin and death to freedom and eternal life.
In our culture, where the celebration of Christmas is something far greater than the celebration of Easter, it is important to remember that we have got it wrong, and that the Eastern tradition to which John of Damascus belonged, have got it right. In the early Christian centuries, Christmas was not observed. A date for Christmas was not even set until the Fourth Century because there was not discerned any pressing need. Easter was the one great festival for Christians, an emphasis that has been retained much more strongly in the Orthodox traditions.
John of Damascus seems very remote from us, very far removed from our 21st Century Irish Protestant tradition, yet there are aspects of his life that speak strongly to our own times. At the level of our society, the capacity of Christians and Muslims to live peaceably together in Damascus, is something that asks questions of European peoples today. At the level of the churches, the way in which John of Damascus embraced a faith that is our own, but expressed it in a very different way, asks question as to what extent churches can accommodate people whose expression of trust in Jesus is in a form with which we are not familiar. At a personal level, John’s faith was deep rooted in Scripture and focussed on the Risen Jesus; the question we have to ask each day is whether are lives are focussed on that same Jesus.