December 4: Saint John Damascene, Priest, Religious and Doctor—Optional Memorial
Patron Saint of pharmacists, icon painters, and theology students
Declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Leo XIII in 1890
Liturgical Color: White
In other ages God had not been represented in images, being incorporate and faceless. But since God has now been seen in the flesh, and lived among men, I represent that part of God which is visible. I do not venerate matter, but the Creator of matter, who became matter for my sake and deigned to live in matter and bring about my salvation through matter…But I do not venerate it in absolute terms as God! How could that which, from non-existence, has been given existence, be God?…Is not the wood of the Cross, three times blessed, matter?… And the ink, and the most Holy Book of the Gospels, are they not matter? The redeeming altar which dispenses the Bread of life, is it not matter?… And, before all else, are not the flesh and blood of Our Lord matter? Either we must suppress the sacred nature of all these things, or we must concede to the tradition of the Church the veneration of the images of God and that of the friends of God who are sanctified by the name they bear, and for this reason are possessed by the grace of the Holy Spirit. ~Saint John Damascene
In the early seventh century, Damascus, Syria, was a thriving city within the Eastern (Byzantine) Roman Empire. Being one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, the city enjoyed a rich cultural heritage and diversity. Being part of the Roman Empire, it was primarily Christian, with some Jews, small pockets of paganism, and heretical Christian sects. After the death of Muhammad in 632, Islamic conquerors expanded into the Roman Empire, capturing and occupying Damascus in 635. In 661, Damascus became the capital for the Umayyad Caliphate, leading to further Islamic influence in the region. Though Christians’ rights were restricted, they were permitted religious freedom under certain conditions and limitations, such as paying a special tax and wearing distinct clothing. They also occupied a lower legal status than Muslims. Some Christians, however, were given important roles in the government, especially financial administration, due to their Greek and Roman education and administrative skills that many Muslim leaders admired. It was into this historical situation that Saint John of Damascus (John Damascene) was born.
John was born to Christian parents who did not allow their Muslim rulers to affect their faith. In fact, John’s father was one of the Christians held in high esteem by the local rulers and was entrusted with important administrative responsibility by the Caliphate. During his early years, John is believed to have received an excellent education. He might have been educated in the faith by local clergy, also learning Greek and Roman philosophy. At some point, his father came across a slave named Cosmas for sale in the public market. Some records indicate that Cosmas was a highly educated monk from Sicily, who was captured on a raid. His father secured the monk’s release, perhaps by purchasing him at a high price, and entrusted his son’s education to Cosmas. Another youth, possibly an orphan whom John’s father cared for, studied alongside John. Cosmas was not only well-versed in theology, but also in philosophy, music, astronomy, and a variety of other subjects. John greatly advanced in learning under Cosmas. Given the Muslim control of Damascus, John also became well versed in Islamic law, culture, and theology.
When John’s father died, the Caliphate recognized John as a man of great learning and virtue. Like his father, John was given an important role in the city’s administration. John, however, became increasingly sensitive to the non-Christian environment and feared its influence. In his mid- to late-twenties, he resigned his position, sold his possessions, and retreated to the desert monastery of Mar Saba, near Jerusalem, taking Cosmas with him.
As a monk, John spent his first two decades growing in spiritual perfection. Under the guidance of his spiritual director, he embraced monastic disciplines, such as renouncing his own will, avoiding worldly attachments, dedicating all actions to God, rooting out pride, rejecting the seeking out of extraordinary spiritual experiences, eliminating worldly thoughts, and maintaining silence. He fulfilled every humble task his superiors assigned him. He studied, prayed, did penance, and continuously entrusted himself to His merciful God. He advanced so greatly in the spiritual life, humility, and learning, that his superiors deemed him worthy of priestly ordination, which was uncommon among the monks. They also believed that, as a priest, he could offer great service to the Church through ministry and writing. Thus, John was ordained and instructed by his superiors to address important theological issues within the Caliphate and Byzantine Empire.
According to various early sources, the first issue arose from Yazid ibn Abd al-Malik, the Islamic Umayyad Caliph, who opposed the use of icons and sacred images in Christian churches. One story relates that a Jewish magician from Tiberias promised Yazid a long life of fortune if he banned Christian icons within his caliphate. The Jews followed the Torah, which banned using images of God. Yazid took his advice and, in 721, issued an edict by which Christian icons were destroyed in churches across the caliphate. Shortly afterward, between the years 726–729, Byzantine Emperor Leo III, a very religious man, also became convinced that the veneration of sacred images was idolatry. Therefore, he issued his own series of edicts by which he outlawed icons and sacred images throughout the Byzantine Empire. The Patriarch of Constantinople opposed Leo, so Leo appointed a new patriarch on his own authority. The pope also opposed Leo, so grave tensions arose between East and West.
Under obedience, Father John wrote his first great work, Apologetic Treatises against those Decrying the Holy Images, in which he articulated in three treatises the rationale for the use of icons in a profoundly theological way but also in a way that the common layman could understand. In these treatises, Father John was the first to distinguish between latreia (worship), which is due only to God, and proskynesis (veneration), which can be directed towards sacred images representing divine figures. Because the Old Testament forbade the worship of idols or any images of God, Father John’s explanation had the effect of reconciling the Christian use of sacred images with the Old Testament prohibition. He argued that veneration of images was proper because of the Incarnation of the Son of God. In Old Testament times, the Incarnation had not yet taken place. Therefore, it was forbidden to use any material means to represent the unseen and immaterial God. In Christ, however, the invisible God became visible and material, sanctifying the physical world, thus endowing the physical world with the ability to reflect the majesty of God. Father John extended this logic to the veneration of images of the saints who now share in the glory of God’s divine life (See quote above).
Tradition holds that the Byzantine Emperor was so outraged at Father John’s condemnation of his decrees that he forged a letter in Father John’s name that implicated him in a planned attack against Damascus. When the Caliph received the letter, he ordered that Father John’s hand be cut off and mounted on a pole. Once the deed was done, Father John beseeched the Mother of God to intervene so he could continue writing. The next day, his hand was miraculously restored.
Five years after his death, John’s treatise was condemned by the Council of Hieria in 754, which was called by the Byzantine Emperor. In 787, however, John was fully exonerated at the Second Council of Nicaea, which ruled in favor of icon veneration and declared that the Council of Hieria was illegitimate, given the absence of the five patriarchs.
In addition to his writings against the iconoclasts, Saint John Damascene is known for his summary of the doctrinal teachings of the Early Church Fathers, called De Fide Orthodoxa (An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith). Along with that work, he also wrote against heresies and on logic and philosophy. Further works include hymns, letters, commentaries, and sermons. Among his sermons is a series on the Blessed Virgin Mary. He was also critical of Islam, pointing out many of its flaws.
Saint John Damascene left behind a clear exposition of the faith of the Church that became a standard for study in the centuries to follow. None of that would have been possible, however, had he not first entered the monastery and perfected his spiritual life as a hermit. As we honor this great saint, reflect upon the foundation that you need to establish within your own spiritual life. Without that solid foundation of deep union with God, God will be limited in the ways He can use you. With that foundation established, great things can be done in and through you for the salvation of souls and the glory of God.
Saint John Damascene, you sensed God calling you out of the world to a place where you could enter into deep communion with Him. In that holy monastery, you were formed in virtue and holy learning. God then used you in remarkable ways for the good of the Church and His glory. Please pray for me, that I will embrace the deeper conversion I need so as to be better equipped to serve God as He wills. Saint John Damascene, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.