Tuesday, December 4, 2007

John of Damascus

Today is the Feast Day of the blessed John of Damascus. Here’s what Lesser Feasts and Fasts says about him:

John of Damascus was the son of a Christian tax collector for the Mohammedan Caliph of Damascus. At an early age, he succeeded his father in this office. In about 715, he entered the monastery of St. Sabas near Jerusalem. There he devoted himself to an ascetic life and to the study of the Fathers.

In the same year that John was ordained priest, 726, the Byzantine Emperor Leo the Isaurian published his first edict against the Holy Images, which signaled the formal outbreak of the iconoclastic controversy. The edict forbade the veneration of sacred images, or icons, and ordered their destruction. In 729-730, John wrote three “Apologies (or Treatises) against the Iconoclasts and in Defense of the Holy Images.” He argued that such pictures were not idols, for the represented neither false gods nor even the true God in his divine nature; but only saints, or our Lord as man. He further distinguished between the respect, or veneration (proskynesis), that is properly paid to created beings, and the worship (latreia), that is properly given only to God.

The iconoclast case rested, in part, upon the Monophysite heresy, which held that Christ had only one nature, and since that nature was divine, it would be improper to represent him by material substances such as wood and paint. The Monophysite heresy was condemned by the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

A issue also was the heresy of Manichaeism, which held that matter itself was essentially evil. In both of these heresies, John maintained, the Lord’s incarnation was rejected. The Seventh Ecumenical Council, in 787, decreed that crosses, icons, the book of the Gospels, and other sacred objects were to receive reverence or veneration, expressed by salutations, incense, and lights, because the honor paid to them passed on to that which they represented. True worship (latreia), however, was due to God alone.

John also wrote a great synthesis of theology, The Fount of Knowledge, of which the last part, “On the Orthodox Faith,” is best known.

To Anglicans, John is best known as the author of the Easter hymns, “Thou hallowed chosen morn of praise,” “Come, ye faithful, raise the strain,” and “The day of resurrection” [Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2006 (Church Publishing, Inc., 2006), p. 92].

Timothy Ware offers more detail about the context in which John of Damascus lived and wrote:

The Iconoclast controversy, which lasted some 120 years, falls into two phases. The first period opened in 726 when Leo III began his attack on icons, and ended in 780 when the Empress Irene suspended the persecution. The Iconodule position was upheld by the seventh and last Ecumenical Council (787), which met, as the fist had done, at Nicaea. Icons, the council proclaimed, are to be kept in churches and honoured with the same relative veneration as is shown other material symbols, such as the ‘precious and life-giving Cross’ and the Book of Gospels. A new attack on icons, started by Leo V the Armenian in 815, continued until 843 when the icons were again reinstated, this time permanently, by another Empress, Theodora. The final victory of the Holy Images in 843 is known as ‘the Triumph of Orthodoxy’, and is commemorated in a special service celebrated on ‘Orthodoxy Sunday’, the first Sunday in Lent. The chief champion of the icons in the first period was St John of Damascus (?675-749), in the second St Theodore of Stoudios (759-826). John was able to work the more freely because he dwelt in Muslim territory, out of the reach of the Byzantine government. It was not the last time that Islam acted unintentionally as the protector of Orthodoxy [The Orthodox Church, New Edition (Penguin, 1993) p. 31].

John of Damascus said this about icons: "The icon is a song of triumph, and a revelation, and an enduring monument to the victory of the saints and the disgrace of the demons" [quoted by Ware in The Orthodox Church, p. 34].

Here are some reflections from John of Damascus’ mid-eighth century “On the Orthodox Faith” (from The Fount of Knowledge) concerning veneration of the cross. They’re helpful to keep in mind the next time we bow to the cross at the head of a procession in Church:

By the cross all things have been made right. The power of God is the word of the cross, either because God’s might, that is, the victory over death, has been revealed to us by it, or because, just as the four extremities of the cross are held fast and bound together by the bolt in the middle, so also by God’s power the height and depth and length and breadth, that is, every creature visible and invisible, is maintained.

The cross was given to us as a sign on our forehead, just as the circumcision was given to Israel: for by it believers are separated and distinguished from unbelievers. The cross is the shield and weapon against, and trophy over, the devil. “This is the seal that the destroyer may not touch you,” says the Scripture. This is the resurrection of those lying in death, the support of those who stand, the staff of the weak, the rod of the flock, the safe-conduct of the earnest, the perfection of those that press forward, the salvation of soul and body, the aversion of all things evil, the patron of all things good, the abolition of sin, the ground of resurrection, the tree of eternal life.

So, then, this same truly precious and august tree, on which Christ offered himself as a sacrifice for our sakes, is to be venerated as sanctified by contact with his holy body and blood. … Moreover we venerate even the image of the precious and life-giving cross, although made of another tree, not honoring the tree (God forbid) but the image as a symbol of Christ.

It behoves us, then, to worship the sign of Christ. For wherever the sign may be, there also will he be. But it does not behove us to venerate the material of which the image of the cross is composed, even though it be gold or precious stones. Everything, therefore, that is dedicated to God we venerate, but conferring the worship on him [They Still Speak: Reading for the Lesser Feasts, edited by J. Robert Wright (Church Hymnal Corporation, 1993), pp. 5-6].

Collect for John of Damascus
Confirm our minds, O Lord, in the mysteries of the true faith, set forth with power by your servant John of Damascus; that we, with him, confessing Jesus to be true God and true Man, and singing the praises of the risen Lord, may, by the power of the resurrection, attain to eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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