John of Damascus and the Incarnation

4th December holds several commemorations in the Church Calendar, but one of these is, to me, the rather romantically named “John of Damascus”.  He died on this day in around the year 749.  His family were a prominent Christian family in what was, in his day, the largely Muslim city of Damascus.  He has come down to us as a theologian and writer of the highest quality.  He prepared a summary of the teachings of what are known as the Greek Fathers, representing a particular school of theological thought.  As we approach the festival of Christmas it is worth reminding ourselves of the immense scholarship of the early centuries of the Christian Church, of which John of Damascus is a particularly brightly glowing light.  Let me give you for this day, a few sentences from his writing on the Incarnation:

“How could God be born out of material things which have no existence in themselves?  God’s body is God because he joined it to his person by a union which shall never pass away.  The divine nature remains the same; the flesh created in time is henceforth quickened by reason-endowed soul.  Because of this I salute all matter with reverence because God has filled it with his grace and power.  Through it my salvation has come to me.   […] Never despise matter, for matter is not despicable.  God has made nothing despicable.  Rather, contemplate the glory of the Lord, for his face has been unveiled.”

We may use slightly different language today, but the essence of what John of Damascus wrote some 1300 years ago could be written in a contemporary theological journal.  The recognition of the essential goodness of God’s creation; the reverence for what we can physically touch and the recognition that our human nature has been transformed by God, who, willingly from his own being, entered the material of his creation.  No better image of this incarnational union is to be seen than Jesus at Mary’s breast, except perhaps, a pieta, as Mary holds the body of her son taken from the Cross.  So, in awe and wonder, “we contemplate the glory of the Lord, for his face has been unveiled.”

John Mann

P.S. Now that we are out of lockdown again, I shall revert to a twice a week blog, generally Tuesdays and Fridays.