THE MYSTERY OF DEATH IN THE HYMNS OF ST. JOHN OF DAMASCUS
by Fr. Joseph Frawley
St. John of Damascus, who reposed in 749, is known as one of the great theologians and hymnographers of the Orthodox Church. His hymns are sung today during the services of the daily, festal, and pascal cycles and the Funeral Service. His compositions are characterized by a certain beauty of form and style, and by a clear exposition of theological truths through poetry.
His most famous composition, perhaps, is the Canon of Pascha, which is based upon the First Oration of St. Gregory Nazianzus (See my article, "St. Gregory the Theologian as a Liturgical Poet" in Jacob's Well, Spring/Summer, 1996). Here, St. John speaks of illumination, the passage from death to life, and "the unapproachable light of the Resurrection." Another familiar composition of St. John is to be found in the Funeral Service. The Idiomela (hymns chanted to their own particular melody and meter) contain references to grief, feeble shadows, and the corruption of the body in the grave. However, they also speak of Christ as the immortal King who is compassionate and gives rest to the departed.
These hymns of the Funeral Service which we sing today were written to console one of the brethren of St. Savva's Monastery who had suffered the loss of a friend. St. John undertook this task with good intentions, but without the blessing of his Elder. Monastics are taught to do nothing by their own will, but only in obedience to the will of their Elder and with his blessing. Since St. John had not kept this rule, his Elder regarded the composition of these hymns as an act of self-will, pride, and disobedience. Therefore, he asked that St. John be expelled from the monastery. The other monks interceded for St. John and the Elder agreed to let him remain if he would perform a most unpleasant task. St. John rejoiced and eagerly performed the assigned penance. The Elder also rejoiced to see the humility and repentance of his disciple.
At first, it might seem that the Funeral Service reflects only sorrow and despair at the ordeal of the soul when it is separated from the body (Idiomelon II), and the "dust, shadows, and ashes" (IV), and how our beauty, "fashioned after the image of God" (VIII), lies disfigured in the tomb. It is no wonder that we should weep and wail when we think of this mystery which befalls us. In focusing on the tragedy of death, St. John wishes us to think also of our own death and the consequences of sin (i.e. death and corruption).
On the other hand, the Canon of Pascha is "supremely festive" and "radiant with light." To express he unrestrained joy of the Resurrection, St. John has chosen to set this Canon in Tone One, which is characterized by a certain magnificence and joyfulness. St. John tells us to be illumined (Ode I), because Christ causes life to dawn for all (Ode V). The Savior leads us from death to life, and from earth to heaven (Ode I), and the death "hasten to the light with joyful step" (Ode V). St. John speaks repeatedly of light, of Christ's righteousness and compassion, and of His triumph over death. Christ, the New Adam, comes to rescue fallen Adam (and all of humanity) and to restore him to the life for which he was created. The Resurrection of Christ is the "forerunner of the bright-beaming Day of the Resurrection" (Ode 7) when Christ, the Timeless Light in bodily form, shines from the grave for all! We know these things, for we hear this Canon over and over during the Paschal season.
The Funeral Service, however, is less familiar to us because we do not hear it so often — perhaps once or twice a year. Because we are saddened by the loss of a loved one, we tend to remember only the gloomier aspects of these hymns. Yet, even in the midst of grief there is hope for eternal life and an expectation of God=s mercy and compassion. Throughout the Idiomela St. John speaks of Christ as having chosen the deceased (I) who is His servant (V,VI), entreating the Lord to give him rest in the abode of those who are glad (III), and in blessedness (IV), and in the land of the living (VI).
At first glance St. John's funeral hymns may seem morbid and preoccupied with the dissolution of the body, but it is useful and most instructive to meditate upon the mystery of death. The saints and spiritual guides of Orthodoxy in all ages have always understood the value of this. Those who are eager for salvation must think of death and judgment. The thought of our own mortality can deter us from committing sin, and it also reminds us of the limited time which we have available to work out our salvation. St. John's Idiomela remind us of what happens to those who are darkened and disfigured by sin. They become heirs of corruption, and their death is truly lamentable! These hymns are also an anchor of hope for the faithful. They remind us that death holds no terrors for the righteous who have struggled to purify themselves from sin and unite themselves to Christ.
St. Macarius of Egypt tells us, "In so far as a man through his own effort and faith has partaken of the heavenly glory of the Holy Spirit, and has beautified his soul with good works, to the same degree will his body, too, be glorified on the day of the Resurrection" (Philokalia, Vol. IV, p. 349). Those who through repentance and spiritual struggle acquire the grace of the all-Holy Spirit will become godlike and heavenly in soul and body. On the other hand, those whose souls are disfigured by sin will manifest a body that is filled with very vileness.
St. John does not want us to dwell upon the foulness of the grave, but to reflect on the ugliness of sin, and how it may be transformed into spiritual beauty. Just as we cannot think of Christ's Crucifixion without also remembering His Resurrection, neither can we contemplate our death without remembering that we shall be raised up on the Last Day. The Idiomela of the Funeral and the Canon of Pascha, when taken together, remind us of the consequences of sin, and also of the path to the Resurrection which Christ has opened for us. Before the resurrection of the body, however, there must first be a resurrection of the soul. We must move from the fear of death to genuine repentance and a longing for God which manifests itself in a life of virtue and holiness. The spiritual beauty of such a life reflects the Divine Beauty, which is one reason why the Lives of the Saints have such a power to move and to inspire us.
The liturgical poetry of St. John of Damascus can lead us from grief to compunction, repentance, and even to joy when we place our own death into the context of Christ's Death and Resurrection. When we listen to these hymns attentively and meditate upon them, we find in them the assurance that this perishable nature will one day put on the imperishable, the mortal will put on immortality, and that Death is swallowed up in victory (I Cor. 15:54).