Can anything good come out of Damascus?

Our Easter reflection is from John Marsh, former Moderator of General Assembly.

Take a look at two Easter hymns in Rejoice & Sing, both of which come out of Islamic Damascus.  “Come, ye faithful, raise the strain of triumphant gladness” (R&S 236), and “The day of resurrection! Earth, tell it out abroad” (R&S 246) are sparkling with Easter joy and hope, full of rich Biblical context.  Here is something very good coming out of Damascus.  The set tunes, ‘Ave virgo virginum’ and ‘Komm, Seele’, both deserve the liveliest treatment to carry the vigorous, celebratory words.

Both these hymns were written by a Damascus-born Christian living in an Islamic state.  More remarkable, the author John of Damascus was the equivalent of the Chancellor of the Exchequer for the governing Caliphate headquartered in 8th century Damascus.  As a faithful member (and a monk and priest) of the Church and a senior figure in the government, John spent twenty-five years interpreting Islam to the Church, and the Church to Islam – a deeply controversial, and vital, undertaking.  Amid the tensions and turmoil of eighth century Damascus, the Church voiced strident criticisms against John.  Some accused him of ‘selling out’ to Islam;  others that he’d ‘compromised and endangered the integrity of the Church’.

However, the task of interpreting Islam to Christianity and Christianity to Islam remains urgent and necessary.  It is far too important to leave to the hard-liners, fundamentalists and extremists of either faith community.  John of Damascus is an examplar for us – something very good coming out of Damascus.

John’s Easter inspiration radiates in his poetry, even in translation –

“See the spring of souls today;
Christ has burst his prison,
and from three days’ sleep in death
as a sun has risen;”                             (R&S 236)

He gives full voice to his Christian faith from the heart of the Damascus caliphate –

“Let all things seen and unseen
their notes of gladness blend,
for Christ the Lord is risen,
our joy that has no end.”                    (R&S 246)

Thus John lived his Christian faith, the while conducting his senior role in the Caliphate, and continuing his interpretive ministry between the often mutually hostile worlds of Islam and Christianity.

When John died, his outraged Church condemned him as  “A cursed favourer of Saracens”, “a wronger of Jesus Christ”, “a teacher of impiety”  and  “a bad interpreter of Scripture.”

Nevertheless, just a few decades later, the Church came to see things differently and completely changed its mind about John.  He was posthumously hailed as a much revered saint, lauding him with honours sustained to this day.   Something else good that eventually came out of Damascus – a Church that can change its mind.

This Easter, let us in fellowship with the whole universal church sing John’s great Easter hymns in our very own Rejoice and Sing.  So, ‘Come, ye faithful, raise the strain’ and sing of  ‘The day of resurrection’ in ways that make for healing among nations, and peaceful purposeful fellowship between religions.