Monday, December 04, 2006

December 4: John of Damascus, Hymn-Writer, Defender of Icons, 750

Also known as John Damascene, St John of Damscus was a Greek theologian and the last of the great Eastern fathers. Born into a wealthy Christian family in Damascus about a generation after the armies of Islam had conquered the area, he lived his entire life under Muslim rule. He inherited his father’s positions as chief financial officer for the caliphs of Damascus and chief representative of Christians in the city. In 716, however, he left (or was compelled to leave) the court and became a monk at Mar Saba, a monastery in the hills near Jerusalem, where he was later ordained a priest. Most of the rest of his life was spent writing hymns and theological treatises.

The Iconoclastic Controversy was raging around the time St John entered Mar Saba. The earliest of his theological works was a series of three "Apologetic Treatises against those who decry the Holy Images”, written in response to an edict issued by the Byzantine emperor forbidding veneration of images or their exhibition in public places. An online article in Christian History & Biography summarises John’s defence of images:

From his distant post in the Holy Land, John challenged this policy [iconoclasm] in three works. He argued that icons should not be worshiped, but they could be venerated. (The distinction is crucial: a Western parallel might be the way a favorite Bible is read, cherished, and treated with honor—but certainly not worshiped.)

John explained it like this: "Often, doubtless, when we have not the Lord's passion in mind and see the image of Christ's crucifixion, his saving passion is brought back to remembrance, and we fall down and worship not the material but that which is imaged: just as we do not worship the material of which the Gospels are made, nor the material of the Cross, but that which these typify."

Second, John drew support from the writings of the early fathers like Basil the Great, who wrote, "The honor paid to an icon is transferred to its prototype." That is, the actual icon was but a point of departure for the expressed devotion; the recipient was in the unseen world.

Third, John claimed that, with the birth of the Son of God in the flesh, the depiction of Christ in paint and wood demonstrated faith in the Incarnation. Since the unseen God had become visible, there was no blasphemy in painting visible representations of Jesus or other historical figures. To paint an icon of him was, in fact, a profession of faith, deniable only by a heretic!
"I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter," he wrote. "I will not cease from honoring that matter which works for my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God."

After prolonged controversy, political intrigue, and bloodshed, the Second Council of Nicaea decided the issue in 787. John’s position was accepted: iconoclasm was condemned and a statement produced which justified icons by reference to the tradition of the church and quotations from the Fathers.

The most important of John’s theological works is The Fount of Wisdom, the last part of which, Exposition of the Catholic Faith, was immensely influential in both the East and the West. A work of research and synthesis rather than original thought, it collected views of the Greek Fathers and presented them in a systematic and logical manner. It was a compendium of respected theological understandings. After being translated into Latin in the 12th century as De Fide Orthodoxa, it was cited by authoritative medieval theologians Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas. The De Fide was thus a valuable source in the formulation of Western medieval theology.

Among St John’s hymns is one that is frequently sung at Easter, “The Day of Resurrection”.



The day of resurrection! Earth, tell it out abroad;
The Passover of gladness, the Passover of God.
From death to life eternal, from earth unto the sky,
Our Christ hath brought us over, with hymns of victory.

Our hearts be pure from evil, that we may see aright
The Lord in rays eternal of resurrection light;
And listening to His accents, may hear, so calm and plain,
His own “All hail!” and, hearing, may raise the victor strain.

Now let the heavens be joyful! Let earth the song begin!
Let the round world keep triumph, and all that is therein!
Let all things seen and unseen their notes in gladness blend,
For Christ the Lord hath risen, our joy that hath no end.


St John of Damascus is sometimes regarded as the last of the Church Fathers. He was declared a “Doctor of the Church” in 1890 by Pope Leo XIII. A portal to the writings of St John of Damascus is found here. There are differences of opinion regarding important dates in St John’s life. Several online sources say he entered Mar Saba in 726 or later but, according to the three books I have at hand, that happened in 716.

The prayer for this day:

Confirm our minds, O Lord, in the mysteries of the true faith, Set forth with power by your servant John of Damscus; 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, for evermore.


This post is based on the latter:

J. D. Douglas, gen. ed. New International Dictionary of the Christian Church (Zondervan, 1978).

David Farmer, Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 5th ed. (Oxford UP, 2004).
Bert Ghezzi, Voices of the Saints (Doubleday, 2000).

Source of icon: Anno Domini: Jesus Through the Centuries, an online exhibition from Virtual Museum Canada; Theme 7: Jesus, the True Image; Jesus, the Image of God in John of Damascus.

Source of prayer: Praying With the Saints, by Woodeene Koenig-Bricker.

For all of the above, I'm indebted to StatGuy's post of April 19th, 2006, at http://magicstatistics.com/category/christianity/prayers-liturgy/prayers-of-the-saints/

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