John of Damascus

A homily for Evensong at Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland.

In a characteristically involving novel, Kazuo Ishiguro broached the subject of souls. I don’t want to give too much away, in case you still want to read the book or see the movie; but in the story of Never Let Me Go, towards the end of it all, two grown characters meet the two old ladies who used to visit their school when they were little children, who would select and take away their very best pieces of artwork. One of the women explains herself:

“Why did we take your artwork? Why did we do that? You said an interesting thing earlier, Tommy. When you were discussing this with Marie-Claude. You said it was because your art would reveal what you were like. What you were like inside. That’s what you said, wasn’t it? Well, you weren’t far wrong about that. We took away your art because we thought it would reveal your souls. Or to put it more finely, we did it to prove you had souls at all.”[1]

There is, according to the view of the novel and its author, something particularly human about art; without it, we struggle to prove that we have a soul.

That is not too hard a sell in the middle of a beautifully designed cathedral, with stained glass illuminations and a choir of angels singing. Of course art is part of our humanity, essential to our connection with one another and with God, we say. But it could have been otherwise.

When John was living out in Damascus, in the eighth century, a debate was raging over religious art, the so-called iconoclastic controversy. On the one hand were people worried that iconography equaled idolatry, plain and simple. Any artistic representation of the person of Jesus used in devotions could be deemed a corruption of pure worship, bringing the divine down to the level of the physical matter of paper and ink, stone and glass. Diana Butler Bass notes the irony that John was living in an Islamic city, one in which representative art would not have been countenanced. Yet in a lesson in interfaith respect and generosity, he was protected by his employer, the Caliph, from his own co-religionists who would arrest him for his apology for icons and their ilk.[2] John argued that the Incarnation itself was sufficient reason to affirm the use of art in worship. In becoming human, Jesus represented to us the divinity of God through a human form, that which bears and is made in the image of God.

He said, “Reverently we honor and worship His bodily form, and by contemplating His bodily form, we form a notion, as far as possible for us, of the glory of His divinity. Since we are fashioned of both soul and body, and our souls are not naked spirits, but are covered, as it were with a fleshly veil, it is impossible for us to think without using physical images … For this reason Christ assumed both soul and body.”[3] A thousand years later, John Keble described the poetry of the person; because a person overflows his or her physical form by means of associations and ideas and relationships, some unique and some shared with others; so Christ might be said to “condescend in like manner to have a Poetry of His own, a set of holy and divine associations and meanings wherewith it is His will to invest all material things,” [4] that is, the Incarnation was itself a poem.

One might say that in essence, the Incarnation is a work of art.

For John of Damascus and John Keble, to proscribe the use of art in worship is to confine Jesus to a mere physical body, incapable of human let alone divine transcendence; or conversely to confine Christ to the heavens, and make the Incarnation a divine puppet show. Both extremes of Christology have been tried and found wanting in our church’s history.

The Incarnation affirms that God shares in our history, our past, our present and our future. Jesus lived in a particular time and place, a place not so far from John’s Damascus, in a time when the city was as dangerous and precarious as it is today. The little children that Jesus welcomed into his lap, whose infirmities he healed, whose lives he blessed might well be the ancestors of the little children at risk of polio today, in dire need of help and healing, of blessing and care in the middle of a troubled and troubling region. One might say that each of them – the children that came to Jesus, the children of today – each of them is an icon of humanity, and of our responsibility to care for one another, to keep one another safe, to love one another. The pictures that we see of them on our screens and in the papers are just that, images, tiny extracts from the whole, icons of the suffering that humanity is prone to, and of the innocence that humanity longs to recapture. And when a smile breaks out of one of them, the light of God overflows.

We can make an idol out of anything; really, I think that idolatry is probably in the eye of the beholder. But the Incarnation did not make an idol out of Jesus, but an icon. When we allow that the marriage of body and soul, of the human and divine images was expressed perfectly in the Incarnation, that the Son of God took our human form, did not abhor the womb, we might be more inclined, like John and his Caliph, to extend to another the generosity of seeing the divine image through a crude human form, and to treat one another with the reverence and veneration due to a child of God. When we allow that the Son of God found humanity to be a sufficient vehicle to bear the light of God toward us, that is not only a humbling and challenging call to seek and serve Christ in all those other people who bear the divine image in a human form; but also an affirmation of God’s permission and power to do so.

Art and life: both are a mix of physics and metaphysics. The physics of music, the frequency of vibrations that changes pitch, the resonance of the ribcage, the golden ratios that inform our sense of harmony and dissonance; it is profoundly mundane. Yet the affect achieved is sublime, spiritual; no one could deny that Stanford had a soul? The sculptor, expressing in stone the softness of a human heart. The painter, an alchemist, producing colour and texture, transformed by the act of art into a living canvas, a mortal creature with an immortal soul; the Incarnation reincarnated.

The season of Advent is perfect for remembering that there is little in this world, in its art and its life, that captures both the physical mundaneness and the transcendence of human existence in one small space as the form of a newborn child. The music of its cry tells of the grossness of physical hunger and decay, and the ecstasy of longing, the infinite yearning to understand and to love another. All that we are is present in that moment: blood, sweat, and water; sex, life and death; terror and joy trembling together, reverently and efficiently swaddled by non-nonsense, practical hands.

Each one is an icon of a truth that transcends all boundaries of geography and language, religion and ideology. And, John of Damascus argued, God came to us as just such an icon, to show us through the person of Jesus the poetry of the divine, a poetry we never tire of reading.

One might say that the Incarnation is in essence a work of art, both the image of our humanity, and the most profound poetry of God.

[1] Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 260

[2] Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (Harper One, 2010), 103

[3] St. John of Damascus, On the Divine Images, Third Apologia #12.B#52, p.72, quoted in The Bible and the Holy Fathers for Orthodox: Daily Scripture Readings and Commentary for Orthodox Christians, compiled and edited by Johanna Manley (Menlo Park, Monastery Books, 1990), 475

[4] John Keble, On the Mysticism attributed to the Early Fathers of the Church (No. LXXXIX of ‘Tracts for the Times’), Oxford, 1868, pp. 146-7, quoted in Love’s Redeeming Work : The Anglican Quest for Holiness, compiled by Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson and Rowan Williams (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 385

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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