Christ 'In Persona nostra' in St John of Damascus

Updated: Dec 23, 2021

Fr Maximos Constas


(This is the third of a four-part essay. To read the entire essay, click here.)


Like his theological predecessors, John of Damascus was obliged to consider the question of Christ’s “ignorance,” his “progress in wisdom and grace,” his “fear” in the face of death, and also his prayer. John maintains that, in the case of Christ, prayer cannot be understood as the “ascent of the mind to God,” because Christ’s mind was never separated from God. Rather, Christ was “appropriating our persona” (οἰκειούμενος τὸ ἡμέτερον πρόσωπον), “impressing” (τυπῶν) our features upon himself, becoming our model (ὑπογραμμός) and showing us the way of prayer.” And when Christ said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46), the same dynamic of appropriation was at work, because Christ was “never abandoned by his divinity,” and “when he was saying these things, he was appropriating our persona.”[1]


In his further remarks on “appropriation,” John offers a helpful clarification. He says there are two kinds of appropriation: one is “essential” or ontological (οὐσιώδης), having to do with nature and substance, while the other is “prosopic and relative (προσωπική καὶ σχετική).” The former is the appropriation of all that is essential to human nature; the latter is a relative appropriation, through which Christ adopts the persona of sinful human beings, giving voice to their experience, even though the words that are spoken do not, strictly speaking, belong properly (οὐ προσήκοντες) to him. Τhis is how Christ “is said to have appropriated our ‘curse’ and ‘dereliction’ and such things that are not according to nature.” He maintains that Christ “did not appropriate these things because he was or became them (οὐκ αὐτὸς ταῦτα ὢν ἢ γενόμενος ὠκειώσατο),” but rather because “he took upon himself (ἀναδεχόμενος) our persona and ranked himself among us.”[2]


While much of this is taken more or less directly from Maximos the Confessor, the language of persona is new. John describes the face (prosopon) as the locus of a personal revelation: “The face of God is an indication and manifestation (ἔνδειξις καὶ ἐμφάνεια) of his works, since we too are revealed by our faces” (ἐκ τοῦ ἡμετέραν ἐμφάνειαν διὰ προσώπου γίνεσθαι).[3] For John, the “face” represents something like the integral presence of the self, the manifestation of one’s inner depth. It is not a false appearance, which would be a προσωπεῖον, a simulacrum, a mere mask. And if Christ can appropriate the faces of sinful human beings, he can also bestow upon them his own face. Gregory of Nyssa, in his exegesis of the Judgment Parable in the Gospel of Matthew, contends that “the poor and the afflicted have been clothed in the persona of our Savior, for in his goodness and love for mankind he has given them his own face, so that they might shame the faces of those who hate them, just as those being robbed thrust before their assailants the image of the king to shame the enemy with the appearance of the ruler.”[4]


In Greek, to “appropriate” can also mean to “reconcile” in the sense of “to befriend,” and this somewhat unusual use of persona suggests that Christ reconciles himself to sinners while remaining sinless. The distinction between essential and relative forms of appropriation mirrors the distinction between nature and person, between the ontological and the personal dimensions of incarnation and redemption. “Appropriation” is thus a true representational mode of being, allowing the bearer to be “reckoned among transgressors” (Isa 53:12). Through a kind of communication or exchange of idioms, Christ assumes the role or status of the sinner, the sinner’s status is imputed to Christ, and Christ’s righteousness and life is given to the sinner. Yet there is no strict analogy here because Christ does not become sinful but remains sinless, while sinners become righteous and holy (and after baptism, sinless), not simply through imputation but through a true transformation. Though the Word’s assumption of human nature did not include sin (which is not an essential part of nature), his solidarity with sinners comes about through a process of appropriation and assimilation which is neither illusory nor inefficacious.


In our next and final installment of this series, we will consider a key passage from St Symeon of Thessaloniki (d. 1429), followed by a conclusion.


(This is the third of a four-part essay. To read the essay in its entirety, click here.)

 

[1] John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith III.24 (Kotter 2:167-68).

[2] John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith III.25 (Kotter 2:168).

[3] John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith I.11 (Kotter 2:34).

[4] Gregory of Nyssa, On the Love of the Poor (GNO 9:98-99).