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December 2009

2009, An-Nahar, Articles

The Origins of Christ / 12.12.2009

The Orthodox Church calls the Sunday of tomorrow the Ancestors’ Sunday, and by the ‘Ancestors’ it refers to those who had laid the origins of Christ from the beginning of creation. In the Gospel, we have two genealogies for Christ. The first is in the beginning of Matthew, and it starts with Abraham, while the second starts off with Jesus the Nazarene to reach at Adam. Through an informed reading, it would be clear that Matthew, as he wrote down his book around the year eighty in Antioch, was a Jew by birth and had grown up in Palestine, and he adhered to Hebrew theology as he compiled the first Gospel in the capital city of Syria. He had determined to tell the Christian community – Jewish by origin – in Antioch that this man, in whom they have believed was a descendent of Abraham. And that His true origin does not go back to Moses, who was not mentioned in the genealogy, but to the first believer in God, Abraham, according to whose faith Paul had said that the humanity will become righteous, in the image of Abraham’s righteousness, and not in the image of the righteousness of the law. It is possible also that Matthew wanted to comfort the converted priests of the temple, who were reduced to poverty because of the loss of their salaries from the temple. He wanted to assure them that in their poverty they had gained Christ, since He is the end of their prophets and the realization of their visions. Thus, through Him the Torah becomes an image of the One to come, a representation of the paradigm, who is Jesus the Nazarene.

This is Matthew’s genealogy. To this the Lord was traced in the work of Luke, the Syrian physician, who had been a disciple to Paul and had written his Gospel after the period of discipleship in Rome, the capital of the world, where the hope for a Savior has developed. Luke had to establish a bond, which relates Jesus not only to Abraham, but to Adam, in order to maintain that the ancestors of Jesus were not only from the Jewish race, but from the whole humanity. Thus, He would be inscribed in His Marian [human] existence and in God’s eternal plan to be the fruit simultaneously of both ancient humanity and its origin.

The Savior of the Jews and the Savior of the gentiles, this was what allowed Paul to write “there is neither Jew nor Greek”. [Gal.3: 28] Since the dividing wall, which was separating among the one people of God has broken down. [This wall] was dividing between the people of God, who had no philosophy and those people of philosophy, who had no one God. Through Him, the wall, separating reason from revelation, would be destroyed; so that whenever reason is drawn to love, becomes itself the place where revelation descends.

Matthew carries the pure spiritual movement which has arisen from Abraham. Luke extends it to Adam and from him to the intellectual capacities which had human aspirations in ancient philosophy. Perhaps those enlightened ones oscillate between these two poles, so that they might be united in Jesus Christ.

According to Matthew, all righteous ones descending from Abraham, in addition to three adulteresses, rise from Him. Thus, the evangelist might indicate that the body of Christ saves the righteous ones, and the sinners together. Further, the evangelist also maintains that the nature, which the Son has attained through incarnation, is subject to corruption. However, Christ had preserved it from corruption. This has been the approach of some Church Fathers, and not all of them. Matthew’s genealogy maintains inherently that Christ carries the sins and that He is the Savior of those who preceded Him and those who followed Him, in order that He might become “all in all”.

According to Luke, all nations will inherit Christ, [and among them] first are the Greeks. This is so in order that the evangelist might maintain that all the splendor of the Greeks, from the time before Socrates, are not up to His majesty, [which could have been actualized] only through perfect giving, which the Nazarene has bestowed on humanity by His death.

If the Savior is related to the whole descendents of Adam, is he related to the religions of Eastern Asia? Some of the Western theologians, both Protestant and Catholic, have maintained this. They perceived in these religions some elements which are close to the Gospel; not because they have permeated the Gospel or have impacted its formation, rather that there is cognation between those religions and the content of the Gospel. Others have pursued Hinduism as mystic platform, yet remained on the Christian tenet. What I wanted to draw out from this standpoint is that the followers of Jesus perceive Him in some of the things [or the events] which had preceded Him, without there being any continuity of texts. Jesus had acquired nothing from Buddhism; there is no doubt in this, especially that we know nothing precisely about the history of His emergence. Asceticism in Indian religions and austerity are pleasant to Christians.

Before more than forty years I was studying Hinduism with Evangelical pastors in Switzerland by a Hindu professor – both as nationality and belief. After some days he asked me, why do you apprehend my [words] more than your friends? And he did not refer [by this question] to intelligence, but to the spiritual perception. I answered him: There is cognation between the Eastern Church and you, on aspects of asceticism, spirituality and the heart.

If there was a kind of cognation between Christ and what had preceded Him, what is then the relationship between Him and those who are near to Him? Today, and since several decades, there are new religious callings, which are arousals of Gnostic trends, or those which advocate gnosis (not in its Islamic sense) and tendencies which are influenced by Hinduism in a way which destroys our spiritual heritage, and attempts at compensating the tradition by a denial of revelation. Among these trends are those related to Nietzsche, and others, and the remnants of atheistic existentialism and the Zionist Christians in America. That is to say that there is much paganism with different forms. And our position in their regard is critical, or dismissive, or sifting, as it was in regards to old paganism and to some aspects of Plato’s thought and Neo-Platonism.

Surely there is a major deviation in the core of Western civilization and its apparent expressions. There is a clear departure from Christ; this, if we look merely at the thought, without considering the depraved, careless morals, which are in themselves injuring the purity of Christ.

We had, from the beginning, a fierce attitude concerning faults and a loose attitude toward philosophies or the movements, which carry within themselves what prepares for the truth of Christ. In different terms we do not have forgery, or syncretism, i.e. a system which brings together different beliefs, from here and there, and constructs a false approach. We reject relativism in religious order and we do not say that we are parts of dispersed truths. But we say that we welcome cognation wherever we find it and we build bridges, whenever possible. We do not quarrel and we do not assort freely. “Test everything; hold fast what is good”. (1Thess. 5: 21)

It remains that we strive to see the good elements in the others. And since we see the whole of truth in the Christ of the gospels, we welcome the cognation which is relevant to the human nature of the Master, regardless whether this took the shape of direct communication or indirect mental compatibility.

The line of Christ is not only the one descending from Abraham, according to Matthew, or the one ascending from Christ to Adam; rather it is also the radiating line from Him to those who come after Him, or those who meet Him without a direct relationship. We do not gather only the historical traces of Christ; rather we are after the cosmic Christ, who is luminous here and there through means that we know and others that we don’t.

The expansion of Christ from one side and the outpouring of thought in Him are the two faces of our new perception of the Ancestors’ Sunday, which we will have tomorrow. We need great precision, i.e., the uprightness of opinion, so that we can distinguish between that which belongs to Jesus Christ and that which belongs to the depraved or the foolish spirit of the world. The walls of the Church are not barriers between us and Others. The Church is a place for purification, so that we might urge in dignity, purity and truth. The walls in the Church have doors, through which the King of glory enters and with Him all the multitude of the pure ones on earth enter, as they carry wisdom, humility and righteousness.

Next Sunday, our allegiance to Christ increases, proceeding from the ascription of our allegiance, and from his lineage to Abraham, until we leave everything on the Feast Day [of Easter], facing His great constriction and great glory.

Translated by Sylvie Avakian-Maamarbashi

Original Text: “أصول المسيح” –An Nahar- 12.12.2009

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2009, An-Nahar, Articles

Saint John of Damascus / 05.12.2009

Saint John of Damascus, who was called Mansur ibn Sarjun in the world and took his monastic name in the Monastery of Saint Sabbas which still stands today near Bethlehem, was the grandson of Mansur ibn Sarjun who worked for the Byzantines in Damascus, governing the city. In the Caliphate of Mu’awiya the elder Mansur was appointed to manage the treasury. This was a matter with serious and profound ramifications and the office extended to his son and then to his grandson who bore his name according to this custom in those lands of naming a child after his grandfather.

It is clear that the Umayyads maintained the Christians in the positions they had occupied during the Byzantine period, because the various bureaus kept their records in Greek until they were arabized under Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan. At that time, Greek was still the language of the people in the cities, just as Aramaic was the language of the people in the countryside. In the time of Yazid ibn Mu’awiya, Orthodox Christians had management over the treasury, even though the Jacobites (that is, the Syriac Orthodox) were the majority in Syria. The only explanation I have for this is that the Arabs maintained those whom they found in the bureaus during the Byzantine period and these were necessarily of the religion of the Byzantine rulers.

At the time of the conquest, the Arabs were not able to have administrative positions on account of their ignorance of the language of administration, which was Greek. The political situation was such that the Arab rulers had control over the caliphate and the army. That is, the Arab Muslims were entirely dependent on Christians in their administrative centers to the point that Mu’awiya put the elder Mansur ibn Sarjun in charge of the building of the first Arab fleet at Tripoli, with the goal of occupying Constantinople. In other words, Mansur’s responsibility was to build a fleet in order to attack the capital of the Orthodox world. It was not pleasant for a man who attended the liturgy in the port of Tripoli on Sunday to prepare the Muslim Arab army to attack Constantinople. This was not something easy for him, but he and the sons of his Church understood that the Muslims conquered Syria in order to stay there and that the Christian people of the land had no hope of the Byzantines’ regaining Syria.

To what people did the family of Sarjun belong? I have no evidence that they belonged to an Arab tribe, though there were Arabs among the Christians of Syria prior to the conquest. My opinion is that they were of old Syriac stock and had adopted the Greek language on account of their culture. (Syriac does not mean that they were of the Syriac Orthodox creed, as they were Chalcedonians and both churches used the two main languages).

The fact that Saint John did not write a single line of Arabic does not mean that he was completely ignorant of the language, especially since he and his family mingled with the Umayyad caliphs on account of their administrative work. The reason that John of Damascus did not use Arabic was that this language had not yet become the language of the Christians. But how did Mansur ibn Sarjun the younger, whose name became John of Damascus, address the Caliph Yazid when he would see him every day for consultation about matters of the treasury, when Yazid only knew Arabic? It seems to me that Mansur ibn Sarjun at the very least spoke to the caliph in colloquial Arabic, and everything points to the existence of a colloquial dialect among the Muslims. Saint John of Damascus composed a “Dialogue between a Christian and a Muslim” that has been read by Christian and Muslim men of culture since it was translated from Greek into Arabic and published in Egypt around sixty years ago. This proves to us that John of Damascus knew something about Islam from his friends. Despite that, I do not think that he read Surat al-Ikhlas, which he cites, since he makes a mistake in his translation of a verse. However, there is no doubt that he talked about Islam with Yazid, since he was not particularly pious. That said, Saint John of Damascus did not write anything else about Islam, despite what some scholars have thought.

In the end, the two men parted ways because Yazid attacked some Christian leaders, which caused the saint to leave Damascus for Palestine, where he became a monk. There in the Monastery of Saint Sabbas he composed the Fount of Knowledge which comprises a hundred chapters and is his book about the Orthodox faith. He begins it with a philosophical preface. German orientalists say that it was the foundational source for Islamic philosophy, which began in the Umayyad period. The philosophical problematic in the history of Islamic thought rests on the basis of the Fount of Knowledge.

John’s value in that book is that he is the first writer to put in writing the framework of thought of Christian theology. That is, a writing arranging all Christian thought. Before him, there had only been various compositions on this topic or that, one person writing on the topic of the Trinity, another on the incarnation or redemption, but John summarized all of Christian thought in interrelated chapters.

It becomes clear to one who examines this book that its author knew the early Fathers very well and that he compared them and chose from them as he saw fitting and that he depended in philosophy on Aristotle. Specialists have debated his creative power. No doubt he was less innovative than the greatest of the fathers. Perhaps that is the lot of one who receives a well-established intellectual tradition tied to logic. However, it is his merit that he was the first Christian to cast the faith in one book. He was the initiator of systematic theology. Thomas Aquinas drew on him frequently and in the Summa Theologica he cites him hundreds of times.

It was not enough for Saint John of Damascus to be erudite in theology, because he also practiced asceticism and mystical contemplation and composed numerous church services, including the Paschal hymns that all the Orthodox of the world chant to this day. Besides these texts, he composed the eight tones that till today dominate our chant after there having previously been another system of music. He was thus not simply a man of abstract intellect, but rather his heart was filled with the presence of the Lord.

Naturally, the determination of the family of Mansur in two matters draws our attention. First, that they held fast to their faith completely and with knowledge, and second, that they remained in their faith while honestly serving the government in a state that had become dominated by Arabness at all its levels. I think that the behavior of John of Damascus and his father and grandfather is a model for the stance of Orthodox Christians in an Islamic state, whether or not it accepts them with complete sympathy. They act based on their morals and the state according to its morals.

What is important in this behavior is that the inspiration for these eastern Christians was not based on a nationalism that had not yet been discovered then. Love alone was what motivated them and profound knowledge supported this love. Before the language of the Christians became arabized in Syria, and that took a very long time, the family of Mansur appeared there in complete harmony with the state and they historically received the glory that they deserved.

Translated from Arabic

Original Text: “يوحنا الدمشقي” – 05.12.2009

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