April 27, 2019

The Homily on Holy Saturday by St. John of Damascus: A Summary

By Joseph Hirst Lupton

John of Damascus' sermon on Holy Saturday, or Easter Eve, is the longest of all, and is an important, though somewhat tedious one. About its genuineness, as Langen admits, there can be no doubt. Beginning with the question of the Psalmist, "Who can utter the mighty acts of the Lord? Who can show forth all His praise?" the preacher replies that none can fully do so, though he should speak with the tongues of angels and of men. Such mysteries of divine love can only be accepted by faith; and to approach them becomingly, we need that purity of mind which the love and dread of God alone can give. This was symbolized by the putting off his sandals by Moses, a figure of the laying aside all dead and grovelling thoughts. "Let us then, my brethren," he proceeds, "purify ourselves from every earthly imagination, and from all the disturbance and confusion of life, that we may receive with unclouded vision the radiant splendours of the divine word, and have our souls nourished with the spiritual bread which is angels' food; and passing within the veil may learn clearly the divine passion of the passionless, even the salvation of the world" (c. i.). After a prayer for himself and his hearers that they may die unto sin with Christ, resting as on that day in the stillness of the grave, he takes occasion from this very pause and intermission, as it were, in the work of Christ, to pass in review the whole system of God's dealings with man. This, while adding to the importance of the present homily, as conveying to us the views of the Damascene on many doctrinal matters, leads to a somewhat tedious prolixity.

Beginning at the very beginning, with the eternal existence of a Divine First Cause, God the Father, he passes on to speak of the eternal generation of the Son, and the procession of the Holy Ghost, and the relations between the persons of the Holy Trinity. "The Holy Ghost is of God and the Father, as proceeding from Him; and is also said to be of the Son, as being through Him made manifest and communicated to the created world, but not as having His existence from Him" (c. iv.).

In describing the Creation, the Damascene gives free play to his exuberance of language. And though the effect is marred by the incongruous nature of the materials he works with — old epic and dramatic terms and forms of words blending promiscuously with the later vintage of philosophy and the Church — still, even under this truly Byzantine exterior, it is impossible not to admire the power and flexibility of the Greek tongue. "Of Himself," he thus begins, "God made out of what existed not both the angels, and the heaven, and the earth, and all that therein is. He made the empyrean, and the watery abyss; the atmosphere to be a storehouse for the winds, and the transparent vehicle of light. He made a second revolving canopy, the firmament resting on water, to divide the waters above from the waters beneath, even that which He called heaven. He made the blazing sun, the bringer of day and night in its twofold chariot-course, the beacon-fire of the universe with its flashing rays; the moon also, that illumines the night, and tempers the ardent beams of the sun; those stars, moreover, that adorn the firmament. He made all things upon the earth; flowers of every kind and of varied uses, the herb bearing seed, and the fruitful trees, earth's fairest ornament. He made the living creatures of all kinds that swim in the waters, the great and prodigious whales, as well as the manifold species of reptiles, and winged birds, that have their birth in water, their flight in air, their food on land. Yet again, He made living creatures out of the earth, both the untamed wild beasts and the herds of domestic animals: all alike to be an evidence of His own mighty working, and a feast for man to enjoy, who was to be made in the image of God" (c. v.). Then follows the story of the Temptation. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil may have had its name, either because it was meant to test man's obedience, and would thus make his good or evil bias known; or because its fruit would impart to those who partook of it a knowledge of their own true nature.

The subject of God's plan for man's redemption, which is next discussed, leads to a digression on the twofold nature and will of Christ, in terms very similar to those employed in the "De Fide." By c. xix. Damascene comes back more directly to his subject. "For since through man came death, it was right also that through man should be given the resurrection from the dead. Seeing that a rational soul of its own free will wrought the transgression, it was right that a rational soul, of its natural and own free will, should work obedience to the Creator; and that Salvation should return through the same channels whereby Death had banished life, that Death might not deem himself a despot over man." This is followed by a singularly forced metaphor: "And what was the issue of this? Death, after baiting for man with the hope of his becoming as God, was himself caught by the bait of proffered flesh; and after tasting a sinless body, became sick, and vomited forth, poor wretch, all the food that he had in his inside" (c. xx.). It is fair to say that such strained metaphors as this are not often found in our author, though he often errs in that direction.

The passage which immediately follows, on the Crucifixion, is not a bad example of the forced antithesis, and striving after effect, which marks the decadence of a literature. "He who had fashioned man with divine hands, stretched out His undefiled hands all day long to a disobedient and gainsaying people, and commended His spirit into the hands of His Father. A lance pierces the side of Him who formed Eve out of the side of Adam, and opens the fountain of divine blood and water, the draught of immortality, the laver of regeneration. At this sight the sun was abashed, not enduring to see the intelligible Sun of Righteousness treated with insult. The earth did quake, being sprinkled with the blood of its Lord, and leapt for joy at its purification, as it shook off the defilement of idols' blood. Many that were dead rose from their sepulchres, foreshadowing the resurrection of Him who was being put to death for us. The sun was eclipsed, and rekindled its rays again, so as to make the number of three days spoken of by the Lord. The veil of the temple was rent in twain, showing plainly the way of approach to the inner sanctuary, and the revelation of that which had been hidden. For now the robber was to enter paradise, and the Man who was lifted up as a malefactor, was to be believed on and worshipped by every creature" (c. xxi.).

A figure of the cross is found, somewhat artificially, in the act of Moses, when bidden to lift up his rod and stretch out his hand over the sea; the uplifted rod, as it would seem, being meant for a type of the upright beam of the cross, and the outstretched arm for the transverse beam across it. The reason why Christ should have been laid in a new sepulchre is thus stated: "But why is He laid in a new sepulchre, wherein no dead was ever yet laid? Methinks it was that the resurrection might not be supposed to have been that of any of its former occupants. For the men who thus looked with evil eye on their own salvation were ready for any device, and most prompt to disbelieve. And, therefore, that the resurrection of the Lord may be visibly and conspicuously displayed, He is buried in a new and unused tomb. He, the spiritual Rock of life, from which as it followed them the unmindful Israelites drank; He, the cornerstone, not hewn with hands, is buried in the hewn rock. Even so those souls that are soon broken and easily dissolved in pleasures, endure not to receive the divine Word. This is for those of sterner stuff, that are cast in manlier mould for virtue" (c. xxx.).

In the practical exhortation to his hearers with which he concludes, Damascene may possibly refer to the spread of Mohammedanism around. "Let us strive then to multiply the talents committed to us, in proportion to our power. Let him that has received five, return to the giver five more besides; and let him that has been entrusted with two do the like. Let the one who has received the grace for this, stretch out a helping hand to them that need compassion, and that toil under the burden of poverty. Let another feed with the word of life those who are wasting in spiritual hunger, and parched with the hot blast of unbelief" (c. xxxiv.). The allusion in this last expression to the scorching wind of the desert, would make the words more expressive. In view of the approaching celebration of the Holy Eucharist on the morrow, he thus addresses them; and the language he uses on this subject, as representing the Eastern Church, will not fail to be carefully noted: "Let us who are bidden, array ourselves gloriously in the wedding garment, that we may be made partakers of the heavenly feast, and be owned worthy of our calling, and may share the fatted calf, and take our portion of the Paschal Lamb, and be filled with the new produce of the vine; even that which is now at the invocation truly and unspeakably changed from bread into the flesh of God, and from wine into the blood of God" (c. xxxv.).

His closing words are an exhortation to watchfulness, enforced by the parable of the Ten Virgins. "So watching," he ends, "with our lamps brightly burning, we shall go forth in bright array to meet the vanquisher of death, the immortal Bridegroom; and we shall be welcomed in the bridechamber undefiled, and with face unveiled shall look upon the glory of the Lord, and luxuriate in His beauty; with whom to the Father and the Holy Spirit be glory, honour, adoration, and majesty, now, henceforth, and for ever. Amen."

From St. John of Damascus by Joseph Hirst Lupton, 1882, pp. 121-124.