St John of Damascus was born in 675 or 676 in Damascus to a family of civil servants. His father and grandfather were notable administrators in the Muslim court at that time and it is possible that St John also occupied this role for a time. Brought up with a Hellenic education as well as one in the culture of the Muslim Caliphate, St John used both in the service of Christ. The first was used to defend the veneration of icons when he was a monk at the Mar Saba Monastery near Jerusalem, and the second used to critique and highlight the inconsistencies within Islam. He reposed in the Lord in the year 749 at the Mar Saba Monastery.
That Hellenic and Christian education was the basis for another great work of St John’s, which is An Exact Exposition of the Christian Faith. This work methodically does what the title says and explains the Christian faith from first principles. The discussion of and reasons for the Resurrection also proceed from first principles.
He starts by explaining why Christ had to become incarnate in the first place, which is because of God’s love for humanity, and how He was perfect Man (An Exact Exposition of the Christian Faith, 3.I). Before discussing the Crucifixion and Resurrection, St John refutes many heresies by explaining that Christ was both human and divine in essences, natures and wills, heresies which would change our understanding of these events and the benefits for humanity which arose from this great sacrifice.
So the Lord took on the human body and what St John calls our ‘‘natural attributes” (Exposition, 3.XXV). Christ made “trial of that which was natural” (Exposition, 3.XXV). By living perfectly as a human without sin, while facing all of the usual trials and tribulations which would face such a person, Christ shows us how to live. It is the next thing which Christ took on which is of relevance to the Resurrection. He took on our ‘curse and desertion’, the unnatural consequence of the Fall, yet did not Himself fall to it (Exposition, 3.XXV).
St John proceeds to discuss Christ’s experience on the Cross. Contrary to the teachings of Islam, he asserts that Christ truly suffered in His humanity but not in His divinity (Exposition, 3.XXVI). He writes:
“And should any one pour water over flaming steel, it is that which naturally suffers by the water, I mean, the fire, that is quenched, but the steel remains untouched (for it is not the nature of steel to be destroyed by water): much more, then, when the flesh suffered did His only passionless divinity escape all passion although abiding inseparable from it.”
On the Cross, St John of Damascus writes (Exposition, 4.XI):
“For no other thing has subdued death, expiated the sin of the first parent, despoiled Hades, bestowed the resurrection, granted the power to us of contemning the present and even death itself, prepared the return to our former blessedness, opened the gates of Paradise, given our nature a seat at the right hand of God, and made us the children and heirs of God, save the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Also (Exposition, 4.XI): “The tree of life which was planted by God in Paradise pre-figured this precious Cross. For since death was by a tree, it was fitting that life and resurrection should be bestowed by a tree”
And so all of Christ took on “death on our behalf” and offered Himself to the Father on our behalf (Exposition, 3.XXVII). He was not offered to Sin, Hades or, as St John puts it, “God forbid … the Tyrant”. He was offered as a “ransom” to Him whom we humans had sinned against.
Death did not corrupt Christ’s body. It was a normal human body which was subject to the wounds of the flesh such as “hunger, thirst, weariness, the piercing with nails” and finally “death”, but did not rot like a normal human body (Exposition, 3.XXVIII). This is also the same as the human body when sin is not present. If one were to look at the remains of many of the saints, they are incorrupt after many years without being treated or embalmed.
We now turn to the soul of Christ, which descended into Hades. St John teaches that Christ in Hades did what He did in His earthly ministry by bringing “light to those who sit under the earth in darkness and shadow of death” (Exposition, 3.XXIX).
But death could not contain Christ, the Source of Life. “For just as darkness disappears on the introduction of light, so is death repulsed before the assault of life, and brings life to all, but death to the destroyer”, writes St John (Exposition, 3.XXVII).
After this, Christ rose from the dead but not the same as before (Exposition, 3.XXIX). He was still human but was not bound by any of the needs which we have in our fallen state like hunger or thirst (Exposition, 4.I). It was the same body, but with none of the previous human frailties (Exposition, 4.I).
From this, we can see all that Christ did for us from before the creation of the world, up to today and into the future. He suffered for us that we might have life and this has consequences. We see how Christ lived as a human being, and so we have that standard to emulate. We see how Christ suffered for the truth, and know that if necessary we too must do the same. Every Easter, we appreciate just how much Christ loved us.