A homily for the commemoration of St John of Damascus at Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland
I hope that I will never forget the first time I visited the Garden Tomb outside the city walls of Old Jerusalem. The vision of its emptiness was full of the memory of resurrection. A stone bed lay smooth and untroubled. At either end, a rise in the stone brought to mind the linen cloths, folded and rolled, and the angels at the head and the foot of the place where the body had been (John 20:12); images and echoes of the cherubim stationed beside the mercy seat, guarding the invisible and invincible presence of God, rendered in gold by human hands while the living God remained unrendered, but barely out of reach.
Deeper into the city stands the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It is full of noise and colour, shadows and light, telling the story of Christ and his Passion in every language at once, through sight and the smell of incense, the press of pilgrim bodies, the smooth stone of anointing, the small cave of mystery.
The preacher of Ecclesiastes, poetically translated, observes that God “has set eternity in the hearts of [humanity];” (NIV) and otherwise that God “hath set the world in their heart;” (KJV) although no one may know it from beginning to end. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
God has opened our hearts, and if our hearts then our minds and spirits, and if our minds then our imaginations, and if our imaginations then our senses to understand something, if not all of eternity; something, if not all of the creative love God has for us; something, if not all of the mystery of that love expressed through the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
It is rendered in art, and hidden in the heart of the quiet, empty tomb.
John of Damascus, whom we remember this evening, argued fondly for the rendering of the image of Christ and his holy Mother in iconography and image, and thank God for that. My imagination and the shelves of my office at church and at home would be emptier had he not.
John’s major work, The Fount of Knowledge: An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, gives honour to the full and human Incarnation of Christ as a worthy and wonderful means of God’s self-revelation and redeeming love. He knew the value of mystery as well as anyone, despite his attempts to wrestle into a single book a systematic and sensible summary of all that his Fathers in the faith had understood and worked out and ironed out and stamped with their approval regarding the nature, the substance, the persons, the providence of God.
Honestly, a book that begins by defining five modes of philosophy and eight kinds of division and four aspects of the term “individual” is probably a little beyond my patience; but behind and beneath his erudition lies John’s absolute delight in the revelation of God through creation, through philosophy, through humanity, and especially the Incarnation.
Why else would he choose, to illustrate the property inherent in humanity, the image of laughter? “Thus,” he says, “every man can laugh and everything that can laugh is a man.” John did not choose his words lightly; he must mean particularly that Jesus laughed, and that his imagination of the Messiah goes deeper than his words can describe, into the realms of humour and delight.
While certain others of his day deplored the veneration of images and icons, citing the second commandment against the worship of graven images, John remembered that we ourselves are made in the image and likeness of God. “On what grounds, then,” he asked, “do we shew reverence to each other unless because we are made in God’s image?”
As we love and show reverence to one another, that love and reverence is remitted beyond the image to the prototype, to God, so that in loving one another, we also fulfill our duty of loving God.
And Christ has proved that point beyond doubt by his Incarnation, becoming flesh with us, laughing and weeping, bearing his own image among us, laying his body down before us, his Mother’s arms gentling him into the manger, the swaddling clothes, and the winding cloth: the world and eternity met in the heart of humanity, as Ecclesiastes, through various translations, foretold.
There is danger, nonetheless, in rendering Christ in wood and ink, oil and water, his features flattened, pressed under the weight of our expectations and experience, Mary’s milky flesh lightened and whitened, the divine darkness artificially brightened with gilt and gold. There is the danger that instead of conforming our imaginations to Christ’s likeness, we will attempt to fix him in ours. Even John, describing great mysteries, would have them explicated and enumerated just so.
Advent teaches us to keep our eyes open to the deepening shadows behind the frame, the absence between the angels, the emptiness that promises the fullness of eternity, the fullness of that which has yet to come to light. God has opened the heart of humanity to understand eternity – but not all of it, yet, from start to finish.
The quiet solitude of the Garden Tomb, set against the feast of Holy Sepulchre, brings to mind the holy absence of a beloved body at the holiday table, the image of a face fading from sight and memory, hope sitting heavy in the empty chair. There is comfort, when grief attends the holiday feast, in remembering the cherubim guarding the presence of God in the empty space between them, the pregnant life of resurrection rendered in the space, empty but for shadows, between the head and the foot of the Garden Tomb.
I am glad that John and his cohort prevailed in the argument over icons and images in worship. My heart would be colder and my eyes emptier without them.
And there is something to be said for remembering in this season which contemplates all that we cannot see the absence that promises that which is yet beyond our sight or understanding; that there is a life yet to come, in which all will be restored to the glory that God has created from the beginning, which will flood the heart and sense of humanity with the full measure of the enormity of the love of Christ, Incarnate, Crucified, Resurrected, Risen, and yet to come again.
The Fount of Knowledge: An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, by St. John Damscene, derived from a translation by Rev. G. N. Warwick of The Patristic Society, via https://gotiskakyrkan.weebly.com/uploads/1/2/9/5/12957650/thefountofknowledge.pdf, accessed 12/2/19-12/4/19